la-poste-belgiqueToday is a bank holiday in Belgium. But for me that means little – I have projects to complete, so I need to work. In addition I urgently need to post a letter to the UK, but I’m out of stamps. Can I manage to find a postage stamp for purchase anywhere in Brussels? Absolutely not.

The long hours post office at Gare du Midi is shut, and the smaller supermarkets that are open today do not sell stamps. Larger supermarkets sell stamps, but they are shut for the holiday… Newsagents stores are no better. I wanted to scream at the woman at the Relay shop at Gare du Midi “c’est un jour ferié” – yes, thank you, I know, but have you ever had the thought in your small, statist, anti-customer, rules-obsessed, restricted brain that someone might want to buy stamps outside the opening hours of a post office, and that asking at a newsagent store is actually sensible? Oh, and while we’re at it, tomorrow (a normal work day for the rest of Belgium) it’s actually hard for me to get to post office because I have a bunch of meetings to attend. And no, I don’t actually care whether the post is not going to be picked up from the post box today – I need to get the letter in the post box today. It’s not complex.

What, so you wonder, would happen in any other country? In the UK stamps are for sale in just about any supermarket, and plenty of supermarkets are open 7 days a week. In Germany loads of post offices have automatic machines for selling stamps. In Sweden stamps are for sale at Pressbyrån and 7-Eleven, each with long opening hours. Why, oh why, can Belgium not manage one of those options? Furthermore it’s not as if buying a postage stamp is that complex – there are not public protection concerns that require restrictions similar to those for purchasing medicines for example.

At the heart of all of this is the balance between consumer rights and workers’ rights that is central to debates about the future of capitalism across Europe. People are entitled to rest, entitled to holiday. Sweden for example ensures that extra pay for Sunday and bank holiday work is included in collective agreements – fine. But in 2009 where people work flexibly, independently, from home, in the knowledge industries etc., there is the need to also provide services according to more flexible timetables – anywhere in Europe. I can book a flight online at 2300 on a Sunday, so surely somewhere in the capital of Belgium I should be able to do the same when it comes to buying a postage stamp?

So much for Belgium’s place in the EU’s Lisbon Strategy that aimed to create “the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion, and respect for the environment by 2010” – not much evidence of it in 2009 in Brussels.


  1. samantha

    I had the same experience in Brussels yesterday (Sunday) and was amazed by the difficulty of finding a stamp for posting to the UK. Finally, I managed to buy one from a touristy shop in La grand place. But I agree, it is very annoying, inconvenient and doesn’t seem to make much sense, same as the early closing of the supermarkets.

  2. OK Jon, tell us if you finally managed to post the damned letter. And of course, if it has ever arrived to the destination – this already would be a achievement, based on my experience with the Belgian post.

  3. Here in Italy (and in a few other “Club Med” countries that also don’t get really a good press up there north) stamps can be bought at tobacconist’s shop. They’re open on Sunday and bank holiday morning and some even in the afternoon.

  4. Wow we’re really getting into the tech of it all now… 🙂 I’ll try a petrol station next time, and in the meantime I’ll also stock up on loads of stamps for home. I reckon this blog entry might be quite popular among expats in Brussels in the end though! 🙂

  5. You can pay for postage on the Royal Mail website then print off proof to attach to the envelope for mail here, perhaps it’s worth seeing if anything like that exists with the Belgian post service.

  6. I share the same frustration sometimes with supermarkets only being open till like 8 or worse 7pm. Hello? Some people do have to work you know… they would like fresh food too.

    With regards to stamps: there are some places you can check e.g. some supermarkets or magazine stores like you mentioned, but also a lot of gas stations. Normally they advertise this at the entrance or counter with this logo (I didn’t know if (x)HTML is allowed so here’s the URI):
    The “post(e)” website says there more than 5000 of these shops, so there must be at least a few of them in Brussels. What one cannot understand though is that they don’t have a list of addresses or a map on the post website. Come on it’s 2009? Google maps machups are incredibly easy to write.

    They do however have a webshop that delivers the next day (24/7) if you order before 5pm.

    @Brusselsblogger about the absence of an amount on belgian stamps: the Post(e) seems to change the stamp format every few months, so nobody really knows how it works. For internal mail (in belgium) there’s 7 different colored (and valued) stamps with numbers from 1 to 7. For intra-EU mail theres 2 different stamps (not 1 and 2, but 1 and 3). There’s a set of 2 stamps similar to the intra-EU ones, but more expensive and with different colors, those are for sending mail outside of the EU.

    It’s a really absurd system, because if you have e.g. stamps for sending mail to Belgium and you want to send a letter e.g. to England, you have to go to the mail to buy EU stamps even though you would be able to form the right amount (or a few cents extra) with the Belgian ones. It’s like having one set of currency for buying food, one set for paper supplies and another for buying gas or alcohol.

  7. Sadly not… A similar thing also exists in Germany, so I tried the website and nothing is available for individual citizens that way.

  8. The Belgian postal service is one of the worst I have ever seen. It is completely unbelievable for me that this hasn’t caused any bigger uproar or consequences yet at ministerial level.

    For me alone, a post office where I have to wait longer than 15-20 minutes to post a letter (yes, post 1 letter) is such a shame in a country which has so obviously benefitted so much from the services industry. The monopoly of postal services together with a bureaucracy mentality and the fear of liberalisation yet seems to be a explosive mix for their customer service.

    PS: There used to be a machine in La Poste De Brouckere where you can place your envelope on a special surface. It measures size and weight and provides you with an stamp. Unfortunately the last two years the machine is broken I think.

    PPS: Call me next time. I have always some spare stamps at home 🙂

    PPPS: Unfortunately the Belgian stamps that I have at have no amount on it (which apparently is best practice in Belgium). So you have to guess whether they are still valid (matching the current tariff). I think there is a colour scheme by year or something like that.

  9. @Stephen – no stamp machine at Gare de Midi, or St Josse, or Etterbeek by the police. I’ve subsequently been told there’s a machine at Ixelles / Flagey – didn’t know that earlier.

    As for your jibe about being planned: I seldom post stuff as it is, and I was back in Brussels very late on Saturday (i.e. after shops close) due to my work boosting the EU’s knowledge economy in Sweden for 3 days last week… so I would have needed to buy extra stamps before I knew I even needed to post an extra letter.

    @Till – I do believe in market economics, very much so. The market just needs the right rules. Belgium seems to get loads of the rules completely wrong.

  10. Jon, is Belgium such a desperate case to make a devote believer in the Market God out of you?
    I had similar feeling once I had to go to the airport on a Sunday evening and there was no way to buy a train ticket at the machine with something else than a Belgian Proton/Bancontact card and the only open counter was serving one client every >5 minutes. … and many more. I could write a book out of it, even if I do not live there – thanks Market God.

  11. Stephen

    The bigger post offices often have stamp machines outside, and you’d certainly have been able to get stamps at the main station, unless Brussels has changed since I was last over there.

    On the other hand a 21st century knowledge-based economy probably presumes on peoples’ knowledge that sometimes it’s necessary to plan ahead to avoid a dilemma like yours.

  12. Finn Myrstad

    It seems you and the Economist similar views on the belgian political system? They wrote this in their piece on the European elections:
    “Belgium is infested with politicians (it has six parliaments for a country of 10m people). That is because public money is used to buy peace in Belgium, whose Dutch- and French-speaking halves increasingly loathe each other. As a result, endless obscure ministers inhabit a world of obscure public bodies, run by political hacks and serviced by a parasitic class of consultants, lawyers and the like—often members of their families.”

  13. Jon,

    I understand your frustration, but the sour end about Belgium’s place in the Lisbon strategy for growth and jobs?

    They have enormous potential to catch up, don’t you see.


  14. Hmmm. Catching up would require a strategy… and with such a hopeless and complex political system I don’t have much hope that’s going to happen any time soon.

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