Excellency, as Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to South Africa, how have you experienced your diplomatic tour in the country thus far?
I’ve been here for four years. My wife and I have enjoyed this time very much, it has been a terrific experience. I am also Ambassador of Belgium to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. It is a large area of the region to discover, and that has been a great pleasure for me – that personally, and as a diplomat, you are able to travel.
How would you define the historic relationship your country shares with South Africa, and the African continent as a whole, and where does this relationship stand in the 21st century?
We go back a long time in history with both South Africa and Africa. As you know, Belgium is a former colonial power in Africa, so we have been present in Africa for some time. Belgium became independent in 1830. We established our first diplomatic post in Africa in the 1850s already, and we have maintained a presence in Africa since then. In the 1960s we saw the independence of a lot of African countries, as we saw the arrival of democracy in South Africa in 1994. The relationship has since changed from a colonial one to a post-colonial one, but the relationship remains.
We have evolved into the 21st century, like Africa has evolved, and we have redefined our relationships as such. On the Belgian political agenda, our relationships with Africa and African countries are of utmost importance.
Your country hosts the headquarters of two relevant multilateral organisations, the European Union and NATO. How does such an important responsibility define Belgian policy as a key role player in international relations of the world?
It’s an interesting question because one might wonder why a small country like Belgium would seat important institutions like the UN and NATO. The answer lies back in European history. Belgium, unfortunately, has been the scene or centrepiece of many of the main conflicts in Europe – we witnessed the First World War, which was fought on Flanders Field, and the Second World War. After the Second World War, the European idea was starting to grow and the idea of a common defence was starting to emerge. It was obvious that a small country that suffered from European conflicts in the past would be an ideal place to locate international institutions whose primary objective was to prevent another war in Europe. We assumed that role, and of course that gives Belgium a unique position within the European Union, within Europe, worldwide as well. It means that as a small country we can punch above our weight.
Brussels has become an international meeting place of government and political leaders. We host these meetings in the best possible way, together with these international institutions. It also gives us the opportunity to engage with a lot of governments and a lot of countries in a bilateral way. As the seat of those two international institutions, Belgium is very committed towards multilateral policy. We understand as a small country, that co-operation is necessary, but also is beneficial. We have seen it from our own experience.
I am the first generation that has not experienced war in my country in my lifetime. We know that for our own security, and for our own development, that international co-operation is essential -not only with regard to defence and security but also economically. Belgium is a small but very open, active economy. A good 80% of our GDP is earned through foreign trade. We’re a small country, but we produce and export a lot. In order to be able to export a lot, you have to have an international environment and relationships that are conducive to this trade.
We are proud to host these international organisations, and we support the idea that co-operation is the best way to move forward.
South Africa is a major exporter of raw diamonds and Belgium a world-class processer of this stone. How have bilateral relations with South Africa developed in terms of financial aid, as well as trade and investment of Belgian capital in this country? Which Belgian companies have a presence here?
We have extensive trade and investment relationship with South Africa. South Africa is the most important trade and investment partner on the African continent, and also acts as a hub for Belgian companies to explore the rest of the African market. In concrete terms, Belgium is South Africa’s fourth largest European trading partner, and one of the biggest investors in South Africa as well. We certainly became a big investor in South Africa last year, when the Belgian Brewery INDEF took over South African Breweries. That was an investment of around $100million. As a trading partner, last year we imported roughly R40 billion from and exported R90 billion – to South Africa. There is a bit of a trade deficit, but there is nothing wrong with the trade balance as it’s always going to be negative for two reasons. One reason is that the port of Antwerp in Belgium is the major gate to import South African products to European markets. Most of the South African exports that transit via the port of Antwerp are accounted for in our statistics as an import, although a lot of these products are in fact for European markets. So purely based on the location of the port, we will have a trade deficit with South Africa. Another factor that is important is, of course, the diamond trade. Belgium is the main trading centre for diamonds in the world, around 85 per cent of the world trade in rough diamonds happens in Belgium, and around 60 per cent of the world trade in polished diamonds happens in Belgium. We import more diamonds from Africa than we export diamonds to Africa.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup celebrates its 21st rendition this year. As a prominent Europe soccer team, Belgium has participated numerous times. What are your expectations of the performance of your national side in Russia? Do you think they can bring the cup back home this year?
I hope they win! But realistically, we are facing a number of other football-strong nations, so it’s going to be a stiff battle. But I think we have the best national team we have had in decades. We reached the semi-finals of the world cup in 1986, more than 20 years ago. They have my support.
Thank you, ambassador.