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Her Excellency Denise de Hauwere, ambassador of The Kingdom of Belgium to Serbia

The Kingdom of Belgium, with Brussels as its capital, is a Western European country bordering the Netherlands to the north, Germany to the east, Luxembourg to the southeast and France to the south and southwest. Inhabited in ancient times by the Belgae, a Celtic people, the area of Belgium had been divided and ruled by Romans, Gauls and Teutons for a long time since 57 BC. From the 9th century to 14th century Belgium was broken up into semi-independent territories. Belgium is a developed industrial nation that depends heavily on foreign trade. It imports 80 percent of its raw materials and exports more than 50 percent of its industrial products. Belgium is bolstered by a strong economy and can compete in the new single-currency European marketplace. It is the world's largest producer of azaleas. Antwerp, Belgium's second largest city, is the diamond capital of the world. Major tourism attractions include the medieval city of Brugge and the town of Bastogne, in the Ardennes, for Battle of the Bulge sites. Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Belgium strives to maintain smooth relations with developing countries and restore traditional influence in Africa by offering development aid. It has diplomatic ties with about 160 countries and emphasizes economy in diplomacy.

Denise de Hauwere

We were honored to talk to H.E. Denise de Hauwere, ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium in Serbia about diplomatic, economic, culture but also about some very personal relations of Serbia and Belgium.

Your Excellency, how do you feel in Belgrade? What are your impressions on our country?

I like life in Belgrade very much.  Since my arrival five years ago I have seen many changes for the better here: renovation of parks, streets, buildings... I am convinced that in the near future it will become one of the most attractive cities in Europe.  Serbia is a beautiful country; it has so much to offer to tourists.  And I am overwhelmed by the warmth and hospitality of the Serbian people.  

Since when have you been in Serbia as ambassador and what did you know about Serbia before this post?

I arrived to Belgrade in February 2006, but before that I lived for almost seven years in Belgrade, also working in the Belgian Embassy.  This was in the seventies, when Marshall Tito was still alive, and everything was different then.  I traveled all over the country, I learned your language, in my free time I was a student at the University of Belgrade, and I had many friends, which I am still in contact with.  So, I knew quite a lot about your country before coming back as Ambassador!

What was your career ladder like before arriving to Serbia?

You could say that I am a self-made person.  After leaving high school, in 1967, I had to “stand on my own feet” and started off in life with two suitcases and 500 Belgian franks (12 euro).  So I started working and got gradually better jobs: after a year as an au pair in New York in a Jewish family, I worked in private companies before being sent to Belgrade and later to Madrid by the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  This changed my life, because after that I wanted to become a career diplomat!  So I did my university studies in the evenings, while working in the European Commission during the day.  Then I joined the Belgian foreign service; and so far I have served in Indonesia, in Chile, in Austria,  in Skopje.  Before coming to Serbia, I was head of personnel in the ministry of foreign affairs in Brussels.
Serbia has had continuity with the Kingdom of Belgium since 1886, when representative of the Kingdom of Serbia was accredited in Belgium. What are diplomatic relations between Serbia and Belgium today, after more than one century?

Our political relations are excellent and cordial.  Quite a number of high level visits has taken place recently: the President of the Belgian parliament came to Belgrade, so did our Prime Minister as well as our Minister of Foreign Affairs.  In June your President went to Belgium on an official bilateral visit, accompanied by Vice-Prime Minister Djelic and your Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Also, for the first time in many years, political consultations by high level officials have again started and three of them have already taken place.  A number of important bilateral agreements have been signed. Serbian and Belgian police and justice cooperate closely and to each other’s satisfaction.  And the Belgian parliament is starting up cooperation with your parliament.

Belgium started its presidency of EU on 1st of July 2010. What were your country’s priorities during presidency?

The Belgian presidency worked around five main themes. First and foremost there was the fight against the economic and financial crisis: the presidency wanted to further define and implement the EU-strategy “Europe 2020” that aims at making the EU economy more competitive and more ecological by the year 2020, with special attention to better fiscal discipline, to the energy supply, and to the creation of new jobs, by for example stimulating innovations, research and education.  The Belgian Presidency also paid attention to reinforcement of the European economic coordination and governance, and launched, with success, initiatives for better financial regulation and supervision in the EU.

Secondly the Belgian Presidency especially stressed the necessity of social cohesion, because you cannot only progress on the economic level but you also have to improve the social conditions. Moreover, this year is the European year of the fight against poverty.  Concerning pensions, public health and equality policy, which each country of the EU has solved differently, even though we have the same problems, the Belgian presidency started the elaboration of a common approach with same norms and standards for the whole Union.

Third priority: environment and climate. The aim is to make the economy less pollutant and more efficient in the use of natural resources and energetic sources. It is necessary in the coming years to invest in the fields of environment and climate. The Belgian presidency strived to make the voice of the EU heard in the different forums and negotiations in the follow-up of the Conference of Copenhagen, so that the conference about climate change in Cancun would bring concrete results. The Belgian Presidency also expanded the discussion on the climate to other sectors, such as: more ecological transport, alternative energy, if possible also to the fiscal field.

Fourth priority: the creation of a European area of security and justice.  The Belgian Presidency strived to make as much progress as possible in a number of legislative proposals that are part of the so-called “asylum package”, namely the aim of the European Union to create before 2012 a Common European Asylum System. In this aspect, the Presidency obtained a consensus amongst the 27 Member states to allow citizen from Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, holders of a biometric passport, to travel to and through the Schengen zone without a visa.  But it is important to mention that the Commission, on that occasion, declared it possible for the EU to take urgent measures and even to revert the visa liberalization decision, in case of massive influx of people from the Balkan countries

Fifth priority: the European external dimension. Here the Belgian Presidency paid special attention to the correct implementation of the Lisbon treaty, which has changed the internal functioning of the EU.  The Belgian presidency wanted to make sure that all the European institutions will work together in an efficient and transparent way.  Concerning enlargement, also part of the external dimension, and also one of the priorities, the Belgian Presidency acted as a “honest broker” and implemented the existing engagements.  It also wanted the “conditionality” for new candidates to be respected, as stipulated in the conclusions of the European Council in December 2006.  Within the Council of Ministers of the European Union, the Presidency always strove for a consensus amongst the 27 Member states.  With this in mind, some important results have been achieved.   As far as Serbia is concerned, on October 25 the Council of the EU unanimously decided to ask the Commission for its opinion on Serbia’s membership application.  The Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs put enlargement as a central point on the agenda of the General Affairs Council on December 14, for the Ministers of Foreign Affairs to make conclusions concerning the state of preparation in the Candidate-countries and in the countries that have a perspective to obtain the status of candidate-country.

In your opinion, how far has Serbia gone on its road to EU? What do you think will happen after Serbia has answered EC questionnaire

It is up to Serbia to do all it can to find and arrest the last two fugitives sought by ICTY.  The Council conclusions of October clearly and non-equivocally reaffirm that ICTY-conditionality will remain an essential element in the EU-integration process of Serbia, and that every new phase in this process will be conditioned by a unanimous decision of the Council, taking into consideration whether or not full and complete cooperation exists between Serbia and ICTY.  As far as procedures are concerned, the European Commission handed over to Serbia its list of a bit more than 2.400 questions; it awaits the answers before February 2011.  Then the Commission will send its experts to Serbia to verify the state of preparations in the field.  If all goes well, by the end of 2011 the Commission should be able to give to the EU-member states its opinion and recommendations on Serbia’s readiness for candidate-status and on the opportunity to start accession negotiations.  Only then the Council will examine this question.

Status of Kosovo and Metohia is one of the most important issues, besides arresting the Hague suspects. In your opinion, is the status of Kosovo and Metohia a pre-condition for joining EU and what do you think will be crucial for Serbia to become EU member-country?

EU-integration is a very long process, during which candidate countries are being evaluated, based on their own merits, on their capability of implementing the existing European standards and norms, what we call the “acquis communautaire”.  Belonging to the Union also implies good regional cooperation and therefore, being on speaking terms with your neighbors.  Regional cooperation is essential for a stable and secure society, it is a cornerstone in the European construction.  In line with the political moves towards his other neighbors, the presence of President Tadic, in June, at the memorial ceremony of the massacre in Srebrenica, as well as his visit to Vukovar, are very important. Moreover, the engagement to start a dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina was welcomed by the General Assembly of the United Nations, on September 9, as a factor for peace, security and stability in the Balkan region, and without doubt it is a step forward in adopting European standards.  All this shows that Serbia has made real progress in its regional relations and with Kosovo more especially.  This progress allows us to hope that a good relation between Pristina and Belgrade might be established, which is necessary for both of them if they want to realize their European perspective.

What is foreign trade cooperation of our two countries like and what Serbian industries are with highest potentials? What does Serbia export to and what does import from Belgium?

Economic relations between Serbia are mainly characterized by the tendency to buy and sell, to the export and import of commodities.  According to Belgian statistics, the value of imports from Belgium was worth 47 million euro in 2009 and the value of Belgian exports to Serbia was 128 million euro. We mainly import vegetables and fruit; iron and steel, tobacco and tobacco products; office and automatic data processing equipment and yarn, textile and textile products. Belgium mostly exports to Serbia primary form plastic material; chemical and pharmaceutical products; vehicles; yarn, textile and textile products and electric machines, appliances and equipment.  Compared to last year, trade between our two countries is again picking up.  Until September, imports in Belgium reached almost the same level as in the whole of 2009.   Exports from Belgium to Serbia are also increasing this year, be it in a lesser degree than the imports.  This means that the trade deficit for Serbia in commodities exchange with Belgium is decreasing.

Belgium is a highly developed industrial country, which imports raw and semi-finished products and exports finished products.  However, considering the high level of openness of Belgium toward  international trade, finished products could also find a place on the Belgian market (primarily food products and especially fruits and vegetables can be sold as bio-food, clothes and footwear, sports equipment, cosmetics, furniture, products for interior decoration, electric appliances and toys).  There is also demand in Belgium for some chemical industry products, especially plastic material and resins, computer technology products and services, as well as tourist services, especially regarding the area of health tourism.  There also exist possibilities for production cooperation, especially in the metal processing industry (machinery, electronic industry, production of vehicles), but also in the chemical industry and the agriculture-food sector.  Also, cultivation offers significant possibilities for cooperation.  
To improve economic cooperation and use experiences and advanced technologies in business, the Flemish Chamber of Commerce has set up in Serbia the PLATO project, a Belgian network for development and mutual cooperation between small and medium-sized companies with the assistance of managers from large companies.  Plato Project Serbia is jointly run by the Serbian Chamber of Commerce (PKS) and the Flanders Region Chamber of Commerce (Voka). It is financed by the government of Flanders, with the aid of the European Commission, which has also declared it one of the ten best models for achieving competitiveness of the sector of small and medium-sized enterprises.  Participants are able to select topics that range from finance to ecology and investments. Also in order to improve mutual economic cooperation, a Belgian-Serbian business association was recently formed in Serbia (http://bsbiz.eu).  

Speaking of investment, how do Belgian investors see Serbian market? What are the most significant companies that invested in our country?

Belgian companies are mainly interested in investing in the metal industry, in renewable energy, banking, food and beverage sectors as well as the construction sector etc.  According to the National Bank of Serbia (NBS), net direct investments from Belgium in cash totaled 67.5 million USD in the period between 2000 and 2009. By the level of these investments, Belgium is ranked 19th on the list of investors in Serbia in the relevant period.  However, the NBS receives the figures from business banks, which means that the data refers to payment countries, not investment countries. Thus, these figures must be interpreted with some caution. For example, the largest Belgian investment in Serbia, the purchase of Apatin Brewery, was made via a Dutch subsidiary of Interbrew and it is actually registered as a Dutch investment! In the period between January and July 2010, NBS registered a net income of 2.8 million USD from Belgium.

There are about 20 companies with Belgian capital registered in Serbia at the moment.  So far, the largest Belgian investment in Serbia has been the purchase of Apatin Brewery by the Belgian multinational company InBev. Also, the most recent large investment from Belgium has been the purchase of A Bank (formerly Alco Bank) by KBC, the third largest insurance and banking group in Belgium with capital of 32 billion EUR, 50,000 employees and 12 million clients.  One significant investment of Belgian companies in Serbia is certainly the investment of Electrawinds, which also owns the Serbian company Energo Zelena , which will invest some 22 million EUR in the construction of a factory in Indjija, to convert animal waste into renewable energy.  And in October FASHION HOUSE Development (FHD), of which the majority shareholder is the company Liebrecht & wooD , a Flemish construction project developer of retail, office and logistics parks, started the construction, also in Indjija, of the first outlet center in Serbia, where consumers can shop for brand-name merchandise at bargain prices. FASHION HOUSE Outlet Centre Indjija (FHI will have 2,000 parking spaces, a wide range of coffee bars and restaurants and a play area for children. The park will also be home to a non-competitive big box area, an office park and a hotel, all set in a stunning village design offering an exceptional shopping experience. The center is due to open in the autumn of 2011, and the total investment will be some 100 million euro.  And, finally, it is important to mention that the investment of the Company Metech in a new metal processing plant in Smederevo is among the biggest foreign investments in Serbia in 2010.

Belgium is very interesting country with Brussels as capital and seat of EU. What are advantages and disadvantages of such position of Brussels?

More than 1,000 public and private international organizations (international institutions, diplomatic missions, lobby groups, think tanks, multinationals,...) have set up headquarters or have a permanent secretariat in Belgium. Of particular note is the presence in Belgium, in addition to the institutions of the European Union, of Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the General Secretariat of the Benelux.

This has made of Brussels a real international and multicultural city.  In Brussels, you feel you are in the heart of Europe, you are truly confronted with it all the time.  Living in the center of Europe has a clear advantage: while other member states must take the plane to participate in a EU-meeting, all we, Belgians, have to do is cross the street.  Of course, being the center of Europe also brings its disadvantages: many demonstrations take place in Brussels against this or that directive of the European Union, or the traffic gets complicated because streets are blocked for security reasons during a European Council... But all things considered,  Europe and the international environment make up normal life in Brussels, and have become completely natural to us.  
How would you present your country as a tourist destination… what characteristics and sights would you emphasize (Antwerpen, as world center of diamond trading industry, architecture, beer …)

Belgium has a lot to offer the foreign tourist. For those who like hiking, cycling, sport, nature and tranquility, there are the Ardennes in the south of Belgium, with beautiful woods and rivers and small charming towns and villages. The north part of the country, Flanders, is known for its historical cities, its cultural heritage, and the sandy beaches of the North Sea.  

For a small country, Belgium has a remarkable number of cities of art.  To name but a few : Bruges that is called the “Venice of the Nord” because of its canals and picturesque little streets; Brussels with its many art-nouveau buildings, Antwerp indeed as world center for diamonds but also as one of the biggest ports in the world, Mons the capital of Wallonia with its traditions, industrial heritage and its university, Liege and its history, Ghent which has recently been declared by Unesco as “one of the most hidden treasures in the world”.  There are hundreds of museums in Belgium.  When in Antwerp or Brussels, you can take a trip in a horse-drawn carriage through the old city centre, or in Bruges, a boat trip along the canals.  In the evening there is always some festival or cultural event going on, and the Belgian gastronomy is well known, with outstanding restaurants for all tastes and pockets.  

And talking about gastronomy, which plays such an important role in Belgium (just like in Serbia), of course everybody knows about Belgian chocolates and Belgian beer.  But when in Belgium, do eat a pack of patates frites on the street, and have a gaufre.  

What do you particularly like in Serbia, and what would you change, if you could?

This is a very difficult question.  There are so many things I like here, but maybe most of all I like the people.  They are warm, open and friendly.  If they see that you like them, they give you their total friendship and loyalty.  I hope they will always stay that way.  

What I would want to change?  There is so much to change in this society: to improve the life of the people, that is what EU-integration is all about, this is what the EU and your government is trying to do, and, as Ambassador, I try to give a helping hand.

Have you planned to live in Belgrade after end of your duty?

My mandate will finish at the end of January and I will be going back to Brussels, where I will head the Balkan desk at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  So I will continue to follow what is going on here, I will keep many contacts, and no doubt I will come back here quite often.

How do you spend your spare time?

There is always so much going on in Serbia, politically!  That makes my professional life here very interesting, but also very demanding – and there is hardly any free time.  Still, whenever I can, I go down for the week-end to the house I bought at the Silver Lake. It is a magical place, and so beautiful.  It is paradise on earth to me and each Monday I come back to Belgrade full of energy.

What is your most precious memory from Serbia?   

That my Serbian friends I met forty years ago still remembered me when I came back to Belgrade in 2006.