Discours

30-05-2017

Consular Conference, Washington D.C.

May 30th, 2017


 

- - - the spoken word alone prevails - - -

 

[Introduction]

Excellences,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Guests,

 

I am excited to be here today in beautiful Washington D.C., as the first member of the Belgian Government on a bilateral visit since the inauguration of President Trump. This mission shortly follows my previous missions to Texas last December and to Georgia in March, and thus clearly shows the importance I attach to the bilateral relationship between the United States and Belgium. Therefore, I am very pleased to see such a big turnout for this consular conference and I am looking forward to meet with old acquaintances, but above all to speak to those of you I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting yet. Indeed, “getting to know each other better” is exactly the purpose of this conference. It is by doing this, by combining the strengths of our informal and formal networks, that we’ll make sure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’ve been asked to focus my intervention on the reasons to invest in Belgium, on what we have to offer to American visitors and interested business people, and to say something about the current state of the Belgian economy. But I’d like to start by emphasizing the unique bond between our two nations that share a long common history. Ever since their independence, the US and Belgium have maintained strong economic ties, which have led to an even closer alliance based on common values, and the will to defend them. Of course, the Belgian people remain very grateful for the US commitment during both World Wars and we pay tribute to the sacrifices of all young Americans who have fallen on Belgian soil, many of whom have been given a final resting place in our country. This common cause created a unique bond between us. And in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Western European – Northern American Alliance was established and not only succeeded in ensuring peace and stability, but also in generating unprecedented prosperity for its citizens. Belgium is proud to be a founding member of NATO and to host its headquarters, and we were of course delighted to welcome the President of the United States at the new headquarters in Brussels only a few days ago. President Trump’s visit to Belgium, NATO, and the European Institutions was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our many assets and I am convinced that it brought our countries even closer together.

 

[Bilateral relations]

 

Yet, ladies and gentlemen, the true cornerstone of our unique alliance remain our strong economic ties. These lie at the basis of our growth, prosperity, innovation and development and I am grateful that today’s conference will focus on this critical dimension.

 

Just to give one example: hundreds of Belgian companies employ some 160,000 people and are present in the US in a wide range of industries, from petrochemicals to quality food and textiles, from luxury products to pharmaceuticals, to steel products and energy production. And these investments will only continue to increase, as we are all paying a lot of attention to the further strengthening of our economic ties. As I mentioned, I’ve been in Texas and Georgia only recently:

 

Last December, we had the economic mission to Texas, headed by HRH Princess Astrid. We managed to gather 100 companies and 240 business representatives and we seized each and every opportunity to further develop our shared economic interests. Houston and Belgium are of course world leaders in the chemical and petrochemical sectors, but we also focused on port-related activities, aerospace technology, biotech, cyber technology, and tourism. And I can confirm that we got some excellent feedback from both Belgian and American companies and authorities. I am also glad to learn that our network in the United States is spearheading an active follow-up effort to this important mission.

 

And in March, I headed a networking mission to Georgia to celebrate the resumption of the direct connection between Atlanta and Brussels, by Delta Airlines. During this mission, I had several political and economic meetings and talks and discussed different projects for Belgian companies in the US like Beauflor and Bekaert for example, and American companies in Belgium, like the Coca-Coly Company whose innovation center in Brussels is the 2nd largest in the world. I also had the privilege of meeting President Jimmy Carter and was able to discuss recent developments in the US and Europe and their impact on transatlantic relations. We both remain convinced that our bond remains a priority and is of vital importance in this 21st century.

 

[Belgium’s strengths]

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

So Belgium will continue to play its ‘trump cards’ to further strengthen our bilateral relationship. And we definitely have a lot of them. Only a few weeks ago, we launched a campaign to promote Belgium by defining 99 reasons why our country is “uniquely phenomenal”. I could list them all here, but this would take too much of our time. So, I will not focus on our excellent food, beers, music, culture, medieval towns, or quality of life, but I’d rather like to highlight some pure economic strengths like for example reason n° 79 that mentions the fact that you only need 4 days and 3 procedures to start a business in Belgium and that you can also call on an innovative crowdfunding platform or on the special tax division for foreign investors in the Department of Finance to get a clear idea about your tax liabilities. In addition, Eurostat reported a couple of days ago that Belgian startups have the best chance of success of all European startups. Or reason n°75 that states that, although only 0,2% of the world population lives in Belgium, it somehow is the 12th biggest exporter and the third most globalized country in the world. In 2016, we closed the trade balance with a surplus of 4.1 billion EUR, as opposed to a deficit of 2 billion EUR the year before. Belgian exports increased with 7% to more than 251 billion EUR and imports grew by 4.4% to 247 billion. So our foreign trade also creates more domestic jobs today than ever before.

 

The foundation of this open and competitive economy is our strategic location. In the 16th century already, Venetian emissary Francesco Guicciardini noted during a visit to the Low Lands that hundreds of ships transited through the port of Antwerp each day and that more than 2 000 carts entered the city every week. Portuguese ships loaded with pepper and cinnamon unloaded their cargoes in the port and they were distributed throughout the entire continent. And today, some 500 years later, not so much has changed. The Port of Antwerp still is one of the largest ports in the world and continues to break records with more than 500 direct destinations.  In 2016, it broke a new record by handling more than 215 million ton of freight, and thanks to its growth of more than 4%, it is performing significantly better than the ports of Rotterdam and Hamburg.

 

This strategic location of Belgium is also demonstrated by the numerous distribution centers which are already established in our country, taking advantage of the low cost and short distance to Europe’s major markets. The Nike company for example has four distribution centers in Belgium that give them easy access to the European single market of more than 500 million customers. And they are not alone, more than 2.300 foreign companies have their European headquarters in Belgium, as mentioned in reason n°73.

 

Furthermore, reason n°77 emphasizes the fact that Brussels is home to the European Institutions and NATO headquarters and houses more than 5.000 diplomats. Indeed, just as it makes sense for Belgian companies to locate close to key decision centers in the US, like here in Washington D.C., it makes sense for American businesses to be close to the European and NATO key decision centers if they want to contract with these institutions.

 

And this list of reasons goes on and on. Just think about our highly skilled workforce, state-of-the-art universities, our long tradition in Research & Development, and so on.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In general, our economy is honestly doing quite well. True, in an international context hit by a great many uncertainties, economic growth in Belgium has declined slightly in 2016, to 1,2%. Yet, growth is expected to increase this year, at 1,4%, before reaching 1,6% in 2018 and 1,5% in 2019. After an expansion of employment by almost 60 000  jobs in 2016, another 120 000 or so extra jobs are forecast to be created over the period 2017 – 2019. A very good result that is largely due to labor-cost-cutting measures and structural reforms, while the unemployment rate is forecast to drop to 7.6%. But our work is far from finished and we will continue to reform the economy, the Belgian tax system and the labor market and focus on shifting taxes away from tax on labor, to stimulate competitiveness of companies and to create more jobs. A recent study of the World Economic Forum shows that Belgium has the tenth most trade-friendly economy in the world and it is also one of the most innovative European nations and our aim is of course to do even better in next studies.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A lot of these advantages are already well-known by a lot of companies worldwide, including the 1,000 US businesses active in Belgium that are employing about 130,000 people of whom many American citizens. This makes the US the 2nd foreign employer in Belgium. So Belgium definitely is the place-to-be to network with fellow Americans. In other words, we have a lot to offer to American visitors and interested business people. I count on all of you, active in both the informal and the formal diplomatic network of Belgium in the US, to continue your outstanding job in promoting our country and in inviting American businessmen- and women to discover Belgium and its unique strengths. Together with our Regions, Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels, and our regional trade  and investment authorities, we have the complete set box of tools to offer them an ideal base to set up or to increase their presence in the capital of Europe.

 

A Europe that remains the US’s largest trading partner with an annual trade of € 650 billion in goods and 15 million on-shored jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. Investment drives this economic relationship, and Europe is a perfect place to invest in. This is why it succeeded in attracting almost 60% of total US global investments since 2010 and the aggregate US Foreign Direct Investment in Europe since 2010 totals a staggering € 1,17 trillion. It is also up to us to make it clear to worried investors that the Brexit indeed is a setback for the European project, but certainly not the end of it. On the contrary even, Europe is looking for a second breath and is defining a future in which all remaining 27 Member States can find themselves. I personally think that the Brexit is a very regrettable, yet also a democratic decision that has to be respected. The period of negotiations with the UK Government has started and it will now come down to limiting its economic consequences, both for Europe and the UK, and, in addition to ensuring a rapid and constructive conclusion of the Brexit, we will also continue to defend and strengthen Europe’s legacy. I count on all of you to contribute to this, here in the United States. Finally, I also deplore the fact that the negotiations with the US around a free trade agreement appear to be put on hold, and I remain convinced that some form of transatlantic trade agreement is desirable and necessary, and would be in our mutual interest. Indeed, it is only by working together and maintaining unity that Europe, together with its transatlantic allies, will be able to play an important role in this 21st century and set the standards for future global trade.

 

[Conclusion]

Excellences,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To conclude, I can only state that the US and Belgium have so many strengths in common. We share a long and unique bond that guarantees stability and prosperity for us all. Numerous American and Belgian companies are already getting the most out of this, yet opportunities to cooperate are endless. This is why I am delighted to be here, among so many people who play a crucial role in connecting our countries. I look forward to exchange views and ideas with all of you. And I encourage you to continue your important work in promoting our country, in organizing network events between business professionals and policymakers, and in sharing information and knowledge on doing business in Belgium and the US.

 

Thank you for your attention,

 

- - - the spoken word alone prevails - - -


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