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The Warsaw Voice » Business » January 16, 2008
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Waltzing Wallonia
January 16, 2008   
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Daniel Menschaert, permanent diplomatic representative in Poland of Belgium's French Community and the Walloon Region, talks to Konrad Bagiński.

What is the role of the Wallonia region in Belgium?
Historically, Wallonia was a highly industrialized region with many mines and steelworks. Thanks to Wallonia, in the late 19th century, Belgium was the world's second strongest industrial power. Of course, the character of the region has changed since then. Most mines and steelworks have been closed down and only some of them still operate in the Charleroix and Liege area. The region is undergoing restructuring and economic change, and its life is increasingly centered around universities and other institutions of higher education. Research in mechanical engineering and biotechnology is gaining importance in Wallonia. Of special importance to the local economy are logistics centers because Wallonia enjoys an excellent location along a number of freeways. Another sector gaining in importance is tourism, particularly in the Ardennes area in the south, close to the border with Luxembourg and France. The Ardennes is a magnificent mountain range. As regards agriculture, it is not very intensive and mainly involves organic farming. Additionally, in keeping with contemporary trends, many farmers are starting agritourism activities.

Foreigners associate Belgium with a number of things-your well-lit freeways, for instance. Why is that?
For safety reasons, of course. But the truth is that for quite some time Belgium had a considerable electricity surplus. To prevent the closure of power plants, the decision was made to light up the freeways, and they have continued to be excellently illuminated ever since.

Chocolate is another Belgian hallmark.
I would say it is pralines rather than chocolate. Frédéric Neuhaus, a pharmacist from Brussels, was the man who invented pralines. His son Jean continued the tradition. The idea behind the invention was simple-pralines originally contained medicines to trick children into eating them. Thanks to this trick we now have excellent chocolates. The most famous producer today is Côte d'Or of Brussels. Many producers make pralines, but the best ones come from tiny plants.

Beer is another product readily associated with Belgium. The country has 400 varieties of beer-many of them originated in monasteries and are of excellent quality.
The beer-brewing tradition has survived in monasteries. The best varieties include trappist beer-there are only four brews that are still allowed to use this name. Another top brew is biere d'abbaye, or abbey beer. In this case too, there are only several producers who are allowed to use this name. There are many small local breweries in Belgium. Some operate as part of international corporations, but they make excellent beer according to old recipes.

How are Walloon-Polish economic relations shaping up?
Walloon companies are very interested in Poland. The Awex-Wallonia Trade and Investment Agency deals with matching up business partners. Poland is perceived as a very interesting market-a reputation that attracts many investors here. The Polish road and freeway sector is of particular interest to Walloon companies. In 1996 Poland and Belgium's French Community and the Walloon Region signed a cooperation agreement that includes a chapter related to roads and infrastructure. Walloons advised Poland on how to plan its freeway network and how to manage funds. Poland has used Walloon experience related to swift tender procedures and talks with local residents so as to obtain the sites needed. The agreement also refers to regional airports-Poles are eager to use the experience of Walloonian experts in this area.

How can Belgium's French-language culture be given a higher profile in Poland?
Poles know more about Belgian culture than they think, but when they hear the French language they instantly associate it with France. Belgian films in French are very interesting and often win international awards. We receive many questions and telephone calls from Polish festival organizers asking us for the right to show Belgian films.

Dance is another important art. In 2006, we held a festival of contemporary dance in Bytom, southern Poland. Since that time dancers from Belgium's French Community have been frequently visiting Poland. Two Belgian French Community groups recently took part in the Rozdroże Art Festival in Poland. For two years now we have been working with Warsaw Summer Jazz Days and organized a weekend with Wallonia-Brussels. We also stage exhibitions. Every year in spring, we help organize a Francophonic Festival with a long list of interesting cultural events.

What sights and food would you recommend to first-time visitors to Belgium?
You definitely have to visit Brussels and you should not limit yourself to Grande Place, as most tourists do. There are many districts far from downtown Brussels with a wonderful atmosphere and tourist routes that take you out of the center and enable you to feel the true atmosphere of the city. What you should eat? Mussels and chips are certainly worth recommending. While in Brussels you absolutely must see the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cartoon Museum. We are really good at that. It is Belgian draftsmen who created the Smurfs (Pierre Culliford-Peyo), Lucky Luke (Maurice de Bevere) and Tintin (Georges Prosper Remi-Hergé). The Polish cartoon Thorgal is a joint project by a Pole and a Belgian-Grzegorz Rosiński and Jean van Hamme.

A very picturesque city worth seeing is Namur, located where the Sambre river joins the Meuse river. The city of Tournai has the largest Romanesque cathedral, and the Ardennes area offers splendid views.

There is also Hainaut province in Wallonia with old industrial buildings and mines turned into cultural venues. These sites are also worth visiting. We are working with Poles on redeveloping former industrial areas in Poland's Silesia region, mainly in the cities of Zabrze and Gliwice. Walloon experts have helped Poles mark out tourist routes with Silesian castles and interesting post-industrial sites

The Delegation of Wallonia-Brussels in Poland is the Permanent Diplomatic Representation of the French Community and the Walloon Region. Under the Belgian constitution, Belgium is a federal state made up of communities and regions. The communities and regions have their own parliaments and governments and there is no hierarchy among the federal authorities and federated entities.

The activities of Wallonia-Brussels with regard to foreign countries are based on their own "representations" having diplomatic status. Wallonia-Brussels can sign international agreements. The agreement with Poland dates back to 1996. In February, the Polish-Wallonia-Brussels Mixed Commission will sign a new working program for the 2008-2010 period.

The Delegation of Wallonia-Brussels opened in Warsaw in 2002 to represent the government of the French-speaking community of Belgium and the Walloon Region in Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Over the past three years, the delegation has organized 102 cultural events covering dance, cinema, literature, exhibitions and concerts. It has also handled 45 research projects and 100 student exchanges and more than 300 experts' exchanges in various fields.

Wallonia-Brussels strongly supports the teaching of French in Poland.

The delegation is a part of the Belgian embassy, but is entirely autonomous. Wallonia-Brussels is the southern part of Belgium that is inhabited by over 4.5 million people. The most important cities are Brussels, Liege, Namur, Mons, Charleroi and Tournai. Wallonia-Brussels has its own diplomatic representation offices in Algiers, Berlin, Geneva, Quebec, Santiago de Chile, Paris, Prague, Rabat, Tunis, Kinshasa, Dakar, Hanoi, Brussels (European Union), and Warsaw.

The Wallonia-Brussels representative (delegate) is Daniel Menschaert. He assumed the position in 2004.
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