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The Warsaw Voice » National Voice » October 29, 2010
Belgium in Poland
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Being Like a Sheepdog
October 29, 2010   
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Raoul Delcorde, Belgium’s ambassador to Poland, talks to Hilary Heuler.

How would you summarize current Belgian-Polish relations?
They are excellent, and for many reasons. One is that there has been a very good understanding between the two nations, an understanding that dates back many years. When I presented my letters of credence to the Polish president, Bronisław Komorowski, he mentioned the fact that Belgium was the third biggest investor in Poland during the period between 1918 and 1940. It contributed to the development of industry here, and many Polish engineers have been trained in our universities. Today we are the 10th biggest foreign investor. More than 350 companies in Poland have links to Belgium.

In terms of political relations, those have been excellent too. The Belgians being founding fathers of the European Union, we like to assist newcomers with the intricacies of EU negotiations. Now, with the Belgian presidency of the EU, we are in close contact with the Polish authorities. The Belgian prime minister was in Warsaw in early June, and the foreign minister delivered a speech at the University of Warsaw. Even though Poland is one of the six biggest EU countries, it listens with interest to what Belgium has to say about the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, about the new institutional balance, and so on. We see our Polish friends sharing our approach in many respects when it comes to EU priorities.

Belgium’s six-month presidency of the EU is now at the halfway point. Which presidential priorities have been the most problematic, and on which have you made the most progress?
I don’t know that there have been any problematic issues so far, but one of our goals was to put in place the new EU diplomatic service. It’s quite an endeavor, with a lot of negotiations between the Parliament, the Commission, the Council, the EU members and Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief. We got an agreement in July, and recruitment has started. This is not quite a Copernican revolution, but it will mean embassies of the EU (not just Commission offices), with a diplomatic service made up of people from 27 countries, and other non-EU countries will have to get acquainted with these types of embassies. Dec. 1 is the date we have in mind to put this system in place, since it will be the first anniversary of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.

The enlargement of the EU also remains an important subject. Iceland is now a candidate to join the EU, and the first negotiations were launched in July.

When it comes to more hard-core policies—the internal market, for instance—we have something called a “community patent” for patenting inventions. In America, patenting is much cheaper than in the EU, and we are not competitive. Our businesspeople are frustrated, and these negotiations have been dragging on for years. There is already a European patent office, but the proceedings are expensive because they demand that every document—and we are speaking about technical documents—should be translated into the language of the country where you want to protect the invention. Translation costs are the key issue, and needless to say, English-only is the solution that Poland would have preferred. The Commission has responded that about half of the patents are presented by German companies, so you cannot exclude German. Therefore, they came in with a proposal that includes English, German and French. We really hope to get a decision by the end of the year and get this thing done.

What challenges has the Greek monetary crisis presented?
We are very much supporting the efforts of the president of the EU, who happens to be a former Belgian prime minister, with his task force and new regulations in terms of finance and financial governance. To our credit, we got an agreement on financial supervision, which means better control over banks and insurance companies after the 2009 crisis. But the situation in Greece is a matter of concern, and Ireland is not doing well either. We are of the opinion that more discipline and transparency should be introduced—why was this situation in Greece not detected and anticipated before? Where were the signals?
So there are negotiations in order to improve Europe’s economic governance and safeguard the euro. But when it comes to sanctions, you run into a sensitive issue—it’s not simply a question of discipline, but also of near-automatic penalties to punish profligate governments that don’t abide by the regulations. When you talk about sanctions—as in a certain amount that a country has to pay—some countries would say “no way.” So we are not there yet. There will be another EU summit soon where those issues will be discussed, but this is another priority for us. We know it will take time, and we are happy that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is also in the picture now. We have been able to mobilize huge amounts of money for Greece, which is an example of solidarity, since all the EU countries except one have agreed to contribute to a fund to stabilize the situation in Greece.

Poland is set to take over the EU presidency next year. What advice can Belgium give the Poles?
It would be pretentious for me to give any advice to the Poles, but what we would say is that when you’re chairing the EU, you should realize that you have to put your own priorities and sensitivities aside. A good chairman is as neutral as possible, and I’m sure that Poland will do its best to find compromises. We the Belgians are good at that; maybe because of our internal situation, we are good at finding compromises. Belgium is a laboratory of the EU. On the other hand, I can understand that Poland would want to project itself—after all, it’s Poland’s first time chairing the EU, whereas it’s the 12th time for Belgium. We have some experience.

Another piece of advice I would give is to support EU institutions. Take into account the Lisbon Treaty, and the changes it is bringing about. My foreign minister has a metaphor: he says that in the past, you could imagine that the rotating presidency was a shepherd leading the sheep. But today, he says, the presidency is more like the shepherd’s dog, barking to make sure that all the sheep stay together. The idea is that maybe the role of the presidency is no longer to lead, but to preserve the cohesion of the group. The president of the EU, Herman van Rompuy, is now the shepherd.

You have been in Poland since May. What are your impressions of the country so far?
I didn’t know Poland before, though I was posted not too far from here as ambassador to Sweden. But I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a large country with dynamic cities, and it is opening up toward the western world and the EU. Speaking English is generally not a problem. Poland is modern, and I see almost nothing that would remind me that it was a communist country 20 years ago. Of course, things have to improve in terms of infrastructure and all that, but I am optimistic. I was lucky to be here when we started our presidency because it put me in touch with a lot of Polish authorities, and their response to me, as a newcomer, has been positive—not only in Warsaw, but also in Wrocław and other cities. Now I’m looking forward to seeing more of the country.
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