WALTER Lion believes in European solutions to most global challenges and explains that even when the financial and economic crises turned some Belgians into eurosceptics most of the population still believed that the country “needs more, not less, Europe”. The Belgian ambassador to Slovakia said that Benelux has been the cradle for regional cooperation and shared the example of Belgium even leasing prison facilities from the Netherlands when the need arose.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Lion about his opinions about frustrations mounting in Europe due to the economic crisis that are resulting in the rise of extremist parties, as well as current sentiments of Belgians about further European integration, about medical tourism in his country and about Belgian know-how could be of use to Slovakia as well as the wider Visegrad region.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Human rights groups have warned that the economic crisis in many European countries is opening the political stage to extremist parties. How can countries minimise a trend like this?
Walter Lion (WL): It is an issue that concerns all of Europe. The economic crisis demands a European answer, which is a good thing because the problem goes further than each country's national borders. A European approach has been worked out involving all the European governments, especially those that are members of the eurozone. These efforts, which have kept European leaders busy for the past three years, have focused mainly on budgetary discipline and now they are looking into growth-impact measures as defined in the Europe 2020 programme for example. This is also a time when you notice a swing to the left in Europe, for example in Belgium we have a leftist prime minister just as France recently elected its president from the Socialist Party. Members of the European Council have naturally seen growing frustration in a number of member states. I believe they will need to prove their credibility and stop the frustration, and in order to do so we need to have effective public dialogue about these issues since credibility can only be restored through dialogue. The leaders should clearly stress that the crisis is not national and not even purely European, but a global one. But for us, the answer must lie in European solutions where every country has to play its role. Politicians should, most of all, have the courage to tell the truth to people, to show them the dilemmas. If they fail to pursue such dialogue the frustration will turn into support for populist, simple solutions which, ultimately, are not solutions at all.
So I think the answer to your question is that we have to find European solutions; politicians need
to reinforce their credibility by having an open and trusting dialogue with the electorate. People in the streets are not naive; they will understand what the challenges are: we need to clean up our households, give breathing space to the economy to grow and introduce some reforms.
TSS: Is there any change in the attitude of Belgians towards the European Union because of difficulties brought by the economic crisis or over the complications that Greece has brought to the euro?
WL: Just as in all other member countries, Belgians have suffered from the crisis. Even though we lacked a federal government for quite a long time, we have been able to keep ourselves and our economy above the European average. Though we do not expect our economy to grow as fast as the Slovak economy, near 3 percent for 2012, we hope to grow this year by 0.6 percent. Being a founding member state in the heart of Europe, the attitude of Belgians towards Europe has not fundamentally changed. We remain convinced that it is only at the European level where good answers can be found for the global challenges. The crisis has not turned Belgians into eurosceptics as even non-traditional political parties in Belgium are in favour of more integration, which is quite an exception to other countries. We actually believe that we need more, not less, Europe.
TSS: Belgium is one of the countries which banned Muslim women from wearing the burqa. What is the main reason for doing so?
WL: Belgium is a country of large-scale immigration, be it legal or illegal. About 10 percent of our population comes from other countries. Belgium has not forbidden the wearing of a burqa, per se; Belgium has decreed that persons cannot hide behind masks or anything else that will make them unidentifiable while in public. That is the main principle. It is not only about burqas and we are not the sole country to have such legislation. You can wear anything you want in private but once you are in public, you must be identifiable.
TSS: What are the main challenges that immigration presents for societies?
WL: I believe that in the future we will have to look for a new approach towards immigration. And again, European solutions are good solutions. Given the trend of an ageing population we do need educated immigrants to keep our economy going. This is a problem that most European countries will face and the approach to immigration will need to address these challenges. As society changes, migration policies will have to change as well.
TSS: Belgium, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine are seeking to expand medical tourism. How did Belgium land on this list of post-communist countries as a medical tourist destination?
WL: We get around 35,000 medical tourists per year and they come from all parts of the world. Why do they come to Belgium? First of all, it is the high quality of treatment; also, there are almost no waiting times for treatment and a sick patient is not told “please come back in six months”. We get medical tourists from the Netherlands, the UK and also from Italy. We have a good balance in terms of funding our health-care system and have been able to keep costs under control.
TSS: A new agreement was signed in April that will allow the armed forces of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg to cooperate more fully. Belgian Defence Minister Pieter De Crem has suggested that this accord opens the way for creating a Benelux army. Do you think that such a model would be workable for the Visegrad Group as well?
WL: Benelux has a long tradition of cooperation and it is not only over European challenges but involves many other areas. For example, years ago we lacked enough prisons and our Dutch friends, not because their population commits less or more crime, had enough available prison facilities. So our country decided to lease prisons from the Netherlands, even the prison warders. It is only one example of many.
Border towns cooperate in many fields: police, ambulances, fire brigades and so forth.
Another interesting field of cooperation is energy policy, where our interests do not always match, but nevertheless, we cooperate. Interconnectivity is the magic word for energy and we were able to link our grids and now have a common Benelux market for electricity. This might be a kind of preparation for a common European electricity market. We are now planning to do the same with gas supplies: the Dutch have the gas and we have very good pipelines along with LNG-experience that they do not have. We try to bring these strengths together.
As far as defence cooperation is concerned, Benelux is an old agreement that has been renewed and its renewed version is now in force. It foresees the possibility of cooperation with similar regional groupings. We have a common navy with the Dutch and we have a Benelux admiral, who is a Dutchman. The Netherlands’ navy has an ambition for a world presence while the Belgian navy has important know-how in mine-sweeping operations. We in Belgium have a relatively small air force, but with a large transport capacity. The Dutch in fact have the most modern fighter jets. For these reasons we do quite a lot of things together. In times of budgetary restraints it is good to have “smart defence” as promoted by the NATO Alliance.
So we can serve as an example for the Visegrad Group. A possible handicap within the Visegrad Group is that its largest member, Poland, has a military budget that is growing, not decreasing. That makes it a bit more challenging for cooperating under these circumstances. But cooperation is always a chance to do things in a smarter way.
TSS: What other Belgian experiences could be of help to Slovakia?
WL: I see it in the area of education. Flanders could be a very good example: it has a similar population of around 6 million, but Flanders’ education programmes stay at the top of the yearly PISA international measurements, especially in mathematics. We have effective vocational schools which combine learning and working, similar to the system in Germany.
Our universities are surrounded by start-ups and spin-offs where industry and the university, the academic world and entrepreneurs, meet and do things together. This is the basis for successfully developing research capacities which Slovakia also needs. Then there is also the area of health care where we could serve as some inspiration for Slovakia.
TSS: Is the tourism potential between the two countries fully tapped?
WL: I would not say that Slovakia or even eastern Europe have become a top tourist attraction for Belgians; in general, the Dutch are more adventurous. But gradually we are discovering this part of Europe, for example with short city trips to Budapest or Prague. What I see, however, is that Slovakia is also able to attract people interested in active holidays. We have one Belgian hotel here in the Tatras. There is some unexplored capacity in the sector. In Belgium we attract people around three things: our coast because even though we have only a small stretch of 65 kilometres it is very relaxing in summer time. Our second attraction is the ‘art cities’ such as Brussels, Bruges, Ghent or Antwerp in Flanders and then our third attraction are Wallonia’s valleys and woodlands.
TSS: Belgium’s economy expanded by 0.6 percent in the first quarter, returning the country to growth after seeing stagnation in late 2011. What advice does Belgium have on economic growth?
WL: Belgium is above the European average with regards to economic growth. We are not at the level of growth in Slovakia, which has an enviable situation. But Belgium, like Slovakia, is a very open and export-oriented economy and has a very important international presence in its economy.
We see some handicaps in the future, such as a possible lack of space for industrial areas, especially in Flanders, one of three regions of Belgium [the other two are Wallonia and Brussels], because Flanders is densely populated. Flanders is also, economically speaking, more prosperous than Wallonia. But that was not always the case as it has been the other way round in the past. All three regions have different economic challenges and opportunities.
As for bilateral economic relations, I think Slovakia might grow because of car production in the future. Belgium still has a car industry and that also means a lot of subcontractors. Many of these subcontractors are already present in Slovakia and Belgian investments in Slovakia are going relatively well. Apart from the automotive segment, Belgium is present in Slovakia in the banking and consultancy sector, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, metal works and biotechnology.
Other than several multinationals, our investors in Slovakia are mostly SMEs, acting as subcontractors in a business-to-business environment. Thanks to their size, they are dynamic niche-market players, who can quickly and flexibly adapt to changing demands. They fit well in the Slovak industrial landscape. Belgian investors seek win-win situations and come to Slovakia to be near their customers. They participate in Slovakia’s exports and come here to stay.