In an interview to the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (ANA) on Sunday regarding the upcoming visit by the Belgian royals to Greece on May 2-4, Belgian Ambassador in Athens Francoise Gustin said that the visit, the first in 21 years, confirms the very good level of Greek-Belgian relations.
She said that King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of the Belgians will be accompanied by a large delegation that will include six ministers, numerous business leaders and 10 university rectors.
“Greece is the cradle of our civilisation and our democratic values,” Gustin said, adding that Belgium wants to pay tribute to this important contribution.
Focusing on bilateral relations, the Belgian ambassador said that these have been especially dynamic since last year, though trade relations left room for improvement.
As possible areas of cooperation between the two countries, she proposed the digital and energy transitions, while stressing the need for collaboration to deal with common challenges.
Referring to Greece’s geostrategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean, Gustin commented: “Greece is a strategic partner in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean and has a key role in the area of energy security, which also means diversification and strategic autonomy. As is often said, Greece is a pillar of stability in the region and this is even more important in the current framework.”
She also highlighted the country’s great potential in terms of renewables, including solar.
On the issue of energy prices and inflation, the ambassador said that Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo continues to support a common European response, adding that the experience from the joint purchase of vaccines has shown that this method is effective regarding prices.
On natural gas, in particular, Gustin said that Belgium believes that a ceiling on the maximum price would be useful as a last resort, in addition to a policy of common gas purchases.
Talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ambassador said that this was a war for “our rights and freedoms” and that, in some way, “the Ukrainians are fighting for all of us.”
The full interview to the ANA’s Dimitris Manolis is given below:
TTMM the King and Queen of the Belgians along with an official delegation will be conducting an official State Visit to Greece. What does this visit signal? What do you expect?
Our relations have always been excellent, and they have reached a special momentum last year. Vice Prime Minister Wilmès met Minister Dendias in January 2021 in Brussels and at the end of the year, Alternate Minister Varvitsiotis. Minister Wilmès came to Athens in June and was received by the President, the Prime Minister and had meetings with Minister Dendias and Minister Skrekas as well.
Our Prime Ministers also had of course several occasions to meet in the framework of European Councils and other Summits.
This Visit at the highest level of the State is the consecration of the excellence of our relations. The last State Visit took place in 2001. TTMM the King and Queen of the Belgians are accompanied by 6 Ministers, 17 CEO’s and 10 university rectors.
We expect to highlight the quality of our relations and look together to the future. While our democratic values are threatened in Europe and as we are facing this terrible humanitarian situation in Ukraine, it is even more important to build on our strong partnership and consolidate our cooperation on the basis of these values.
What is the state of bilateral relations between Greece and Belgium at the moment? What are the prospects for further strengthening the relationship and in which areas?
We have an excellent mutual understanding and no bilateral issues. The fact that many Greeks came to Belgium and have fully integrated in our society certainly contributed to the richness of our bilateral relations, as well as do the 500.000 Belgian tourists who come here every year and the thousands of Belgian citizens who chose to retire completely, or part time, in Greece. In addition, Brussels, as host of the headquarters of the EU and of NATO, has welcomed many Greek civil servants and experts over the years, thus creating other links and sharpening our mutual understanding.
During the crisis which badly hit Greece, Belgium helped to find constructive solutions in the Board of Governors of the ECB and brought technical expertise in the task force to assist Greece in a very concrete manner in many different areas: VAT, Court of audit, social security and health…in order to meet the creditors requirements.
Another strong point in our relationship is that both our governments are staunch advocates of multilateralism and, as partners in the EU and NATO, they are trying to forge consensus and promote common approaches.
From a trade perspective, our relations are good, even if there is as well room for improvement (Belgium is the 23rd largest client of goods from Greece worldwide, and Greece is the 12th largest client from Belgium – in terms of services Belgium is the 22nd largest client of Greece and Greece the 34th from Belgium).
A number of Belgian companies are already established in Greece in different sectors and other companies are considering investments in Greece. A State Visit is not a trade mission, but it is an opportunity to take stock of our relations and to contemplate options to further grow together.
This State Visit takes place while our countries are slowly emerging from the health crisis, and this might be the right time to kick off new projects. It has been a difficult period, which still bears consequences but also perspectives. As European partners we came to an agreement in record time on the recovery plan and new fund-raising processes by the European Commission and on a common vaccination certificate (the Greek government was an initiator in both cases).
The theme of the visit is in relation to the course from a historic past to a promising future. How do you think culture is linked to technological development?
Indeed “ From a common cradle to a brighter future” is the motto of this visit. Greece is the cradle of our civilization and of our democratic values. Belgium wants to pay tribute to this major contribution to our societies. Ancient Greek is still taught in Belgian schools, and this stimulated the interest of many people in Belgium for ancient Greece and archeology.
Let us also remember that our countries both fought for their independence in the wake of the 19th century revolutionary wave. Belgian philhellenes even came to Greece to participate to this endeavor.
Our respective revolutions were later followed by a period of technological development and industrialization. Since then, technological development also impacted the way archeological research is done and this offers new opportunities. It will be explained by experts on the second day in Sounio. After a visit to the amazing site and Temple of Poseidon, the royal couple will attend presentations on new immersive technologies used by museums. They will as well be informed by Belgian (cf. the Belgian School of Archeology) and Greek archeologists on how technology, science, digital innovation contribute to archeological research (aDNA, Isotopes and Residue analysis, 2D and 3D, geophysical prospection). The way climate change is affecting cultural heritage is another subject.
Beyond our similarities, our differences could be turned into assets: our climates are different, our geographic positions are different, and this allows to develop synergies based on our complementarities. We could think of developing twin skill hubs, we anyway must grow greener and more resilient together. The assets of our respective countries can help us to contribute to Europe’s strategic autonomy. Digital transformation and energy transition are central in this process, and we noted that important steps were taken in this regard in Greece in order to modernize the country.
Beyond the health issue, we all face other challenges since fires, floods, droughts, storms tend to multiply over the years and affect our daily life. No country has the capacity to tackle these problems on its own and therefore multilateral and bilateral cooperation projects are needed, the combination of the specific skills which exist in each of our countries might be an asset in this context as well.
As Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its third month, the EU countries are facing the rising of energy prices and inflation. Do you think that there should be a European response on this issue? Do you agree with the Greek proposal for a ceiling on natural gas wholesale prices?
First, I would like to stress that our thoughts are with the Ukrainians. The priority is to support and assist them as much as we can in the context of this terrible ordeal. This war is about our values and our freedoms, and in a way the Ukrainians are fighting for all of us.
As far as energy prices are concerned as well as inflation, our Prime Minister, Alexander De Croo, keeps advocating a common European response. At the last European Council it was decided to work together on the common purchase of gas, and Belgium was in favor of this option from the very beginning. The experience of the common purchase of vaccines has shown that this method proved efficient in terms of prices. Belgium indeed considers that a gas price cap would be useful as a last resort in addition to this common purchase policy.
The aim would be to stabilize the situation in the short term but also to offer perspectives in the longer term to pursue the fit-for-55 agenda and the green transition towards 2050.
I would like to underscore the fact that our countries have been exposed to an unprecedented succession of crises over the last years. At several occasions the EU has demonstrated its capacity to swiftly find creative solutions. Despite the tragic dimension of these crises, we should continue to turn them into new opportunities for the EU.
The EU is reducing its reliance on Russian gas and oil. Does Greece have a key role to play in the new energy security of the EU and especially as a strategic partner in the Eastern Mediterranean with Cyprus, Israel and Egypt?
Greece is a strategic partner in the Eastern Mediterranean region and has a key role in the field of energy security which also means diversification and strategic autonomy. As it is often said, Greece is a pillar of stability in the region, and this is even more important in the current context.
Belgian companies have expertise in different energy sectors, gas transportation, electrical connections and dredging, onshore and offshore wind energy, and also in the development of green hydrogen. As stakeholders or potential investors they closely monitor the developments and the incentives offered by the Greek government. Greece has huge potential, also in renewable energy as well as in solar energy.
Furthermore, Greece has presented one of the most ambitious climate plans in 2020, and has a key role to play in meeting the short term challenges while keeping the compass on the long term vision, the latter being essential to fight against climate change that affects all our countries.
We have a very small coastline (about 70 km versus the 15.000 of Greece!), nevertheless offshore wind energy in the Belgian North Sea generates today about 10% of the total electricity demand in Belgium. By 2030, the offshore wind capacity in the Belgian North Sea will be increased to 5.7 GW. Materials used are almost entirely recyclable: 90% of their components are recyclable. When a wind turbine has to be dismantled (after about 25 years of producing green electricity), most of its materials are reused for the construction of new wind turbines. Materials that cannot be reused are fully recycled. The wind and renewable energy industry is growing considerably and research is being carried out to build 100% zero waste wind turbines. Moreover, according to the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, independent scientists have demonstrated, after 10 years of environmental monitoring, that there is an increase in marine biodiversity in and around wind farms.
In 1952, 70 years ago, the European Coal and Steel community was created and it is now time to switch to a new European dynamic based this time on digital and green transformation. Belgium stands ready to achieve this transformation together with Greece and other partners willing to propose a modern and promising vision to our societies.