Belgium’s primarily French-speaking region, Wallonia and the (bilingual) Brussels-Capital Region maintain a joint representation office in Budapest, operating under the umbrella of the Belgian Embassy. The AWEX (Wallonia Export & Investment Agency) office, in charge of foreign trade promotion in Hungary and foreign investment attraction to these regions, is headed by Edit Ránky as Trade and Investment Counselor who explains to Diplomacy&Trade the tasks and activities they are entrusted with and how they have managed to cope with the challenging conditions of the past few years.
Since Belgium is a federal state, everything to do with exports and investment is a regional competence. At the federal level, there is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium, but for everything that concerns the economy, exports and imports, there is a separate government agency. In relation to Wallonia, its agency is run independently by the Walloon Export and Investment Office (AWEX), which has more than a hundred representations all over the globe, all with an independent budget.
Assisting the firms of Wallonia
“In the case of the Budapest office, we represent not only the Walloon Region and the Brussels Capital Region but also the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. In fact, we are supported by the Walloon companies' tax euros, so we provide a service to them, more specifically to those companies that AWEX considers exportable. They are entitled to this service throughout the world,” Edit Ránky highlights. In the different countries, they can contact the local representative office and tell them what they need: information, distributor, partner, etc. “In the case of Hungary, it is our job to receive this request and find the best channels and the best information to enable the company to export, find a partner, sell its goods. We don't just help them with information, we always encourage them to come in person, because there is a much bigger culture of personal contacts in Hungary. It is a question of trust. Then, they can see who they are dealing with, they can see the headquarters of the Hungarian company and they have a feeling about how serious this company is. In addition to our traditional methods, we also try to collect information through the contact system we have built up, so that we can offer the best to Walloon companies and provide them with the most accurate information. If they come, we also organize their trip. They can meet the potential Hungarian partner at their premises or even at our office. We also try to follow up the dossiers and collect feedback. We have a data sheet and we try to get feedback on how fast, how well we worked, how the Walloon companies found our service. This is not particularly demanded at AWEX, but I insist on seeing how successfully we are doing our job,” she adds.
Edit Ránky, who has been the head of the Budapest AWEX office since 2010, emphasizes that
they are a small office with two people, herself and her assistant. At the top of the network that helps their work is the Belgian Embassy and Ambassador Peinen, himself, with whom they have very good relations, helping each other and sharing all relevant information.
“We also have a good relationship with the various chambers of commerce and industry, not only at the Hungarian regional level, but also bilaterally. Whenever I visit the countryside with the Ambassador, we meet with the mayor, the president of the local assembly, the regional chamber of commerce, the agricultural chamber to try to get to know the region, its representatives and the outstanding sectors there,” she says. She also mentions the Belgian Business Club, which is a “very pleasant and excellent platform for networking among the Belgian-Hungarian business community” and has existed as a legal entity since 2015. Edit Ránky herself is a member of their board. Of course, the AWEX office also in contact with other organizations, such as Hungarian export and investment agencies (HEPA, HIPA).
Challenges to cope with
As Edit Ránky notes, AWEX CEO, Pascale Delcomminette, has recently given an interview about how the world has changed. On the one hand, the new coronavirus epidemic had quite a serious impact on the Walloon economy and on exporting companies. The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that last year, there was a huge flood, which caused a lot of damage to companies in the Liège area. This also had a very negative impact on economic development. Obviously, there are priority focus areas and related clusters that outline the main directions. Wallonia's strengths include engineering, aerospace, aeronautics or even agriculture; everything that goes on in pharmaceuticals, and that includes IT and film in all its forms, digitalization, mechanical engineering, smart solutions technologies, environmental protection. “In all these areas, there are very prominent companies in Wallonia. But more than that, it is not only the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit us all, but also the current economic situation, which is the result of politics, of war, which is creating a great crisis, not only in Wallonia but all over the world. We therefore need new strategies, new solutions, creative and precise objectives, especially in sectors that are very, very affected. In fact, there is hardly any sector that is not affected, and this is only the beginning,” the Counselor stresses.
In conclusion, she says she is very optimistic. “I am in a position, or adapting to this situation – because it is a new situation for me too – to draw on the reserves of creativity and the new tools that have been brought, in part, by the pandemic and I am thinking here of Internet communication, such as ‘Zoom’, which has become an everyday means of communication. All these help us to achieve the objectives and overcome the problems of inflation and other shortages of raw materials that are affecting Wallonia, as I think they will affect also Hungary and others. It will definitely require flexibility, adaptation and creativity to survive this crisis.”
Economic ties: facts and figures
The volume of exports from Wallonia to Hungary (which ranks 18th among the destination countries of Walloon exports) have shown a steady increase in the past few years. In 2020, they reached EUR 385.39 million while this figure for the first nine months of 2021 was EUR 289.82 million, predicting a slight annual increase despite the pandemic.
As for Hungarian exports to Wallonia, their volume dropped by over a third to EUR 137.07 million from 2019 to 2020 but the figure for the first nine months of 2021 (EUR 109.37 million) again forecasts a slight increase. Hungary is the 27th largest exporter country to the Walloon region.
Regarding the largest Walloon investors in Hungary, they include
Schréder, a company, producing lighting systems, founded 115 years ago in Liège, that operates the former Tungsram manufacturing facility in Pilisszentiván, near Budapest;
Carmeuse is involved in lime production, from a limestone quarry in Beremend, in southern Hungary, which is used in steel production, fertilizer production, etc. It is owned by a large Belgian aristocratic family;
Atenor is a real estate development firm focusing on the construction of eco-friendly buildings like the Váci Greens office complex in Budapest;
GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) Biologicals is present in Gödöllő, east of Budapest, and it plays an important role in the production of childhood, adolescent and adult vaccines.
Weerts Group, a family-owned Belgian enterprise is engaged in creating a huge logistics base in Ecser, just outside Budapest, near the capital’s airport;
FN Herstal: its subsidiary, Browning is to produce 30,000 weapons a year in Kaposvár, in southern Hungary.
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