Representing the population, the companies and values – these are the main goals of the Belgian Ambassador to Hungary, Jo Indekeu. In an interview with Diplomacy and Trade, he talks about having had the opportunity to closely follow the developments in East and Central Europe in his diplomatic career in the past twenty years; the Embassy’s role in preserving the good collaboration established between Belgium and Hungary as two successive EU-presidencies by continuation of an exchange of views and presentation of alternatives or solutions that have been used in Belgium; Belgian investors who wish to be dealt with in a transparent and predictable way; the regional governments in his country helping Dutch and French language teaching in Hungary as well as being fond of Hungarian wines and gastronomy.
“From the start of my career in 1991, I have seen Central Europe in different stages from the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, through the negotiations for accession to NATO and the European Union, to nowadays when Hungary and other countries of the region are EU members. It was interesting to follow this process from close by,” Belgian ambassador Jo Indekeu tells Diplomacy and Trade. Indeed, the main areas of his diplomatic activity have been this region (Vienna, Warsaw & Budapest) and the east of the Mediterranean (Ankara & Amman-Bagdad). His latest posting station is Budapest where he presented his credentials to the President of the Republic of Hungary in October 2011.
“Apart from the introduction process that a new ambassador must go through in a new country”, Jo Indekeu says his work does not differ from other postings, i.e. representing the population, companies and values of Belgium in a country that is a fellow member in the European Union and NATO.
He considers bilateral political relations quite good. “We had excellent cooperation within our trio EU Presidency (Spain, Belgium, Hungary) not only on political issues but also on environmental, fiscal or industrial policies, which also contributed to a better mutual understanding, sympathy and trust at all levels of administration.“
As for Belgian investors, the Ambassador says they can roughly be divided into two groups: those who came early, in the 1990s and those who came later. “Belgian companies come with different objectives: some want to sell products and/or services on the Hungarian market, others come as subcontractors of big international groups already in Hungary, while some SMEs find here well-trained workforce with lower labor costs to work for the European market more cost-effectively than in Belgium,” he adds.
Regarding the economic environment, Ambassador Indekeu’s experience is that Belgian investors are “currently less satisfied than before. They understand that extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures but they wish a clear fiscal and legal framework as well as to be dealt with in a transparent, predictable and consultative way. Hungary’s current stance with the international community and the fact that this recession is protracting while neighboring economies are in a better shape, could reflect negatively on its chances of attracting new foreign investors”.
He adds that “it is part of our job at the Embassy to convey the concerns of our companies to the government and present alternatives, solutions that we have tried out in Belgium. We also went through a learning curve in reducing a huge budget deficit but we did it successfully while preserving the purchasing power of the population and the productivity rate of our companies. Since Hungary and Belgium are both very much export-oriented economies, we can point out from our experience what measures help preserve the competitiveness of companies on foreign markets.”
Belgian firms have invested far over EUR one billion in this country, being almost 2% of Foreign Direct Investment, thus ranking it among the top 10 foreign investors in Hungary. The biggest and most visible Belgian investor in Hungary is KBC that owns the K&H group active in banking, insurance and securities. One of the first foreign joint ventures in Hungary was Tungsram-Schréder, active in public lighting. Stella Artois beer was one of the first foreign brands on the Hungarian market.
The Belgian investors
The CFE construction company was involved in projects such as the Gresham Four Seasons or the ARENA Commercial Center; Atenor and CODIC are active in real estate development. Our main pharmaceutical companies are also present: GSK Biologicals, UCB, Jansen Pharmaceutica & Solvay. But one finds also Belgian SME’s having invested all over the country in industrial, agro and commercial ventures. Some companies are harder to classify as to nationality since in the case of GDF Suez or Louis Delhaize (CORA/Match/Profi), for instance, the original investment was Belgian. Also, a lot of international companies have their European headquarters in Belgium and made investments in Hungary.
The annual volume of two-way trade between Hungary and Belgium is about EUR 3 bn (with Belgian exports amounting to 2/3 and Hungarian exports to 1/3 of the total volume). The major commodities of trade are chemical & plastic products, machinery, transport material & textiles from Belgium and machinery, transport material from Hungary.
Hungary, Belgium and the EU
Regarding the European Commission’s warning to Hungary about the possible withholding of EU funds if the Hungarian government does not present a credible budget policy, Ambassador Indekeu is of the view that it is a complex issue as other countries are also under scrutiny for excessive deficit.
“Belgium has also been warned for a possible excessive deficit but we have been able to give assurances to the EU Commission and the international markets that we would tackle the situation as our proven track record shows. Hungary still has plenty of time to take measures to avert the sanctions. In a larger perspective, Belgium fully agrees with warranting the European institutions such as the EU Commission and the Court of Justice as the best possible guarantors of the economic criteria set in Maastricht but also of the political criteria endorsed in Copenhagen.”
As for cultural ties, Belgium is a federal country and certain matters like culture, education, environmental issues are totally governed by regional governments. There are cultural exchanges; dance and music groups from Belgium perform regularly in Budapest and other cities. Recently, the rock group Deus performed on the A38 boat before coming back this summer to the Sziget festival and in the framework of the Francophonie Festival in March, a theater group and music band tour Hungary. Also, “our regional governments are financing professors of Dutch and French language at Hungarian universities and bilingual schools,” the Ambassador adds.
Hungarians, Belgians, Budapest
“While in 1991 Budapest was – despite its longstanding historical ties going back to the Walloon immigrants that started the first vineyards in these areas – relatively unknown in Belgium, now it is like any other European city, a favorite destination for Belgians, especially in the summer when the weather is good,” he remarks. About 750 Belgians in Hungary are registered with the Embassy but “we know of many more people” who just do not feel the urgency to register with the Embassy as they feel safe and comfortable in this EU country.
“Unfortunately, I had until now less opportunity to travel in Hungary than I would have liked to. I’ve been to places like Visegrád, Szentendre, Szeged, Székesfehérvár, Miskolc and the Balaton area. So far, most of my travels have been on a professional basis, visiting Belgian companies, local and regional authorities,” Ambassador Indekeu says, adding that he is waiting for the holidays of his children (aged 11, 13 and 15) and better weather to go and explore other parts of the country, as well. That will also give him opportunity to taste Hungarian wines and his favorite Hungarian dish, töltött káposzta (stuffed cabbage).