The recognition of Anton F. Mertens, the Atlanta-based immigration of partner of the law firm Burr & Forman LLP, with his award of the prestigious Officer’s Cross of the Order of Leopold signed by King Philippe, King of the Belgians, is the latest recognition of particularly close ties between Belgium and Georgia.
Georgia economic developers realized long ago that one of the best inducements to attract investments from overseas is to have nonstop flights from Atlanta to other cities around the world.
As the first international carrier to come to Atlanta, Sabena Belgian World Airlines’ arrival in 1978 bore out the truth of this assertion. So many Belgian companies came to Georgia that at the time of the 1996 Summer Olympics, Belgian visitors joked that the state had become an additional province of their country.
The success of the annual “Taste of Belgium” soiree that drew world-renowned chefs became a highlight of Atlanta’s international social events and a Belgium American Chamber of Commerce flourished.
Once Sabena went out of business in 1991, however, the chamber’s activities declined and the famous “Taste of Belgium” events disappeared.
Then Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young kept the flame alive by signing in 1983 a Sister City agreement with the European capital, but Belgium’s profile faded. Even the state of Georgia eventually moved its European headquarters from Brussels to Munich, Germany.
Nevertheless memories of the vibrant relationship remained, and Delta Air Lines Inc.’s assumption of Sabena’s flights remained an important link. Mr. Mertens along with a group of others who wished to reinvigorate the relationship decided to activate a new chamber, the Belgian-American Chamber of the South.
These efforts were encouraged by Pierre Everaert, former chairman of the board of InBev, the world’s largest brewer, and Olivier Snekens, a vice president of the Belgian KBC bank’s U.S. corporate banking operations, who were active in a Belgian-American chamber in New York.
Meanwhile, a new U.S. position was created for Mr. Mertens by Didier Reynders, the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, as the Georgia adviser for economic diplomacy with the responsibility of encouraging foreign investment from Belgium into the Southeast.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Mertens returned to Brussels in July 2016, to meet with Brussels Foreign Affairs Officer Ruth Briz to reinvigorate the Atlanta Brussels Sister City relationship, which he now leads.
Mr. Mertens’ more than 20 years of service to Belgium were recognized at a reception that took place at Burr-Forman’s Atlanta office in Atlantic Station the evening of March 23 by Pieter de Crem, secretary of state for foreign trade of Belgium and the county’s former deputy prime minister and minister of defense.
Many well-wishers attended the ceremony including William De Baets, the Belgium consul general, Delta Airlines’ executive vice president and chief financial officer, Paul Jacobson, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Mr. de Crem was in Atlanta to celebrate the resumption of the nonstop flight between Atlanta and Brussels, which had been discontinued after the terrorist attacks in 2016. During a luncheon at the Metro Atlanta Chamber earlier in the day he promised to return in the near future with a trade delegation.