Since her arrival last year as Belgium’s consul general to the Southeast, Geneviève Verbeek has been traveling to learn more about the region’s commercial, cultural and educational relations with Belgium.
Meanwhile, she also has been laying the groundwork for several educational and cultural events that are to take place this year and next in Georgia.
These include TomorrowWorld, a disc jockey and dance festival, which is based on the highly successful event of the same name held annually in Belgium, and Africa Atlanta 2014, which recently had its formal opening at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Mrs. Verbeek joined the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1975 after working for a cargo handling company in South Africa and at the Cessna Aircraft European distribution center at Brussels airport.
She has been posted as consul to Vancouver, Canada; Nairobi, Kenya and Rabat, Morocco, and as deputy chief of mission in Sydney, Australia; Ottawa; Barcelona, Spain; New York and Athens, Greece.
The following is an interview conducted by Margaret Sherman and Freda Peeks on behalf of Global Atlanta.
Margaret Sherman: Welcome to Atlanta, Mrs. Verbeek. How are you settling into the city and your new position?
Consul General Verbeek: Thank you for welcoming me. I actually love Atlanta. This is not my first experience in the United States as I was posted in New York for four years but I had never been to any of the Southern states and I am really looking forward to visiting them.
I find people here extremely friendly. Our office covers ten states so there is plenty of room for travel and discovering. I believe the region is growing at a very fast pace and it’s very interesting for investors and entrepreneurs to come and see what is happening in the South.
The contacts with universities are also promising. I am really 100 percent into this posting and I think it is going to be absolutely wonderful.
Prof. Sherman: The Southeast is certainly growing, and Atlanta is becoming the gateway for the Southeast to gain access to international markets. How do you intend to promote business opportunities between Belgium, Atlanta, and the Southeast as a whole?
Mrs. Verbeek: Before we jump into that, I would like to give you a global picture of our relation with the United States.
Belgian investment in the U.S. estimated by the U.S Commerce Department was $53.1 billion in 2011. That is four times the investment in 2007 so this is an important growth.
Belgium is the 10th largest investor in the U.S. and Belgian companies rank 10th in number of U.S. workers employed, supporting 150,000 jobs here.
As you know, we are in all kinds of sectors, mostly retail, chemical, life science, and transportation.
The U.S. direct investment into Belgium is $52.8 billion, which makes Belgium, a small country, the 15th largest destination for U.S. investments. It is interesting to know that the investment of Belgium into the U.S. is bigger than that of China and India combined. It is quite impressive for this tiny country with a little over 10 million.
Coming back to your question, we have quite an extensive network of trade and investment officers throughout the U.S.
We have also a network of economic diplomacy advisors, usually Belgian CEOs of companies here, and we can seek their advice.
To be in Georgia is wonderful because we can also work with the local chambers. They are impressively active.
Georgia has an agricultural base and this is interesting for us. The U.S. and the EU very recently signed a partnership agreement to harmonize the rules in matters of bio-agricultural products and we believe this will positively affect our trade.
For the EU, it represents $26.7 billion in trade and for the U.S. $26 billion.
What is of interest for us as well is energy. Belgian companies have a lot of know-how in this field: development of technologies in off-shore oil and gas exploration, as well as development of technologies for energy efficiency, such as electric vehicles, renewable energy, wind and solar power.
What else do we do to promote Belgium? We like to host cultural events. The Africa-Atlanta 2014 event will certainly be a showcase for us.
We are going to bring exhibits from Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa and we have contacted some traditional African musicians in Belgium.
This year-long event is made possible thanks to the Carter Center and to Jacqueline Royster, dean of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts of Georgia Tech.
Georgia State and Emory universities are involved too, as are over a hundred partners to make this event a great success for this city and for Belgium.
Mayor Reed is kind enough to give his support to this event as well. The anchor exhibition “Kongo Across the Waters” will actually be first shown in Gainesville, Fla., in November this year, then will come to Atlanta in the spring of 2014, before traveling to Princeton, N.J., and New Orleans.
There is going to be another wonderful event coming from Belgium this fall called TomorrowWorld. The Belgian Tomorrowland is the biggest disc jockey and dance festival in the world, being held in Boom near Antwerp every year. About 200.000 are expected this year to attend the three days of music and dance.
Two Belgian brothers started it in 2005. They wanted to bring the concept to other countries and scouted all over the world to find a suitable place.
They decided on Atlanta and I believe they made a great choice. They were very impressed by the immediate enthusiasm and response by state and city officials. So look forward to TomorrowWorld at the end of September. I know I do!
Freda Peeks: I read that the tax system is among the 10 top reasons to invest in Belgium. How attractive is the tax regime to people who want to do business in Belgium?
Mrs. Verbeek: Why do American companies invest in Belgium?
First and foremost I think they invest for the location. We are at the center of Europe and we have the most open global economy in the world.
We are number one in the world for logistics and transportation. As a small example, we even use an extensive canal system linking us to neighboring countries.
Foreign trade is really our core business. Export and import for us represent more than 70 percent of our GDP.
We are the eighth largest exporter of goods worldwide and the thirteenth largest exporter of services worldwide. We are the second international meeting and conference center after Washington, and we are going to try to do better than Washington.
Another good reason to invest in Belgium is our workforce. Our workforce is the third most productive in the world. Workers and employees are very well educated; they have tremendous knowledge of languages; they are very flexible, and know how to negotiate and mediate.
Then there is the quality of life in Belgium, which really is excellent. For families you can school your children in many different languages.
For a U.S corporation wanting to start a business in Belgium, there are absolutely no barriers from the government. Anybody can bring in any company.
You don’t need any authorization, except I believe for broadcasting and banking because these are highly regulated.
Belgium has entered into more than 90 tax treaties. Belgium tax legislators offer businesses advance rulings on tax decisions free of charge.
We offer a lot of tax incentives and credits to companies doing business in Belgium, especially in research and development.
What also is very interesting is a tax deduction on patent income, which means that all the royalties coming from your patent are not taxable. All of this brings a lot of innovation to Belgium, of course. It’s something that works very well.
Ms. Peeks: According to the International Monetary Fund, the Belgian government should aim to decrease the annual deficit to around 2.0 percent in 2014, so as to help put the debt burden “on a downward path”. Do you see this happening in 2014?
Mrs. Verbeek: I don’t know but we sure hope so. Our financial sector is very stable. The risk factor for investors is negligible.
Our economy is mostly tied to the German economy, which is very stable as well. You can see that very clearly in our trade statistics. Our exports are mostly with Germany.
With imports, Germany is number two, after the Netherlands. We are going to reach 0.3 percent growth in 2013 and 1.2 percent in 2014 so we are above the European average. Inflation decelerated to 1.5 percent in 2013.
We follow the IMF’s recommendations and the government is making efforts to reduce the tax burden on labor and to encourage and support R&D.
Tax increases have been kept to a minimum. We are certainly not the “bad student” within Europe and our debt is only going to grow very slightly.
I think also Belgium is very stable because Belgians are strong savers. They put money in their savings accounts. People are industrious in Belgium. There is no doubt about it.
Prof. Sherman: You mention the savings in bank accounts. What do you think the impact will be from the fact that the IMF and European Central Bank have asked people with accounts in Cyprus banks to bail-in, to take a significant loss on those accounts, as part of the bailout package for Cyprus? What kind of message do you think this might send?
Mrs. Verbeek: Nobody really knows what is going to happen. It’s certainly not pleasant and I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone.
It is very doubtful that this would happen in Belgium. Because of the high savings rate, I think it is a very different story in some other countries. There is no decline in investor confidence in Belgium at all. To the contrary.
Ms. Peeks: The Solvay solar plane, the world’s first solar plane, has started its maiden voyage across the United States. Can you tell us a little about the plane and whether it will be stopping in Atlanta?
Mrs. Verbeek: Yes, it is actually a Swiss project that is largely financed by Solvay, which is a Belgian company making polymers. From what I understand, they plan to start from San Francisco and go to Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Washington, and I think then end at JFK.
We are very excited about this plan and hope it will land in Atlanta. The wingspan of the Solar Impulse is like that of a Boeing 747 or Airbus 380, which is over 200 feet. I find this very impressive and I love a dream becoming reality.
Margaret Sherman is an associate professor of legal studies in the Risk Management and Insurance Department at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. She has over 13 years domestic and international experience as a corporate attorney, representing primarily technology companies. She served as vice president, associate general counsel and assistant secretary for Medaphis Corp. and was an associate at Powell, Goldstein, Frazier and Murphy.
Freda Peeks is an international student from Ghana. She is a business and French student at Georgia State University.