Belgium as a nation is a microcosm of what the European project requires: accepting ambiguity and constantly working toward compromise, said the country’s consul general in Atlanta.
Composed of the Dutch-speaking Flanders region, the French-speaking southern Wallonia region and a national government based in Brussels, the country has been dealing with the tradeoffs of federalism and linguistic diversity since its founding in 1830.
“Belgium is kind of a mini-Europe. For everything we want to do in Belgium we have to find a compromise. Nothing can be done without a discussion — nothing,” Consul General William De Baets told Global Atlanta. “It’s burdensome, it’s expensive because our state structure became quite heavy because of that, but at the end the Belgian solution can quite often be exported.”
Mr. De Baets joined Global Atlanta for a Consular Conversation on Jan. 20, the day Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th American president. The wide-ranging discussion focused on themes in Belgian-U.S. relations but keyed in on challenges for the trans-Atlantic ties in the age of Mr. Trump.
It wasn’t by intention that the headquarters of the EU landed in Brussels, Mr. De Baets said. It happened, perhaps fittingly, because a lack of consensus made it the alphabetical default.
And Belgium itself isn’t a perfect model of governance. Mr. De Baets corrected Global Atlanta during the interview, pointing out that the country went 543 days without a consensus government in 2010-11, shattering a previous record set by Iraq.
But that mini-crisis showed that its institutions are strong, and the nation of 10 million people remains in a unique position to push for European unity at a time of turbulence. Crises of migration, financial integration and terrorism in recent years have wracked the bloc, which proponents say has helped lead to peace on a continent previously torn apart by war.
“My government believes that every crisis is an opportunity to strengthen the European Union.”
“We really favor a stronger European Union. My government believes that every crisis is an opportunity to strengthen the European Union,” said Mr. De Baets, whose father remembered as a boy dealing with one of defining conflicts of the continent: World War II.
Now, the outside forces threatening the EU’s unity are being exacerbated by political disunity within its member states.
“For me, what is even more worrisome is that there is also a split inside countries,” Mr. De Baets said. “Populism on the rise, then normal pragmatism trying to keep up against populism. That double split goes regionally inside the European Union and in European member states; that’s probably a very fragile situation.”
Last June’s Brexit vote was the prime showcase, but subsequent elections will be a bigger test of whether European unity can withstand an onslaught of criticism from right-wing nationalists who believe it has outlived its relevance. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands failed to win enough seats this week to make him prime minister, but he did pick up five seats in parliament campaigning on an anti-EU, anti-Islam message. French and German elections will take place later this year.
All the more reason for the consulate, and the consul general, to remind the world of the costs of conflict and the need to work together.
Mr. DeBaets is joining other European diplomats in Atlanta to promote the centennial of World War I with an exhibition at the Atlanta History Center to be showcased at an upcoming April 2 reception. A few months before, he had reviewed the book “Harvest of War” for Global Atlanta, which showed that the memory of the so-called Great War still resonates today.
At the time of this interview in January, Mr. Trump had not yet moderated his view on the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, or NATO, as a possibly outdated institution or his stance that European allies needed to “pay their fair share” of their own defenses — a reference to the agreement that members spend 2 percent of their budgets on defense.
Without directly referencing the president, Mr. De Baets said the alliance could be strengthened but underscored its relevance, as well as its reliance on U.S. partnership as it faces challenges within Europe (Russian incursions into Ukraine) and works further afield in places like North Africa and the Middle East to address terrorism.
“I must say that it’s impressive that 28 member states [of NATO] can work together so easily using the same procedures, using compatible materials, now growing as an international force either on their soil or overseas. It is a powerful instrument,” he said.
Mr. De Baets is in a unique position to say so. Before joining the foreign service, he spent nine years as a navy officer. Then after joining the foreign service he held postings in the Ivory Coast, just before the civil war broke out, in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas and back in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital which also serves as the secretariat of the African Union. Later, he became director of the B-FAST crisis center in Brussels before coming to the U.S. He arrived in Atlanta last April after nearly four years in the embassy as a political counselor.
Tracing his career backward, Mr. De Baets said becoming a diplomat stemmed from wanting to counteract the sources of the conflicts the military must reactively stamp out. His job here in Atlanta includes consular affairs— issuing visas and addressing the needs of Belgians — but also public diplomacy, getting the country’s messages out in hopes of fostering understanding.
Perhaps the best ambassadors for Belgium, he said, have been the cultural works that have literally illustrated the country’s unique ability to straddle various perspectives.
Artistic movements like surrealism, best-known in the works of painter Rene Magritte, in part stemmed from the inherent contradictions of a land overrun by outsiders before independence in 1830, he said.
“(Belgian territories) always have really been ruled by foreign powers, which means that we really couldn’t speak up too much, because otherwise our heads would be chopped off,” he said. “We have that tradition of saying yes and thinking no, or saying yes and just doing what we want to do. At the same time we couldn’t take ourselves too seriously.”
That led to Belgian humor, illustrated by a vast catalogue of jokes and comic books including perhaps the most famous, Tintin, an adventurous young journalist who traveled seriously — beating Neil Armstrong to the moon, for instance, with his own landing in a 1954 issue.
After celebrating two key bicentennials in 2012 — the Treaty of Ghent and the invention of the saxophone by Adolph Sax — Belgium is looking forward to participating in centennial celebrations around World War I this year and next year, the 60th anniversary of the creation of the Smurfs, the little blue creatures that have been a cartoon and now movie sensation in the U.S.
In just a few days on March 25, there’s also the relaunch of a connection that will undergird already strong business and educational ties between Georgia and Belgium: Delta Air Lines Inc.’s nonstop flight from Atlanta to Brussels.
The flight was suspended last March after coordinated terrorist attacks rocked a subway station and the airport in Brussels, killing some three dozen people including some Delta customers.
The attacks spurred action in Belgium, which has been criticized for allowing extremism to fester in Muslim neighborhoods like the Molenbeek area that housed ISIS terrorist cells planning the attacks.
Mr. De Baets said the country is adapting its laws, enhancing its intelligence-gathering operations and even working to counteract extremist messages online, but ultimately, the age-old dilemma is dealing with the threat without sacrificing democratic values.
True to his personal form and diplomatic mandate, the consul general advocated the crisis as an opportunity for Europe to collaborate.
“What we also don’t have in Europe is a kind of CIA. There is no European intelligence agency. What happens now between the intelligence agencies is based on goodwill and exchanges of information between national governments. We would like to have it more centralized,” he said.
“It is a real problem, and we have to tackle it all together.”