Editor’s note: Missed this event? Watch the recording below or attend the World Affairs Council of Atlanta’s upcoming webinar with the same interviewees tomorrow: A Virtual Roadtrip Farewell to the Consuls General of Ireland and Belgium
The soon-to-be-departing consuls general of Belgium and Ireland have spent the last four years getting to know the Southeast U.S., and they’re going away pleasantly surprised.
On the list of advantages: unexpected diversity in people and cuisine, dynamic business environments, receptive governments and professional interactions that easily translate into personal friendships.
The only problem is that few of their compatriots know the charms of the region.
“You have the same kind of challenge as we have in Belgium,” said William De Baets, who has represented the country here since 2016. “We are not Germany, we are not the United Kingdom, we are not France. These are the names that pop up when you talk about Western Europe. In the U.S., people think about New York, California, Texas and at best the Southeast will come in fourth place.”
Mr. De Baets suggested the states in the region come up with an alliance of states — perhaps similar to the regional groups that engage with Canada and Japan — that deepens the knowledge of European investors who already lead the pack in job creation. More than 190,000 Georgians owe their employment to trade or investment with the European Union, with similar numbers in other states throughout the region.
At the core, generating investment is about building relationship, Mr. De Baets said, noting that Georgia is the No. 1 state for Belgian subsidiaries, with recent expansions by drug manufacturer UCB and digital imaging tech provider Barco in Georgia and biotech firms within the Research Triangle area of North Carolina.
“It’s not that easy of course, but I think you have to talk with people. At the end, business is like diplomacy,” Mr. De Baets said, noting that he stands ready to assist when he returns to Brussels for his next assignment.
Shane Stephens of Ireland agreed, noting the impact of watershed visits by former Gov. Nathan Deal and former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed to Ireland, which have been followed by further Irish investment in Georgia by companies like Kerry Group.
Irish people and Southerners get along well, but they have to be intentional about linking up, especially as COVID-19 pandemic has made travel temporarily impossible, said Mr. Stephens, the outgoing dean of the consular corps.
While in-person visits have been stalled, virtual trade missions have helped some communities present themselves in a new light to Irish partners, Mr. Stephens said. Atlanta, in particular, might benefit from that approach, given its understanding of how trade and investment ties must be mutually beneficial.
“The more you get to know your own companies and also foreign companies, and when you understand what they need, you really come to be in a position where you can be able to advance really useful business relationships,” he said.
During a Zoom-based conversation with Vanessa Ibarra, who leads the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs, both consuls general highlighted the importance of utilizing cultural, historical and educational connections to underpin international ties.
Mr. Stephens pointed to Georgia Southern University’s new campus in Wexford, which stemmed from an exploration of heritage ties between coastal Georgia and the Irish county. That has also led to a partnership with Savannah and resulting trade missions in both directions.
Mr. De Baets gave a history lesson, noting that Belgium launched its first Georgia consulate in Savannah in 1834, four years after becoming an independent nation, to begin expanding trade ties with the United States. Its first honorary consul came to Atlanta in 1860, upgrading its presence to a consulate general a full 110 years later in 1970. A Belgian airline, Sabena, operated the first international route out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 1978.
“If Atlanta is now the biggest and the busiest airport in the world, we opened the gate,” he said with a smile.
History has been a consistent theme for Mr. De Baets, who pointed out in a Global Atlanta Consular Conversation the iconic Augusta National Golf Club sits on land that was a former plant nursery known as Fruitland, run by a Belgian family that introduced new peach varietals to the state.
“Remember that if Georgia is the ‘Peach State,’ it is thanks to two Belgians,” he said at the time.
Asked about sister-city ties, he said that some are frankly a “dead letter” signed in the past but with little current vitality. The Atlanta relationship with Brussels, for instance, is with the municipality of Brussels (pop. 180,000) not the broader metropolitan area, which might be more fitting.
He pointed to the relationship between Kortrjik, Belgium, and Greenville, S.C., as a more exemplary tie-up, based as it is on complementary industries and personal connection, not just political leaders.
“It is very difficult to find a one-size-fits-all sister city relationship — what I have seen as very important is to have that backbone,” Mr. De Baets said.
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Racism and International Relations
Both diplomats lamented the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and events that have given rise to nationwide protests over police brutality, systemic racism and white supremacy in the U.S.
Mr. Stephens said Irish people and leaders have been “deeply saddened and shocked” at recent killings of black men by police in the U.S., and that Mr. Floyd’s death in particular was marked by official statements by the Irish prime minister, the opening of books of condolences in many cities, and intensified debate about racial inequality within Ireland.
Atlanta was in the news again in Ireland with the killing of Rayshard Brooks by police last Friday, which reverberated around the globe and in Irish newspapers.
“It demonstrates that striking solidarity and closeness that exist between the United States and Ireland in good times and in times of challenge,” Mr. Stephens said of this moment.
Mr. De Baets said Belgium is similarly wrestling in a new way with its legacy of colonialism as well as present discrimination within the country. Statues of King Leopold II, who operated a commercial domain that brutalized the local population in the Congo, are being removed and defaced around Belgium by activists, similar to the reckoning many Confederate symbols are facing in the South today.
“Unfortunately you can’t undo history, that is impossible. What we all can do — and Belgium wants to be bridge builder as well on this at the global level — is aim at a better world. A world with more justice” and with a newfound sense of tolerance and respect, he said.
Both diplomats pointed to the importance of the increasing collaboration between European Union consulates here to continue making clear the importance of the bloc economically and as a partner in promoting human and civil rights, a rules-based trade order, scientific research and international development on the global stage.
‘I’d like to see us continue to get the word out more dynamically about what the EU collectively offers the United States,” Mr. Stephens said.
Mr. De Baets did not name his successor, but said he didn’t envy coming into a position during a pandemic that will make establishing personal contacts especially challenging.
Mr. Stephens, who did not say where his next posting will be, nonetheless announced he will be replaced by “someone much better”: Ciara O’Floinn, who will become the first female consul general for Ireland in the Southeast.