Speech by Minister Reynders on the priorities of the Belgian diplomacy

Dear members of the diplomatic corps,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am delighted to receive you here in this historic palace at the start of this New Year. The corps of bilateral Ambassadors is the one established in this city for the longest time. I want to assure you that the Belgian authorities, including myself and my colleagues of the new Belgian Cabinet, truly appreciate your presence here. I am confident we can add another year of fruitful cooperation to our record and I look forward to exchange ideas with you on this later on. Let me first highlight some key elements of our foreign policy.

After what happened in France last week it seems appropriate to start with our common fight against extremism and terrorism. The barbaric acts that took place in Paris, the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels last year and the attacks, kidnappings and murders in many other places around the world remind us that we are vulnerable and that we should unite to fight such senseless bloodshed. It is incredible to see how many people took to the street in cities and villages all over the world. This huge move of solidarity, this call for freedom and the right to express need to be answered properly.

Most importantly we need to protect our citizens and ensure their security. In order to do so we need to work more closely together, share information and intelligence. Our security forces, our police and our magistrates must work together on a bilateral level and a multilateral level. We should do so in a structural way and over the years. At the EU-level, the events in Paris should have the effect of accelerating the implementation of a number of measures and projects, most of them already standing on the agenda of the Council: adoption of the Directive PNR (Passenger Name Records) which is blocked in the European Parliament, the strengthening of the Schengen Information System, improving the control of external borders of the European Union (including with regard to EU nationals), improving the exchange of information about Foreign Fighters among others through EUROPOL lists, cooperation with major Internet operators to prevent its use for the purpose of hatred and violence, development of a communication strategy and "counter-discourse" and the establishment of a dialogue platform.

This seems an impressive list, but there is more to do. I am convinced there is also a need to look at the way we teach, the type of education we give and start up a process of transformation. This might take a generation or more but we must try and enhance the cohesion of our societies. We must protect our values like religious and racial tolerance. And we must create an environment that offers every citizen the opportunity to participate in social and economic endeavors.

I would like to stress that this is in no way a conflict of civilizations or a war against Islam. It is a struggle against barbary, against hate, against intolerance, against the perversion of religion for political reasons. We need to engage a sincere, respectful and deep dialogue with the muslim world in order to:

first, avoid any misunderstanding about this;
second, develop together a common narrative that counters radicalization.

I really believe that we have to work together towards that objective.

We count, amongst others, on our bilateral ambassadors to pass this message on.

As far as the EU is concerned 2015 should be a turning point for the reinforcement of the European project on a social, economic, security levels. The bottom line is that we want to restore confidence in the European project. EU will not have another chance, our top priority is to get Europe growing again and increase the number of jobs (accent on young generation): hope that the  investment package and the European Fund for strategic investment presented this week by Commission will have a significant impact towards this objective. Keep in mind that crisis is not behind us, we need a common analysis on the roots of the Eurozone crisis in order to identify a long-term solution.

The situation in Ukraine reminds us of the fragility of the existence of fundamental values such as protection of the Human Rights, the Rule of Law, the freedom of expression and opinion, the territorial integrity… and the need to reaffirm our strong commitment to protect them. It is of utmost importance to start a new dialogue in Ukraïne, to decentralize the State and to support structural reforms. We want Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. We will keep insisting on this essential principle. On the other hand, Russia remains an important partner and we think it is important to keep the dialogue open. In the longer run we should review the relationship between the EU and Russia independently from the present sanctions and visit together questions like human rights, trade relations, energy cooperation, and so on. In this respect, a coordination between the different European institutions (OSCE, EU, Council of Europe) is very needed. We need to speak with one (firm) voice if we want to succeed.

As Belgium chairs the council of minister of the council of Europe until May, we are in a privileged position in contributing to do so. We took several initiatives in order to reinforce the cooperation between the various institutions in Europe. We will also host in two months a High level Conference on the shared responsibilities of the Court and the Member States for the implementation of the European Convention on human rights, an essential instrument to ensure that the principles we defend are implemented throughout the 47 countries of the Council. At a time of crisis and tension in Europe, this chairmanship has also given me the opportunity to go to Ukraine and Russia and have very fruitful discussions with the authorities and the civil societies of both countries.

At the global level, the UN remains the best vehicle for our common action. This year it will need to show its ambition as we will define the way forward after the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) in a broader and more universal instrument after 2015. We will also need to act together to address the huge challenge of climate change and reach our ambitious target of 2°C. But the UN and the international community have a lot of other challenges to address, notably in the Middle East.

In the last years, the Middle East has been transformed in a way that nobody could have imagined. Three remarks about these events that have been analysed in various ways can be made. First, deep transformation takes time and requires commitment and involvement of all parts of society. A country needs a new vision which takes into account the specificities and challenges it faces. It can take years, or even decades. Second, there is no contradiction between democracy and stability. Authoritarian regimes have often argued that they were the only protection against sectarian violence and extremism. I believe it is the lack of response to citizens’ legitimate request that gives the proper ground for extremism to grow. Third, addressing the deep-rooted causes of dissatisfaction – from corruption or governance to inequalities – is the safest way for stability on the long run, even though not always the easiest on the short run. It leads to prosperity and stability. Countries of the region have followed very different paths and the process of transformation is not yet finished. I will only mention as an example Tunisia that has recently accomplished a new step on its path after an inclusive process, taking on board all elements of its political spectrum, with a very active role of the civil society. Many challenges remain but the process has been very encouraging. In Syria and Iraq on the other side, the lack of inclusivity of the policies has caused division and extremist groups have used the disorder to expand and reinforce themselves. A broad coalition – including around 60 countries – was established to fight ISIL. It underlines the international community’s commitment to stand up against barbarism of this sort. As you know, Belgium has engaged itself very actively on various levels, including militarily.  The military intervention was necessary but addressing the underlying causes of dissatisfaction is the only way forward for the long term stability of the region.

Belgium has reaffirmed several times that it is in favour of a two-state solution for Palestina and Israel. However, one has to examine the right moment and the right conditions to recognize the Palestinian State. I am pleading for a new EU –initiatives aiming to revive the peace process and to improve conditions on the ground. The EU must play a more active role here and I am supporting the new High Representative’s leadership on this issue. In that respect, I am convinced that a EU Special Envoy would be useful.

Africa remains of major interest for Belgium. Against the backdrop of a slow but steady economic take off, we have recently also witnessed dramatic events

On the one hand, we should cooperate with the EU and the International community in dealing  with crises that affect European security, such as the destabilization of the Sahel, and of the horn of Africa.  We should support those countries that bravely fight radicalization and terrorism and strive to protect the rule of Law, and encourage Africa to organize itself to ensure its own protection. Above all, we should keep our heads cool and avoid considering the recent events as a sign of a global civilizational fight. On the contrary, each national situation bears testimony of local conflicts of different nature that we can help addressing through cooperation.

One the other hand, we should also recognize that Africa, a youthful and rich continent, lies at the heart of Europe’s economic future well-being.  We should trade more with Africa, and encourage the continent to integrate world trade flows and ameliorate its business environment; we should raise interest for Africa in Belgian business circles, and encourage Belgian investment abroad.

We will continue monitoring closely developments in central Africa, a region that is also the focus of our development policy. Last week I was in Rwanda and Burundi and I will travel to DRC next month, together with my colleague Alexander De Croo, Minister for Development Cooperation. I believe that the Framework Agreement of Addis Abeba provides for a unique opportunity for peace in the Great Lakes region. Thanks to the support of all the countries of the region, important progress has already been achieved. But it is essential to keep the momentum and to tackle the remaining challenges. A few days ago, I met with the Special Envoy Said Djinnit and we shared the same analysis: it is now time for resolute action against the FDLR rebels in DRC. As the deadline for voluntary disarmament has passed, there is no other option than forced disarmament. Of course, all other negative forces will also have to be neutralized. And the Congolese government will have to restore authority, law and order on the territories that were previously controlled by armed groups.

Several important elections will take place in the region in the coming years. We hope these elections will show that the region is further progressing on the road of stabilization and democracy. We will try to assist the best we can. It is of paramount importance that these elections respect constitutional principles and democratic values.

The Ebola crisis that has hit several African countries has been a daunting challenge. Belgium is participating to the international efforts and I’m glad to report that the mobile lab we have deployed in Guinea is experiencing very positive results with treatments. The situation seems to be improving, but the International Community needs to remain engaged.

Belgium is committed to keeps the North Atlantic Alliance strong in a time of increased uncertainties and challenges (to the Eastern and Southern flanks alike). While we are facing tough budgetary restrictions at home, our ambition is to keep our contribution to the collective security in Europe and beyond at the highest possible level.

In the framework of the NATO Readiness Action Plan (RAP), our operational planning for this year foresees a deployment of 4 F-16 jets and 55 ground support personnel to Poland during two periods of four months in the framework of (Enhanced) Baltic Air Policing 2015. Our pilots will perform regular missions of of the airspace of the Baltic States. It is a very important reassurance to our partners in the area.

The participation of a tactical group of about 250 of our soldiers is foreseen in a month-long training exercise in Lithuania. Besides, Belgium will dispatch one of its vessels to participate in a large NATO mine sweeping exercise as well as contribute to the ‘Active Endeavour’ Mission with crewmembers specialized in Airborne Early Warning systems.

Last week Friday, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and myself we received for lunch the Secretary General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. The Secretary General praised Belgium for its continued commitment to the missions of the Alliance and its role as host nation for both the civilian and military headquarters of NATO. These encouraging comments were reaffirmed by the Secretary General in a letter we just received two days ago.

Until the end of 2014, Belgium has been among the 51 nations participating to the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission in Afghanistan. We are proud to have contributed to this important mission since the beginning: as early as 2002, Belgian planes provided airlift support to the coalition against the Taliban regime and Al Qaida. Later Belgian military personnel provided the security detail of the International Airport in the capital Kabul, then of the Airport of Kandahar. And during six years, Belgium provided a permanent detachment of six F-16 fighter jets able to accomplish combat missions over Afghanistan, in the framework of operation « Guardian Falcon. »

In 2015, Belgium will continue to be involved in Afghanistan, actively supporting the new Resolute Support Mission (RSM) by providing 70 military personnel. 56 of those will be deployed in the ‘Train, Advise and Assist Command North’ in Masar-El-Sharif, within the German contingent. The remaining troops will be active in Kabul providing security, intelligence and headquarter staffing.

Belgium remains firmly engaged in the anti-IS/DA’ESH international Coalition with a continued contribution of 6 F-16 fighter jets and their supporting ground personnel up to mid-2015 in Iraq. Since the beginning of their deployment, nearly four month ago, the Belgian pilots of Operation “Desert Falcon” have flown more than 300 sorties, attracting praise from their colleagues of the coalition, without suffering any casualty.

Furthermore, about 50 members of the Belgian Special Forces shall be deployed in the framework of the ‘advise and assist’ mission to help rebuilding Defense and Security capacities in Iraq. The specific tasks and duration of this engagement will be further defined in the coming weeks, according to the concrete needs of the Iraqi and Coalition authorities.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Economic diplomacy remains another core element of our diplomacy. Our economies cannot grow and thrive in isolation. We need to open up our borders, eliminate obstacles to trade and create the right conditions for our companies to trade with each other and invest in each other’s economies. An important instrument at the bilateral level is the organization of economic missions presided over by HRH Princess Astrid as representative of HM the King. I have been directing last year missions to Colombia and Peru as well as Malaysia and Singapore. Destinations for this year are Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (21-26 March) as well as the West Coast of Canada (in November). These missions are extremely appreciated by business circles.

We also envisage a reinforcement of the economic cooperation with our direct neighbours; Belgium will preside the Benelux this year and we have picked three important themes as priority: energy, mobility and security. Benelux cooperation has always been a forerunner of EU cooperation and till today it brings tangible results for our companies and citizens.

The negotiations on International trade treaties are for the time being directly influenced by the stalled multilateral negotiations in the framework of the World Trade Organisation. Priority has been given again to initiatives like the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade Partnership). We have been supportive of a new mandate for the European Commission in order to conclude these negotiations and we have asked to report on the outcome of the different rounds. Belgium wants the EU to maintain high standards regarding social and environmental issues and is also in favour of maintaining the cultural exception. We also support the conclusion of Free Trade Agreement between the EU and Asean and Asean member states. Some of these negotiations are in a crucial stage or have already been finalized and the ratification procedure are on their way.

Before I conclude, let me say a word on the means of our foreign policy. My budget just like that of many of my colleagues is subject to strict budgetary constraints. We are constantly obliged to review our diplomatic network in function of the means available and the existing needs. We announced the closure of a number of bilateral embassies and consulates. It was not an easy decision to take, believe me. I am confident these closures will not affect in any way the excellent relations we have with the countries concerned. I hope I can count on your understanding and cooperation in this regard.

Finally, please be assured that my services, including our geographic desks and the Protocol service are there to help you fulfill your mission and offer you a comfortable stay in Brussels. There might be some pending issues for some of you. However, we’ll try hard to find a satisfying solution.

Thank you for attention. I will now take some questions, the floor is yours.