By ARSLAN ABBASOV
AZERI OBSERVER EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
IN AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE AZERI OBSERVER, THE AMBASSADOR OF BELGIUM TO AZERBAIJAN, BERT SCHOOFS, SPEAKS ON THE MAIN GOALS OF HIS COUNTRY AS A NON-PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL, THE NEW AZERBAIJAN-EU COMPREHENSIVE PLAN, BILATERAL CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC TIES, AND THE MOST INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT BELGIUM.
Question: For the 2019-2020 period Belgium has been elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. What are Belgium’s aims and goals within the mandate?
Answer: On 8 June 2018 Belgium was elected by the UN General Assembly with 181 votes out of the 193 UN Members. Many thanks to Azerbaijan who supported our candidature and who believes in the role Belgium can play in the UN Security Council. We see this mandate as a renewed expression of our commitment to multilateralism. “Fostering consensus, Acting for peace,” was the central theme of our campaign, and will remain the main guideline of our policy. It is in this spirit that we will work in the Security Council for the next two years.
How will we do this? In line with the UN Charter, my country will, above all, strive to defend global interests. Belgium doesn’t have its own outlined program but will fit into the collective work of the Council, as a constructive, trustworthy, and transparent partner. We will also put themes on the agendas that we consider significant: (1) prevention of conflicts and mediation; (2) protection of civilians; women, peace, and security; children in armed conflict; youth, peace, and security; (3) fight against violent extremism and terrorism; (4) respect for international law and fight against impunity; (5) nuclear non-proliferation and prohibition of chemical weapons; (6) impact of climate change on peace and security.
Q.: Led by Belgium to promote its candidacy for the UN Security Council’s non-permanent member, the campaign was focused on a comprehensive approach to conflict resolution. How can this program help to resolve the protracted Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?
A.: First of all, I would like to reiterate the clear position of my country on the conflict: Belgium demands respect for international law. There are UN Resolutions clearly expressing “respect and support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Azerbaijan within its internationally recognized borders.” Moreover, Belgium is convinced that there is no military solution to the conflict. Decisions can only be taken through dialogue. Therefore, Belgium fully supports the OSCE Minsk Group and its efforts to get closer to an agreed solution. Finally, we draw attention to the problem of the many refugees and internationally displaced persons (IDPs) that Azerbaijan has been facing for over two decades. We tend to forget that the main victims in this type of conflict are citizens like you and me.
Conflicts can only be solved by the parties that are concerned. I believe this is true for the Armenian-Azerbaijani Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as well as the occupied territories in Georgia, where I am also accredited. International organizations can offer a framework for negotiations or play the role of facilitator. Therefore, Belgium will support any initiative that brings peace and tries to find solutions.
Q.: Azerbaijan and the EU are working on a new Comprehensive Agreement, which will replace the old one adopted in 1996. In your opinion, how will the new agreement influence on the relations between Azerbaijan and the EU member countries, in particular, Belgium which hosts the main EU institutions?
A.: The relations between Azerbaijan and the EU have evolved a lot since 1996, so a new Comprehensive Agreement is welcomed, also taking into account actual global realities and challenges. It is clear that in the past, Azerbaijan and the EU have been reliable partners to each other, for example in the successful cooperation on energy security. In the new agreement, Azerbaijan and the EU are trying to enlarge the scope and the intensity of the cooperation. One of the objectives should be the improvement of trade facilities and the business climate in general. The diversification of the economy should remain high on the agenda, so Belgian companies could be attracted to be more active in Azerbaijan.
ASAN Service Centers are a good example of how to reduce administrative burdens, for citizens and companies. In June 2018 Mrs. Anick Van Calster, Director General for Bilateral Affairs at the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in Baku and paid a visit to an ASAN Service Center.
Q.: How does the trade turnover between Azerbaijan and Belgium change year after year? What about the investment cooperation between our countries?
A.: Economic ties are good but can still improve. Official figures (Eurostat) show that the trade over in goods in 2017 was about € 50 million, mainly exports from Belgium to Azerbaijan. The most in Azerbaijan imported goods are machinery, chemicals, but also Belgian beer and chocolate. In reality, the export of Belgian products to Azerbaijan is much higher because some exports take place via Belgian companies based in Turkey and Russia. Indications for 2018 already show a clear increase of exports from Azerbaijan to Belgium.
Belgian companies are active in the oil and gas sector in Azerbaijan, mainly as subcontractors of the big players. You also find them in construction, logistics, port services, healthcare, agriculture, and solar energy.
Q.: Which spares of the Azerbaijani economy do you find the most attractive for Belgian companies?
A.: All of them. As I mentioned before, the main objective of the midterm should be the diversification of the economy of Azerbaijan. Therefore, it is important that the business climate becomes even more attractive. In that context, the meeting that I had in July 2018 with Mr. Mikayil Jabbarov, the new Minister of Taxes, was very fruitful.
Q.: Belgium has always supported the Southern Gas Corridor, which will deliver Azerbaijani gas to the EU in a couple of years. Does this project have the ability to be extended to gas-rich Turkmenistan after the landmark Caspian Sea deal, which was signed by five coastal nations in August 2018?
A.: The Southern Gas Corridor (SCG) is one of the priority projects for the EU and provides the transportation of 10 billion cubic meters of Azerbaijani gas from the Caspian region through Georgia and Turkey to Europe. With a share of 19% in the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) part of the project, the Belgian company Fluxys plays a vital role in realizing the SCG.
The Caspian Sea deal is a milestone in the relations between the coastal nations. Having been able to find a consensus after all those years, I would like to congratulate all parties, and foremost the Azerbaijani authorities that were involved in the negotiations. It is clear that this new legal framework offers opportunities on the mid and long-term, but it is up to all public and private actors in the energy sector to identify them.
Q.: Belgium has an extensive social security system. Could you give some details about this system? Do you think that Belgian experience in this sphere could be adapted for social reforms which Azerbaijan implements?
A.: It is true that Belgium – like other Western European countries – has an extensive social security system. The system was installed just after WWII and has evolved a lot since then. The basic principles remain the same: general and easy access to education, healthcare, and the pension system. The situation in Azerbaijan is different, but the same objectives could be envisaged: improvement of the general quality and access to social services. In the medical sector, Belgian companies are already active in Azerbaijan. We are always open to forms of cooperation, bilaterally or in the framework of programs of the European Union.
Q.: Could you tell our readers about the cultural exchange between Azerbaijan and Belgium and cultural events organized and planned by the Belgian Embassy in Baku?
A.: Even though the number of Azerbaijani people in Belgium and of Belgian people in Azerbaijan is limited, there is an intense people-to-people contact between citizens from both countries. Our embassy traditionally participates in cultural events, such as “the Weeks of the Francophonie,” “International Jazz Festival of Baku,” and the different European Film Festivals, that are highly attended.
Since November 2017 we have a Belgian Alumni Network in Baku, with more than 50 young Azerbaijani professionals that studied at one of the universities in my country. Please follow the Facebook page of the embassy (www.facebook.com/BelgiuminBaku/) where we announce all of our initiatives.
Q.: What similarities and differences do you see between our countries?
A.: There are more (geographical) similarities between both countries than you think. As Azerbaijan is on the crossroad between three ‘major players:’ Russia, Iran, and Turkey, Belgium is situated in between three important countries in Europe: Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. So, it is not a coincidence that the headquarters of the EU and NATO are in Brussels and that high-level meetings in this region take place in Azerbaijan. Baku has all the assets to become the meeting point in this part of the world.
Q.: What are three interesting facts you want foreigners to know about Belgium?
A.: First of all, Belgium is in the heart of Europe. People that travel to the ‘old continent’ visit countries like France, Germany, Italy, or Spain, but tend to forget ‘the little ones.’ Don’t forget: “Small is beautiful!” Secondly, Belgians like to take initiative. It is known as a country full of small and medium enterprises (SME’s), but it also scores very high on innovation. Do you know that nearly all our universities are listed among the most innovative universities in Europe? Finally, Belgians are very creative. There are dozens of cultural events, every day, and not only in Brussels: classical and modern music, dance, theater, and of course everything that is related to comics.
Q.: What has most impressed you about the culture and history of Azerbaijan? What makes this country unique from the other places you have worked?
A.: The uniqueness of Azerbaijan lies in the combination of different elements. Azerbaijan tries to find its identity as it’s situated on the crossroad between Europe, Asia, and the Middle-East and influenced by Turkish, Russian, and Persian cultures. For most Europeans, Azerbaijan is still unknown, but thanks to the organization of international events and tourism, the country has started to attract more and more visitors. Without any exception, they all like the place: there is the stunning beauty of Azerbaijan, and Baku in particular, but there is also the hospitality of its population. Maybe, as in the case with Belgium, you can say the same about Azerbaijan: “Small is beautiful!”