Exclusive interview with ambassador of Belgium

For Kitabistan
article about 'Exclusive interview with ambassador of Belgium' and 'For Kitabistan'

Kitabistan thoroughly researches the experiences of developed countries and presents them to society, and consistently conducts interviews with the ambassadors of those countries.

Our next interviewee is His Excellency Michel Peetermans, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Azerbaijan. We delved into various aspects including Belgium's history, its pivotal role as one of the founding members of the EU, the UN, and NATO, its strategies on the green transition, and its justice system. Additionally, he provided book recommendations for the readers of Kitabistan.

We present an exclusive interview with Mr. Michel Peetermans, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to Azerbaijan, for Kitabistan.



- Belgium plays an important political role. Even if its territory is relatively small, its political significance is immense. The country is a founding member of key international organizations, including the EU, NATO, and the UN, and today Brussels is considered one of the centers where the fate of the world is decided. How do you explain that Brussels has become one of the main diplomatic hubs in the world?

- This is explained by historical reasons. When Belgium became independent in 1830, it constituted a factor of balance between the large European states, notably the United Kingdom, France and Prussia. The first Belgian king Leopold I was linked to the British Crown, and his wife was the daughter of Louis-Philippe.

Geographically, Belgium is located in the center of Europe. Throughout the 19th century, it advocated a policy of free trade, which corresponded to its interests. Belgium then experienced great economic expansion, centered on the exploitation of coal mines, metallurgy, then chemistry (notably thanks to the discoveries of Ernest Solvay).

Foreign policy was based on neutrality, which gave Belgium a period of peace that lasted until 1914. The First, even more,  the Second, World War, however, changed this situation. Neutrality has ceased to be an option. The central position of Belgium, the network of relationships established in London by the government in exile and the reliability of Belgium's foreign policy certainly contributed to the choice of Brussels to host the headquarters of NATO, then of the European institutions. The success of European integration in turn has strengthened the role of Brussels as the decision-making center of international diplomacy.

- Belgium is a federal State, with three linguistic communities and three regions. The population is also composed for a significant part of persons with a migration background. How does the federal system in Belgium and what measures are taken to ensure the cohesion of the society, in spite of its diversity?

- The three regions are Flanders in the north, where the official language is Dutch, Wallonia in the south, where the official language is French, and the Brussels Capital Region in the center, which is bilingual. After the First World War, certain French-speaking, but also German-speaking, municipalities were attached to Belgium. This is the reason why the German-speaking community living near the German border benefits from a great deal of cultural autonomy. Communities are mainly responsible for culture and education, and regions for economic and social issues. The system is quite legally complex, but it works quite well. All conflicts and differences must be resolved through negotiation and compromise, which gives an advantage to our political leaders in the international arena.

Many Belgians with an immigration background occupy important positions at all political levels. The criteria for obtaining Belgian nationality have been considerably relaxed, and foreigners who have established their main residence in Belgium for at least 5 uninterrupted years and who legally reside in Belgium can vote in municipal elections.

Various initiatives are taken by the authorities to promote the integration of new arrivals.

- One of the most important features of democracy is the independence of the judicial system. Interestingly, one of the largest courthouse in the world is also located in Belgium. How was Belgium able to establish a just court system and to guarantee its autonomy?

- Indeed, the independence of the judiciary is a pillar of democracy. Trust in the impartiality of the judiciary is essential not only to guarantee citizens' political rights, but also their civil, economic and social rights. Only an independent judiciary can guarantee legal certainty for citizens in all aspects of life.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment, in particular Montesquieu, gave a theoretical foundation to the principle of the separation of powers, even if, in the Ancien Régime as well, the judicial organs were also, to a greater or lesser extent, protected from the arbitrariness of the Sovereign.

The mechanisms used in Belgium to ensure the independence of judges are not fundamentally different from those in neighboring countries. Without going into details, I will mention some guarantees provided by the Constitution. Judges are appointed for life. No judge may be deprived of his position or suspended except by a judgment. The transfer of a judge may only take place by a new appointment and with his consent. A High Council of Justice was established in 1999. One of its tasks is to make the process of appointing judges as objective as possible.

Of course, no system is perfect, but the Belgian citizen has overall confidence in the impartiality of the judges and in the decisions handed down by the Belgian courts. This is an asset whose importance cannot be stressed enough.

- Belgium is a stable democracy, with multiple political parties and coalition governments. Unfortunately, in many countries of the world disinformation and misinformation have become widespread. What preventive measures does the Belgian government take to combat disinformation and information manipulation campaigns in the media and social media during the pre-election period?

- Elections are the foundation of our democracy, but they also carry risks. Analysis by intelligence and security services shows that disinformation is a real threat in the run-up to the elections.

Under the responsibility of the General Intelligence and Security Service, the intelligence and security services monitored disinformation in the context of the elections. For example, they identified the theme of “stolen elections”, which calls into question the voting process and the proper organization of elections. This narrative was particularly present in the context of the European elections.

Disinformation campaigns often aim to sow doubt among the population, making it more difficult to distinguish between facts and opinions, as well as between correct and incorrect information. The underlying purpose is to destabilize our society to weaken democracy.

The National Crisis Center website provides helpful tips for recognizing misinformation and checking facts. The best way to protect ourselves against misleading information is to be critical of information on online platforms.

- What is Belgium’s contribution in the energy transition?

- Belgium is a pioneer in the energy transition by investing in offshore wind power in the North Sea. Belgium has launched concrete projects to triple our offshore wind energy by 2030, producing the equivalent of the electricity consumption of all of our 5 million homes.

Belgium organized the second edition of the North Sea Summit in Ostend in April 2023, highlighting its ambition and taking concrete steps to make the North Sea the largest source of renewable energy in Europe. In Ostend, the 9 North Sea countries present committed to increasing their combined offshore wind capacity in the North Sea to 120 GW by 2030 and 300 GW by 2050. 300 GW offshore is the equivalent of 300 nuclear power plants.

As pioneers of offshore wind, the four signatories to the Esbjerg Declaration, Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands, have committed to providing more than half of the needed offshore capacity to achieve EU climate neutrality while preserving the North Sea marine ecosystem. It will make the North Sea an innovative green energy hub and hopefully a model that can be replicated around the world.

Belgium is investing massively to become a major hydrogen import and transit hub. Belgian ports and shipowners, driven by the recent IMO greenhouse gas strategy, play a central role in this regard. We have partnered with countries such as Namibia, Oman, Egypt and Chile to turn this vision into reality.

- Finally, I would like to address Kitabistan’s traditional question to you. What book would you recommend to our readers to read?

- Literary tastes are very personal and subjective. The main thing is that reading opens the mind and enriches it. I myself go to bookstores and libraries, most often without knowing in advance which book I will choose, or even if it will be fiction or another literary genre. I love both discovery and escape. One of the most famous Belgian writers is Georges Simenon, known for his “Commissaire Maigret” series, but who wrote many other works, which are not in the detective genre. With Simenon, it is always the psychological dimension that dominates. I can also cite a contemporary Belgian novelist, Amélie Nothomb, whose success is considerable in the French-speaking world. For the record, I had the chance, through a combination of circumstances, to be for a few months one of the collaborators of her father, Ambassador Patrick Nothomb.

We cannot talk about French-language literature in Baku without mentioning Jean-Christophe Ruffin, one of the greatest contemporary French writers. One of his novels, both entertaining and interesting, “Le Flambeur de la Caspienne”, takes place precisely in Baku.

To finish on a more personal touch, I have a weakness for a currently somewhat forgotten 20th century writer, Pierre Benoît. I particularly like his novel “The Leper King”. And, while thinking about your question, I realized that there was a sort of literary kinship between these two authors. We find in their works the same keenness of observation, the same interest in politics, diplomacy, exoticism and the same look, both ironic and amused, on the way human societies function.

- Mr Ambassador, thank you for the interesting interview.

- Thank you for interesting questions and the interview.

Malak Hajiyeva