Ukraine has recently secured a new Belgian friend in the person of Honorary Consul Kris Beckers.
The interests of this Flemish businessman are associated with one of the greatest achievements of his native province of Limburg – a Belgian fruit growing region specializing in the cultivation of world-famous apples and pears.
The honorary consul spoke in an interview with Ukrinform's correspondent in Belgium about discovering Ukraine and Ukrainians for himself, "smart agriculture," recommendations to Ukrainian business partners and competitors, as well as about friendship with famous Ukrainian football players Malinovsky and Bezus.
Q: Dear Kris, tell us your story. How did you become Ukraine's honorary consul in Belgium?
A: Actually, it was my own decision to propose my candidacy for the position of Honorary Consul of Ukraine in Belgium, in the province of Limburg. I enjoy travelling on business. I get to know new countries and cultures, meet new people.
I travel to Ukraine on a regular basis, on business and also as a member of a Flemish business delegation organized by the Flanders Investment and Trade agency (FIT).
I immediately fell in love with Ukraine. It's a great and beautiful country well known for its hospitality, great historical and cultural heritage, and traditions passed from one generation to another. I consider Ukraine a country with a huge business potential and much room for development.
I really like Ukrainians, their songs, their openness, and their love for freedom.
Q: What are the most important issues that you can help resolve to promote Ukrainian interests in Belgium?
A: Taking into account my business skills and knowledge, experience and contacts, I believe that I will be able to be of help to Ukraine. I am very glad that my endeavors have been supported by both the Ukrainian and the Belgian side.
It should also be noted that the institute of honorary consuls is especially respected in Belgium. For example, there is the Belgian Consular Union, which includes 200 members. The honorary consuls of foreign countries in Belgium gather to discuss their activities, new ideas of cooperation, organization of interesting conferences and seminars, to share experiences, to help diplomats do their everyday job. This is definitely an interesting activity.
I would like to mention that despite the small number of Ukrainian diplomats working at the Embassy of Ukraine in Belgium, their activity increased significantly in recent years. I would be very glad to assist this team and help them to enhance bilateral economic ties at the regional level, to find a Ukrainian twin town for my native city of Borgloon, which can contribute more to the establishment of direct economic contacts at the level of enterprises between the province of Limburg and the regions of Ukraine, to develop ties at the level of self-government bodies.
Of course, I will also help with the protection of the rights of Ukrainian citizens and promotion of Ukrainian culture and art at the regional level.
Q: How would you assess Belgium's interest in Ukraine?
A: The Belgians began to take a strong interest in Ukraine especially during the Revolution of Dignity and after the occupation of Crimea. Of course, Belgians highly appreciate the love of Ukrainians for their land, their desire to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and their firmness in fight against the aggressor.
I am convinced that I will be able to strengthen Belgian interest towards Ukraine via spreading information among Belgian local business circles about its business potential and investment climate, internal reforms, and, of course, its tourism potential.
In addition, the Belgian businessmen are ready to develop joint projects with Ukrainians. An excellent example is the construction of a "Belgian Village" in Lviv. The project, developed by the Belgian-Ukrainian company, comprises the construction of a total of nine buildings in one of the prestigious districts of the city.
Q: You mentioned Russian aggression, occupation of Crimea. Do Belgians understand properly the war that Russia unleashed against not only Ukraine, but also the whole of Europe and Western values?
A: The Belgians certainly understand what is happening in Ukraine and they also understand the role of Russia. A very powerful Russian propaganda tries to present a war in Ukraine as a civil war. People who are interested in politics are well aware of it. I would like to emphasize the very active role of the Ukrainian Embassy in Brussels and the Ukrainian community in spreading the true information on the current situation in Ukraine.
Current developments in Ukraine are not only about the war. They are about administrative and judicial reforms, positive economic development and an active civil society.
The festival of the Ukrainian cinema, a highly successful event which took place for the third time in BOZAR, the Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, has exposed the Belgians to the current events in Ukraine. This year I was particularly impressed with the film "The Trial" about Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is illegally detained in a Russian prison.
Recently, the prestigious Belgian newspaper "Knack" published an article by Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Mr. Pavlo Klimkin, entitled "Russia must answer for its criminal acts."
Belgians are a very pragmatic and business-oriented nation, therefore new business conditions in the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement are very important for them.
Q: You spoke a lot about the desire and readiness to support Belgian and Ukrainian businesses. What can be offered specifically for the development of such cooperation?
A: I'm going to propose to work with the Embassy of Ukraine in Belgium to organize a meeting of Ukrainian and Flemish entrepreneurs and do seminars and round tables aimed at exchanging experience that help Ukrainian entrepreneurs to enter the Belgian markets. I am also interested in helping Belgian businessmen to work in Ukraine.
For this I have organized meetings with the experts of FIT and AWEX (the Wallonia Export-Investment Agency) in order to obtain clarifications on the subsidies for the Flemish entrepreneurs wishing to work in countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine.
I am currently working on establishing cooperation between the Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Belgium and Ukraine.
Q: As we know, some representatives of European agrobusiness are not so happy about the EU's economic restrictive measures imposed against Russia because of Russian counter sanctions to ban imports of some agricultural products from Europe. What about your business in such conditions?
A: In fact, this is a very difficult question. The Belgian agricultural sector is, in general, very sensitive to all the changes taking place within the EU. One can mention here the problems of the dairy industry and the export of horticultural products, etc. However, Belgium must adhere to the EU's general policy on sanctions against the Russian Federation and it is inviolable. Besides, not only European, but also world market conditions for the agricultural products are complicated, as world prices for agricultural products remain volatile, which negatively affects the predictability of agricultural sector and the export of agricultural products.
EU sanctions against Russia along with its non-recognition policy are important not only from political point of view, but also as a sign of support and solidarity with Ukraine. Even more important is the fact that they helped to deter Russian military aggression of eastern and southern parts of Ukraine.
The steps of the Russian leadership cannot be stopped by purely political statements and require a tough reaction from the EU. Recent extension of the economic sanctions against Russia until July 2018 was an important step in this direction.
It is timely now to start discussions on the reinforcement of both individual and sectoral sanctions against Russia, in particular, by adding persons responsible for human rights violations (both from Crimea and the Russian Federation); legal entities who violate the restrictive measures related to occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and its militarization; reinforcing sectoral packages of sanctions, including in the financial sphere and extension of period of their prolongation to 12 months instead of current 6; broadening the reasons for introducing sanctions against Russian military producers.
Crimea-related sanctions should also finally move beyond the logic of isolating Crimea and provide a strong economic, political and personal pressure on the occupant country and its central authorities.
Q: You mentioned the complexity and variability of the global and European agricultural markets. What other trends in this business would you mention?
A: One of the major trends in global agriculture is the use of digital technology, in particular, it is about "smart agriculture." It is how European and Belgian farmers can use digital technologies to increase the productivity of soil. For example, how one can use "big data" technology to monitor in real time crop growth, etc.
Q: The EU and Ukraine are now implementing and developing a bilateral deep and comprehensive free trade area. The EU is Ukraine's biggest trade partner. Ukrainian exports to the EU are growing. What could you advise your Ukrainian partners or even competitors on how to better promote their businesses in the EU and Belgium?
A: As you know, Ukraine is a country participating in the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) which is part of the EU COSME Programme.
EEN is a global network covering 64 countries in Europe, Asia and America and.
EEN-Ukraine – a Ukrainian consortium responsible for implementation of EEN in Ukraine - offers a wide range of services to Ukrainian stakeholders: access to market information, identification of potential business partners in Europe, support for innovation and technology transfer, etc.
Besides, each year matchmaking events are organized in the framework of EEN where potential business partners can meet and establish cooperation.
I strongly recommend that Ukrainian partners take part in trade fairs and matchmaking events held in the EU, as well as establish business links with European chambers of commerce. Such activities will definitely contribute to their businesses’ promotion and growth.
Q: Tell us, please, about your friendship with Ukrainian footballers who play for Belgian clubs. These are Ukrainian national team players Ruslan Malinovsky and Roman Bezus.
A: My idea was to involve professional Ukrainian football players located in Belgium, to participate in promoting Ukraine in Belgium.
I took the liberty to contact the players for a personal meeting, to get acquainted.
Once we started talking about Ukraine and my goals, they showed interest in participating in any future events which might help to strengthen the ties between our countries.
After they attended the official opening of the Honorary Consulate, we even got to know them on a personal level. I wish them all the best in their future career. Great people!
Andrii Lavreniuk. Brussels-Borgloon (province of Limburg)