Caspian Energy: Your Excellency, you arrived in Azerbaijan last summer. What, in the first place, caught your eye? What are the main objectives of your mission?
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Kingdom of Belgium to the Republic of Azerbaijan Bert Schoofs: First of all, I think it is important to understand the context you work in. I will show you some elements. This is the only embassy that Belgium has in this region which means that Azerbaijan is important for us. However, the activities of the embassy also cover other countries in the region, namely Georgia and Turkmenistan. Secondly, this embassy was established in 2007, it is quite recently, so this year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our embassy in Azerbaijan, which is, of course, a very important milestone, and as you know the history of the diplomatic relations between Belgium and Azerbaijan goes back 25 years. We marked the date of establishing our diplomatic relations on the 20th of February.
Over the last 25 years much has been achieved in the region, in Azerbaijan, as well as in the relations between Azerbaijan and the European countries, including Belgium. I believe it is important to remember the achievements we have and see them as a next step to enhance these relations.
Then let us switch to your questions, namely to your question about the objective of my mission. First of all, it is to sustain the existing good relations between Azerbaijan and Belgium. As you know, President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev paid a visit to the European Institutions and Belgium on February 6. And he has already visited Belgium several times. And in April 2015 Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium Didier Reynders paid a visit to Azerbaijan. So, it shows that the relations between our countries are excellent. Therefore, my first objective is not only to sustain, but to improve these relations. So, every visit, either outgoing or ingoing, is important.
Our Heads of State understand that in the globalised world you have to be in front of everything
CE: Is it economy or politics that drives the relations between the two countries today?
Bert Schoofs: I think both. I will just bring one example. If you read the press statement made after the meeting between President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev and King Philippe of Belgium, they mainly talked about the economic cooperation. As far as Azerbaijan is concerned, it is the important ambition to diversify the economy, well explained in President Aliyev’s roadmap. And we know this, because Belgium is also a small country that lies at the crossroads of cultures and big economies. If you look back at the history of Belgium in the 1950s-60s, my country used to depend a lot on coal and steel. So, we faced the necessity to diversify our economy. And I think it is a clear comparison between what happened in our region in the 1950s-60s and what is happening here now. So, there is a need to diversify and also to attract foreign investors and foreign companies. I know that President Aliyev regularly attends the World Economic Foreign in Davos. King Philppe also attended the forum a few times. Our Heads of State understand that in the globalised world you have to be in front of everything, and diversification of economy is one of the main ambitions for Azerbaijan. So, Belgian companies can help in that. During his visit to Belgium President Aliyev clearly invited Belgian companies to come to Azerbaijan.
CE: What kind of projects do they want to get involved in?
Bert Schoofs: First of all, it is important to mention that we are already involved: in construction, in healthcare, in logistics, in agriculture, in retail… For example, the company BESIX constructed some big buildings in Baku. Most of the Belgian companies do not work in the regions yet.
You have to attract European and Belgian companies to come here
CE: Belgium is famous for small and medium-sized businesses and chocolate. How feasible is it to produce, for example, Belgian chocolate in Azerbaijan?
Bert Schoofs: That is a good question. We are willing to produce. It is about chocolate, but the matter is more substantial. It is not the Belgian Government or Belgian authorities that are producing chocolate or constructing buildings. It is a market and you have to attract European and Belgian companies to come to Azerbaijan. As far as the chocolate is concerned, companies see if there is a market. And then, of course, they will come to sell or set up factories there. Moreover, the Belgian chocolate factories are rather small and medium-sized enterprises. It is important that Azerbaijan presents itself to attract these companies, because we are living in much globalized world and I have to say that from time to time Belgian companies come here and ask me about Azerbaijan. So, I should be able to explain them the reasons why come to Azerbaijan. But I see that they also go and visit other countries in the region. They go to Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan… They compare and choose. It is a big competition to attract companies. I think Azerbaijan is doing rather well, but you can always improve promoting your business environment.
Also, travelling became much easier thanks to the electronic visa. That is important. Also I can mention the fact that Azerbaijan clearly wants to attract tourists, which is very good. It was a clear message that there was a tourism conference in Azerbaijan, and it was in Brussels last year. In tourism it is a very important to show your country. People will come and spend some days here and see it is a very nice place.
From time to time Belgian companies come here and ask me about Azerbaijan
CE: Which problems do companies face nowadays when working in the Azerbaijan market? Has the visa issue been already settled for you?
Bert Schoofs: I think the main thing is to create a business environment where companies can be active. I mean if a company wants to do an investment in everywhere in the world, they look for financing; they look for good local partners, also SMEs. Belgium is a country of mainly small and medium enterprises. If they come, they like to work together, let us say, with small and medium enterprises. And, of course, due to the fact that for a long time the Azerbaijani economy has been quite dependent on energy recourses, the SMEs are not well developedyet. There is a huge opportunity. I will give you an example in the sector of agriculture. If you look at the Belgian economy, we have the huge agricultural sector albeit the fact that the country is very small. Why is this? This is because we have lots of small and medium enterprises, high technology, and they are exporting a lot. I think that, for example, in agriculture the Belgian companies, let’s say, new young Azerbaijani companies could work together.
CE: Your Excellency, so you see prospects mainly in the contacts between small and medium enterprises…
Bert Schoofs: It depends. Of course, you have big companies, but theyalways find their ways. For example, Port of Baku is working together with Port of Antwerp. Port of Antwerp is one of the main ports in the world. It is amongst the most important ports in Europe. So, they come and they work together. The big companies find their ways, because they have a globalized world, global market and they find their ways.I think it is also important that small and medium size companies can come to the market. And also in Azerbaijan you develop the small and medium size enterprise culture. One of the objectives of the President’s roadmap is to create the environment enabling this kind of SMEs. What is important is that you need education, of course. I mean SMEs are quite driven by technology. So, it means also that you need entrepreneurs that do not only do business, but also have a kind of experiences, a kind of technology.
CE: Which technologies are necessary today?
Bert Schoofs: It depends in which sector you are. Let’s take agriculture. What is important: water management, energy efficiency, and also if you go to energy, you can go to solar energy, to hydro energy. The component of technology and innovation you find nearly everywhere. And I think Azerbaijan has a prefect climate for agriculture, and also for solar energy. By the way, the Belgian company here involved in solar energy is Soltec. This could be one of the assets of Azerbaijan. Another asset for Azerbaijan is its geographical situation. It is very close to bigger market. It can be a hub for producing and then exporting to Russia, to Turkey or to Iran. In Belgium, we are producing and exporting to the UK, Germany and France. It’s a question of creating the parameters, the conditions, and then attract companies.
Coal is nearly finished
CE: Which energy sources are the most effective in Belgium?
Bert Schoofs: First of all, as you might know we have quite diversified energy consumption. 40% more or less accounts for nuclear energy. But we are starting to replace nuclear energy step by step. You can’t see energy on itself, it has to be linked with energy efficiency. Also, the European internal energy market has to be competitive and also environmental. What is happening and you see it in lots of European countries. People are going for the most efficient, cheapest and also less polluting energy. So, of course, coal is nearly finished. Then, of course, we have oil. The good thing in Belgium is that we are not depending on one specific country for oil. Thanks to the fact that we are near the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, it’s easy for us to attract oil from different countries. It has to do with the geographical situation, because we have a big energy terminal: liquids, gas terminal in Zeebrugge. It means that in principle we can take gas from everywhere. That’s why we can choose which is important. It is also important that in Zeebrugge large volumes of gas are deliquefied in the sea and then gas goes to other countries.
It’s important to be, let’s say, geographically well situated. Azerbaijan also has this advantage. First of all, Azerbaijan has gas. Secondly, thanks to the building of the Southern Gas Corridor, Azerbaijan has also become a transit country. It is important to be a transit country, like Belgium is for gas, it means that you can get also financial resources. And also it’s also good for your own gas consumption. In principle gas is cleaner than petrol and coal. Then, of course, you have the cleanest kind of energy – solar energy. In Belgium, due to climate conditions, we don’t have much solar. We have solar energy use for small consumers. Quite a lot of Belgium families have solar panels on the roof of their houses. At the same time we have a lot of hydro plants in the sea due to the fact that Belgium is located on the shore of the North Sea. It gives lots of wind. So, countries like Belgium, Germany, and Denmark are increasingly investing in wind energy. The main thing is to have different sources of energy. We are lucky because we are located between very big markets and countries. The railroads, roads and waterways go through Belgium. It is the advantage.
CE: Mr. Ambassador, you said about the importance of traffic arteries. What is Belgium’s stance on the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project? How profitable is it for the EU now?
Bert Schoofs: The Silk Road exists already. If you need an example, Belgian seaports such as Antwerp cooperate with Chinese ports. The entire ‘One Belt, One Road’ project proceeds and this process will take some years to secure more efficient and faster trade. That is good that the Chinese can sell their products in Europe, but also that the Europeans can sell products in China. The middle class is developed in China and this class of people likes to purchase European products. The main thing is that Azerbaijan, as a country, is lying in the middle of the route and should take benefits of it. That’s why infrastructure projects are so important. But start with your neighbouring countries. Trains to Georgia, to Iran and Russia, highways. This is, of course, a part of the Silk Road. Your main customers in the first place are your neighbours. Again, the example, in Belgium, more than 60% of Belgian exports go to the neighbouring countries.
The Southern Gas Corridor is a kind of road from the east to the west. If you talk about the Southern Gas Corridor, Belgian companies are already investing in this project. The Belgian company is a part of TAP. 19% in the project belongs to the Belgian company Fluxys. We are already interested in this project.
CE: Mr. Ambassador, currently much is spoken about diversification of economy. Is the EU ready to assist Azerbaijan in keeping the highest quality standards?
Bert Schoofs: First of all, diversification is linked to quality. This element should not be forgotten. I will give you an example. Over the past 35 years the European Union has put in place the food quality standards by implementing the high-level food quality standards. The quality of food products became better, so they can go for export. And the products that you offer are of high quality. In Belgium, it is not only chocolate. It is, for example, lots of agricultural products. I mean Belgian meat, Belgian dairy products, and not only Belgian ones, but European ones in general.
CE: What is Belgium’s stance on GMOs?
Bert Schoofs: The European legislation is one of the strictest in the world. This is made to ensure huge production and huge consumption. For example, the Belgian agricultural sector is mainly based on small and medium enterprises. Obviously, it is important when products are manufactured in one part of the world, then sold in other part of the world and their origin is known. Consumers are very critical. They demand bio products. In Belgium, we use only those products that are accepted by the European laws, by the European standards.
We are in the globalised world and this is something we have to bear in mind
CE: Mr. Ambassador, you seem to be in the centre of all European processes. Indeed, single Europe stems from the US’s Marshall Plan. What impact does the new economic policy of the United States have on the European Union?
Bert Schoofs: The Marshall Plan is a very good example how after the Second World War Europe was reconstructed with the help of our allies, the United States. The main thing is that you have to understand the situation of Belgium. We are in the centre of Europe and one of the most open economies.
The future of Belgium is clearly linked to the future of Europe. We have lots of challenges at the moment in Europe as well, which is normal. The European Union is celebrating the 60th anniversary this year.
The United States was, still is and always will be an important partner for Europe and Belgium in particular. But you also have other big players in the world. The Chinese economy is becoming very important, some other economies are important. The main thing is that we are in the globalised world and this is something we have to bear in mind. No country has the situation that is isolated anymore. You have to take into account everything what is happening in the world. Some of these challenges are global. These are terrorism, climate change, union mobility, food security, energy security. Therefore, especially for midsize countries like Azerbaijan or Belgium it is very important to understand what is happening around us, what is important for us and what should our policy be to react on that? For Belgium it is quite clear. We are a rather small country, situated in the center of Europe. We have an open economy so trade and investment are very important us.
Your independent element is to be as self-sufficient as possible
CE: Mr. Schoofs, what else is important for smaller countries?
Bert Schoofs: Quite often smaller countries mainly depend on their export to the markets of bigger countries. Take a country like Belgium, you can say the same about Denmark, the Netherlands. I mean the countries ofnearly the same size. They got their wealth, their good social situation thanks to the economic growth and to the share of export in this. Belgium is still among top 20 most exporting countries in the world, even being a rather small country. If the Belgian living standards went up in the last 50 years, it is thanks to the economic development of the country.
For a small country it is important to be in the middle of these processes. As far as the geographical situation of Azerbaijan is concerned, you can attract producing companies and then export to Russia, Turkey and Iran, it means jobs, it means work for the Azerbaijani people. The good thing for small countries is to be more flexible and be able to adapt to situations. And that is, of course, is very important in this world changing all the time. Do you have the capacity to adapt yourselves? Another element of independence is to be as self-sufficient as possible. You are self-sufficient in energy. You have the good agricultural sector. If a country is more or less self-sufficient in energy, water and food, then it is a good advantage for a country.
Thank you for the interview