Belgium, Europe and the Arab World - Brussel, 30 november 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We, Arabs, Europeans, Belgians, we have a common history: a history, sometimes of antagonism, but much more importantly, a shared history of fruitful exchange and co-existence on the crossroads between Christianity and Islam.
Today, this shared reality is an integral part of everyday European society. Large Arab communities live in European cities, and very often are European. Their identity and their concerns are important factors we bear in mind when building our relations with the Arab World. This shared reality is also true in the Arab world: the historical presence of many Christian communities in the Arab world is a valuable contribution to modern Arab society.
Arab society is of course incredibly diverse and covers a wide region. From the shores of Morocco to the sands of the Gulf, there are large differences in social structure, natural resources, geography, economy and political constitution. But equally there is a profound cultural and historic legacy, which is a common heritage for the 22 parties to the Arab league Charter.
Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no need to underline how close we are as neighbours. We are linked to each other by trade and migration. Economic progress in the Arab world means economic progress in Europe. Economic growth in Europe means economic growth in the Arab world. Our destinies are tied together; our future is one of co-operation, mutual understanding and economic development.
As an important tenet of our common future, the "Joint Declaration of the Paris Summit for the Mediterranean" of the 13th of July 2008 affirms the "ambition to build a common future based on the full respect of democratic principles, human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as the promotion of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, strengthening the role of women in society, respect of minorities and the fight against racism."
Another key initiative is the European Neighbourhood Policy, which aims at a joint future of sustainable development, education and integration into the new world economic system.
I suggest that from here onwards, I discuss with you region by region some of our common initiatives. I suggest I start west, and move gradually to the east. The Maghreb is my first stop.
The Maghreb region is going through profound transformations: it has a young population, faces strong migration waves and is tackling political and social reforms in most of its countries.
Belgium has a longstanding friendship with the Maghreb countries, built on many years of cooperation and fruitful exchange.
This particular bond finds its strongest expression in the important North African communities that have lived in Belgium for years, often for two or three generations. They have become part of the very fabric of Belgian society and are a bridge between Europe and the Arab world.
The Belgian policy towards North Africa is very much integrated into European action, through the Barcelona Process, the Association agreements and the Action plans of the European neighbourhood policy. Belgium has always insisted on keeping a balance between the development of the EU’s relations with the South and the EU’s relations with the East. Through the Union for the Mediterranean and the Barcelona process, I would even dare to say that all 27 members of the European Union have effectively become ‘Mediterranean’, involved in a strong relationship across our ‘mare nostrum’.
This ancient Roman concept of “mare nostrum” shows that Europe and the Maghreb are linked together since long; and we must recognize that these bonds have not always been easy. But today, we share a common interest of stability and prosperity. This is apparent when looking at our trade bonds. Throughout the 20th century, Europe has been the number 1 trading partner of the Maghreb. The EU represents 65% of exports from the Maghreb, around 80 billion euro, and represents 60% of imports into the Maghreb, around 45 billion euro. Even in these times of international economical hardship, Maghreb GDP growth has been consistently between 4 and 5%.
To further strengthen our economic ties, we need a common rules-based framework. This is why it is of utmost importance to have a strong agreement on the promotion and protection of investment and to have double tax treaties. This is also why for Belgium it is crucial that all trade barriers that divide us, be removed.
One of the best examples of Belgian interest in Maghreb countries are our economic missions led by His Royal Highness Prince Philippe and our regional economic missions. We had an incredibly successful mission to Morocco in November 2009, with 185 companies represented by 284 businessmen and 4 Ministers present. Another mission with the Walloon Agency for exports (AWEX) went recently to Tunisia to discover renewable energy opportunities.
It is our profound conviction as Belgians and Europeans that this enhanced North-South economic cooperation should be sided by increased South-South integration. In this respect, we should put our shoulders under the ambitious plan to come to a fully fledged Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area. The Agadir agreement among Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt is an important step on the right way. We also believe that the Arab Maghreb Union is a real opportunity for the region and we encourage all initiatives to make this Union effective and to move towards further regional economic integration.
Besides enhancing our trade bonds, the Union for the Mediterranean should also tackle other common problems: I think in particular of the cleaning of the Mediterranean Sea, the creation of maritime and terrestrial roads and the development of a solar plan and other renewable energies.
Let us spend some more time in Egypt. Egypt is a key partner in the region and is going through an important political period because of the elections for parliament last weekend and the presidential elections scheduled for autumn 2011.
We expect that the excellent work of the former government on the economy will continue, especially in the field of foreign investment. By the same token, we hope that the presidential elections of next year will confirm the will of the country to continue the social and economic developments that have accelerated the last years.
Macro-economically, Egypt is in good shape. With a steady growth rate since 2005 of 4 to 8 % and foreign direct investments growing year after year, the country has well survived the economic crisis. Belgium has solid exports to Egypt, ranging on a monthly basis from 60 to 100 million Euro. Belgian investments in Egypt, however, remain rather modest, with 4 investments in Egypt by Solvay, Schrèder, Three Corner and Besix.
The Middle East
Living in a highly competitive global economy, the countries in the Levant understand that integration into the world economy is crucial. Most have developed elaborate strategies to transform from lower middle income countries into countries with a knowledge based economy. The EU from its side has been actively assisting these countries in their efforts through different kind of programmes, which has positively impacted growth rates throughout the Middle East. In that context, I am keen to note that the growing Belgian trade relations with this region have not suffered substantially during these past years and that the potential for further enhancing our joint economic agenda remains huge.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we shouldn’t ignore that regional problems have limited the ambition of Middle Eastern countries to place political, social and economic reforms at the core of their development agenda. That is the reason why, apart from the need to break the cycle of violence and to restore equity and justice for all its inhabitants, we all need to do our utmost to overcome the difficulties haunting this region. The end goal needs to be peace, stability and a solid economic environment throughout the Arab world. A just and lasting peace in the Middle East must imply an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the form of a two-state solution along the lines of the EU Ministerial declaration of December 2009. Of course, lasting peace and stability in the Middle-East requires a regional approach, involving a settlement of the other tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict – I refer to Syria and Lebanon, but also to the Arab Peace Initiative – as well as long term stability in Iraq and a more constructive role of Iran in its relations with the wider international community.
Peace, nothing else, is the solid foundation for economic development, more so than infrastructure projects or free trade agreements, how indispensable these may be. Our common goal remains unchallenged, our will is unyielding: we have to bring peace to the people of the middle-east, and by doing so, to the people of the world.
Saudi Arabia has a strong emerging economy, and is an stable player in the region. We are grateful, as is the whole international community, for the huge financial efforts devoted to the development and reconstruction of countries in Africa and Asia. A special mention in this light should go to the extraordinary efforts in reconstructing the flooded lands of Pakistan.
As regards our bilateral economic relations, we were fortunate last year in October to send a major trade delegation to Saudi Arabia. Fifteen memoranda of understanding were signed, and new fields of scientific and financial cooperation were explored. It is fair to say that trade volumes between both our countries are stable, and that we are solid economic partners. We are both giants in the petrochemical sector, and our bagger industry with Deme, Jan De Nul and Besix is keen to get more involved in Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf region
The Gulf region is the strategic hub between Europe, Asia and Africa for transport and trade. In 2007 and 2008, trade exchanges amounted to 34 billion euro, and foreign direct investment in both directions amounted to 61 billion euro in 2008.
Besides being an economic hub, the Gulf is also strategically located politically speaking. Gulf countries play a crucial role in working towards peace in the Middle East and stability in Iraq. Close to Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Gulf is a key partner to the EU and NATO.
One of the most tangible joint projects between Europe and the Gulf is the EU-Gulf Cooperation Council agreement, which dates back to 1989. Last June, we adopted our Joint Action Programme 2010-2013. Fourteen priority areas were defined, on which we should work with great ambition. Of course, the cornerstone of EU-GCC cooperation is the free trade area that we are negotiating. A few stumbling blocks remain: we should tackle those and conclude. This agreement will boost our trade relations and will show the world the strength of our mutual ties.
Trade relations between Belgium and the GCC go back several decades and have regularly been highlighted by trade missions over the last three years. We had missions to Bahrain and Qatar, and to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Even if our relations are solid and well established, and our companies enjoy a good reputation, this position should not be taken for granted: the Gulf is a highly competitive market. The diversification efforts of the different countries have created new windows of opportunity for cooperation and sharing know-how and experience. Growth in bilateral trade has picked up again in 2010 after suffering in 2009 from global crisis. The IMF now forecasts a growth, non-oil, of 4.3 % for 2011.
I’ll let the examples speak: Here are just a few of the many Belgian success stories in the Gulf. In the construction sector, companies such as Besix created some of the landmarks shaping the skyline of the Gulf, such as the Aspire tower in Doha or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. In the health sector, we have Health Care Belgium, actively working together with regional actors. No need of course to mention our dredging companies. From the side of the Gulf, there is Dubai Ports World, a top player in the Port of Antwerp, second biggest port in Europe ready to welcome more investors.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve come to the end of my trip through the Arab world. We’ve seen how the Arab world has gone a long way integrating in the global economy. That said, we are mindful of the challenges that lie ahead on our way to ever stronger ties between Europe and the Arab world. It is our duty as Arabs and Europeans to build the future we need: a future of intense economic relations, a future of stability.
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