(10) There is this affinity that binds us…we should build on that - Ambassador Van Remoortele
Category: AMBASSADORS’ FORUM
01 March 2014 - His Excellency Roland Van Remoortele of the Royal Belgian Embassy was the guest speaker at the Ambassador’s Forum@AIM held last February 27, 2014. He talked about the history of the Belgian-Philippines relations and how the two countries could further enhance its economic and political relations.
Belgium-Philippines Relations: A Short History
The Ambassador related the history of Belgium and Philippines, which stretches back to the time Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the Philippines in 1521 with seafarers from the County of Flanders, which was then part of the medieval kingdom of France, now Belguim. This was the first contact that the Philippines had with Belguim.
In 1886, King Leopold II of Belgium, who “was unhappy with being the king of a small country” and being somehow envious of the colonies of his neighboring kingdoms, offered to buy the Philippines from the King of Spain, but did not succeed.
In 1907, the first group of Belgian nuns, priests and missionaries from the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, better known as CICM (an acronym from the Latin Congregatio Immaculati Cordis Mariae) arrived in the Philippines. They eventually founded St. Louis University in Baguio City and many other Catholic schools across the country. The Ambassador also mentioned that Dr. Jose Rizal, the Philippine’s national hero, spent some time in Brussels where he finished his second book El Filibusterismo, and also was in Gent where the book was published. To commemorate his stay in Brussels and Gent, historical markers were put up in the houses where Rizal stayed during his 150th death anniversary in 2007, the Ambassador shared.
The Royal Government of Belgium established its first consulate in the Philippine in 1873, and its first diplomatic relations in 1946. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Filipino students were given scholarships to study in Belgium. The Belgian government also provided soft loans and commercial credits for the construction of the Light Rail Transit (LRT) Line I. This was one of the most visible and high-profile projects involving RP-Belgian cooperation. In the 1990s, Belgian government continued its support to the country through the Belgian Integrated Agrarian Reform Support Program (BIARSP), huge development projects in Visayas and Mindanao. This was implemented after the signing of the Agreement on Economic, Industrial, Scientific, Technical and Development Cooperation between the Belgo-Luxembourg Economic Union and the Government of the Philippines on 15 January 1987. The Ambassador explained, “Our thinking was, it was nice to sign an Agreement but it was not enough. [People] had to eat.” The BIARSP, the only ODA that Belgium committed to the Philippines, had an objective of improving the agriculture infrastructure, health and education in 74 agrarian reform communities in Mindanao and many parts of the Visayas.
Currently, the Philippines is no longer a partner country for Belgian development assistance since the country has moved up the economic ladder. “It is your fault,” the Ambassador teased. However, there are still a number of Belgian NGOs working in the Philippines addressing issues on health, education and poverty.
Belgium-Philippines Economic Relations
“How would I describe our relationship today? It is good, very good, friendly, warm, but below expectations,” the Ambassador declared. Economic relations, particularly the two-way trade between Belgium and the Philippines does not exceed 400 million Euros annually. Despite this, the Philippines is still the 32nd trade partner of Belgium. “It’s not bad, but it could be a lot better,”
In terms of investment, Belgian business community’s investment in the Philippines was described by the Ambassador as “not enough… far too little.” However, with the high economic growth rate in the country, there is renewed interest among Belgian companies to do business in the Philippines.
“But there is an attitude of fence-sitting, they are still not coming to the Philippines,” the Ambassador shared. He provided some reasons for the wait-and-see attitude among Belgian businessmen. First is safety, “there is still this updated perception that the Philippines is not safe. Maybe that was the case 20 years ago. Today, I would say it is a lot safer… definitely.” The restriction of foreign ownership also made many Belgian businessmen hesitate to invest and set up a business in the country since they could not have 100 percent ownership of the business. Deficiency in infrastructure such as transportation and communication, high cost of doing business (such as high cost of electricity) and inadequacies of electricity supply; and the perceived arbitrary judicial system also explains the Belgian business community’s tentativeness in investing in the country. The Ambassador reflected, “The Philippines has a number of positive attributes such as educated and English-speaking workforce, and large internal market, yet a lot of Belgian companies hesitate to come here.”
Belgium-Philippines Political Relations
The Ambassador shared that the Philippines and Belgium have a “superb” political relationship. “We see eye-to-eye on a large number of issues, (we have) similar outlook on the world, and issues of the day, but (we have an) “empty” political relations. We have a number of bilateral agreements between us. We have an air agreement, we have a social security agreement, we have taxation agreement, and we have an investment agreement. The whole series of bilateral agreements is in place. The two countries even signed a Joint Plan of Action, but it remains an empty shell.”
The Ambassador emphasized the importance of visit, “You have to visit one another, you have to talk to one another, you have to build a level of comfort. Be comfortable with one another. That is very much lacking. I am ashamed to say that the last visit of a Belgian foreign minister to the Philippines was 21 years.”
There are 10,000 Flipinos in Belguim contributing to that country’s economy, and there are around 2,000 Belgians in the Philippines who were mostly “attracted by the nice weather and warm hospitality.”
The Ambassador continued, “There is this affinity that binds us… the best demonstration of that was when Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. The response of the Belgian government is extraordinary, (we were) one of the first to arrive, there were initiatives taken in Belgian to collect funds for the PH, the response was enormous, it was out of this world.” “We should build on the affinity and level of comfort we had between our countries,” the Ambassador further emphasized.
To watch the video of this forum, click here.
About the Ambassador:
His Excellency Roland Van Remoortele, is a “balik-bayan” Ambassador (returning ambassador of Belgium to the Philippines. He was first posted in the country in from November 1998 – September 2002, and was re-posted here in 2013. Prior to this posting, he was the. Ambassador Remoortele started his diplomatic career in 1981 as Trainee Diplomat for the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. He eventually became the Ambassador of the Kingdom of Belgium to the Philippines (1998-2002), Malaysia (2002-2006), and Singapore and Brunei (2009-2013). He also held several posts in the Federal Public Service Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. He earned a Masters degree in Latin and Greek in 1970 from the Bischoppelijk College Veurne and has language proficiency in Dutch, French and English.
About the Ambassador's Forum @ AIM:
The Ambassadors’ Forum @ AIM is a venue for the professional exchange of knowledge and skills related to international development issues and trends. Its objectives are: (1) to broaden the regional and global perspective of AIM students taking up both the Master in Development Management and the Masters in Business Management, (2) to provide a venue for the exchange of information for foreign ambassadors in Manila, and (3) to educate the community at large on internal relations and development issues and trends as they affect the Philippines and the region. Through the forum, ambassadors and embassy officials have been invited to discuss their countries’ views on Asian issues including political regimes, economics, finance, trade systems, demographics and migration, climate change and energy, strategic security, and world view.
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