The exit of the UK from the EU is the loss of a large force, but
Belgian Ambassador Leo D’aes is convinced that the Union will survive. Recalling that Belgium is one of the founding countries of the EU, he says that daily life and the challenges the union faces, from economic to security, confirm how much European countries depend on each other.
The future of the EU also implies reforms, says CorD’s interlocutor, in order for countries that remain strengthened by mutual ties and administration to respond efficiently to the wishes and needs of citizens.
One of the challenges that the EU will also have to respond to is the migrant crisis and a possible new wave of refugees who will try to enter the countries of the EU, says Ambassador Leo D’aes, adding that helping those in need remains a principal European countries, but that they must also strengthen their borders in order to protect their citizens from the kind of terrorism that has rocked European cities over the past 15 months.
Your Excellency, after the series of terrorist attacks in Europe, Belgium finds itself in the middle of the fight against terror and extremism. How do you think that happened?
By housing the headquarters of the European Union and NATO, Brussels attracts a lot of international attention, mostly beneficial, but sometimes with evil intentions. Belgians now also share the tragedy, burden and sorrow inflicted by terrorism. This only reinforces our commitment to wage the fight against terrorism in close cooperation with our partners, especially our direct neighbours, and with the appropriate EU institutions.
How disturbing for the Belgian authorities and citizens is the fact that some terrorist cells are based in Belgium?
In close consultation with our mentioned partners, we need to analyse and understand how and why these cells are operating from within Belgium, and how we can prevent them from carrying out these vicious acts. That is a constant effort. This consultation and cooperation have been intensified since last year, and it is quite obvious that we will continue on this path of solidarity in the fight against terror.
In a statement you gave at the beginning of the year, after the terrorist attack at Brussels airport, you said your country was powerless when terrorist attacks happen, despite all the measures taken at the national level and in cooperation with neighbours. How do you see that fight today, with the terror having continued in other cities, in Nice and Munich?
I see a common determination to join forces and put together all available means to be as effective as possible in preventing terror. We learn from shortcomings and try to transform lessons learned into best practices in the field, for the benefit and the efficiency of the work of the many security, intelligence and police officers, whose commitment to our common security is literally boundless.
What is certain, for a founding-father like Belgium, is that we will continue our fundamental policy of safeguarding and reinforcing the European Union project, that is, an ever closer political union, with everything that entails
How does the fight against terrorism change everyday life in a country like Belgium, which has served as an example of stability and prosperity?
The impact of the terrible acts of 22nd March (but also of the vicious attacks elsewhere) was a shock, rather than fear. Everyone seems suddenly very vulnerable. You cannot generalise too much; every person reacts differently to this threat. So, there is a mixture of anxiety, fatalism, caution, but equally confidence in our common ability to overcome this. Like in other countries where it happened, there certainly is a determination not to give in to this brutal and bloody intrusion into our daily lives.
Do you believe that fear of terrorism might turn the Belgian people towards some right-wing political options, perhaps towards those who advocated splitting the country between Flemish and Walloons?
I do not see a link between the fight against terrorism and the separatist movement. Quite the contrary, I would say: the blind violence we have experienced unites us in the fight against it.
Do you believe the EU-Turkey relationship might deteriorate after the coup attempt in Ankara and President Erdogan’s countermeasures?
Turkey is a candidate for membership and in the meantime a strategic partner of the European Union, with which we need to cooperate closely, despite us having substantial differences of opinion in important fields. It is the role of diplomacy to try to find enough common ground to keep working together productively in matters of common interest, i.e., the fight against terrorism, migration, managing and ending the Syrian conflict, or the movement of people and goods, to name only these few examples.
Serbian authorities are warning of a growing number of refugees on its borders. Do you think the EU is ready for a new wave of migrants?
The EU has for quite some time been reassessing its migration policy, taking into account the unexpected events of the last 15 months. The Common European Asylum System will be reformed into a fully-fledged European Union Agency for Asylum. Migration and our external borders need to be better managed, whilst making sure that protection is received by those who really need it. In the meantime, close consultations with non-member states, like Serbia, will obviously continue.
To what extent could terrorism against Europe impact on Belgium’s readiness to accept refugees, and the country’s general attitude towards immigrants?
Belgium is ready to take its share of the burden, as agreed within the EU. As in any other country of asylum, we have specialised, competent institutions determining whether an asylum application fulfils the criteria. This basic principle, protecting those who need it, on the basis of objective standards, remains valid. Obviously, within the regular meetings of the Justice and Home Affairs Ministers, views are exchanged on the difficulties member states encounter in the application of the immigration laws, notably taking into account the terrorist threat.
The EU responds adequately and responsibly to the said global tasks, which concern us all. The new strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy is a major step in that direction.
After the Brexit vote, do you think the EU is closer to, or further away from, reaching a common policy on immigration?
The EU as it stands cannot turn away from the challenge of migration into Europe. Hence, the afore-mentioned move towards an Asylum Agency. That’s because everyone was taken by surprise by the massive influx last year, so a new common policy on migration could not be developed as gradually as we would have liked. But we simply have no choice: we have to act together or face increased confusion.
How do you see the EU after Brexit?
With Brexit, the EU loses a major power. Like many others, I regret this. There is lots of speculation about the future of this EU-minus-UK. What is certain, for a founding-father like Belgium, is that we will continue our fundamental policy of safeguarding and reinforcing the European Union project, that is, an ever closer political union, with everything that entails. And we are certainly not alone in this vision: witness the recent meetings, at the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, of the six founding states of the EU, on the way forward.
We are aware that question marks are raised about the future of the EU, and we of course remain ready and willing to discuss ways and means of making the EU ever more responsive to the aspirations of its citizens. It’s not the first time that such fundamental questions have been raised. In the meantime, however, in these volatile and uncertain times, we remain convinced of the absolute necessity of further coordination, consultation and cooperation with and between our EU partners, and of the need for EU institutions to continue functioning smoothly.
Turkey is a candidate for membership, and in the meantime a strategic partner of the European Union, with which we need to cooperate closely, despite us having substantial differences of opinion in important fields.
Does Belgium already have a plan for future bilateral relations with the UK?
It is our wish to keep the relations with our close neighbour as warm and cordial as they are today, and I see no reason why that would not be possible. We have our differences (especially in EU matters), but history has created bonds that remain as a firm ground for the continuation beautiful bilateral cooperation, also outside the EU.
Many right-wing political options in EU countries, which are gaining popularity, are anti-EU orientated. Could that endanger the future of the Union?
The EU is facing multiple crises of a trans-boundary nature. We are indeed witnessing some political parties urging a kind of go-it-alone policy, tempting potential voters with an alternative “way-out”. In practice, however, we realise how much EU countries depend on each other (and on the EU’s partners) to effectively address these global challenges, whether that’s in the field of the economy, migration or security.
Six decades of EU integration have brought enormous benefits to EU citizens. These benefits now often seem to be taken so much for granted that the long arduous road to reach it is ignored. Moreover, in my view, reversing common policies into national ones would prove to be very costly in many respects. So, as long as mere anti-EU rhetoric is actively countered by what I consider to be the right perspective on the EU, then the Union is not in danger. I am confident that the EU has a future. It is, of course, important, firstly, that EU institution and the respective governments remain responsive to citizens’ needs and concerns, and clarify how the EU is working for the common good of its members.
Serbia opened two new chapters in the EU membership negotiation process last summer. How do you see that process?
It wasn’t just two new chapters, but the essential chapters 23 and 24, covering the Rule of Law in a large sense. We, of course, welcome this new stage in the negotiations, because it is a reward for the arduous preparatory work of the administration, and because it will provide impetus to planned reforms. We are aware of the many difficulties involved in these two chapters, and naturally, remain ready to help Serbia where we can.
It has been confirmed through many different channels that the Thessaloniki promise stands: those Balkan states wishing to become members are welcome, if and when they fulfil all the conditions
How well-founded are analyses suggesting that there will be no new EU enlargements soon and, in that respect, how do you see the future of the Western Balkans?
EU Commission President Juncker has stated clearly that he does not foresee any new memberships during his five-year term. I think that is a realistic assessment. On the other hand, it has been confirmed through many different channels that the Thessaloniki promise stands: those Balkan states wishing to become members are welcome, if and when they fulfil all the conditions. It’s as simple (and as vast) like that. The road ahead is clear, so are the required efforts and the means and assistance to get there.
How do you see the current level of bilateral relations between Serbia and Belgium?
These relations are, of course, first and foremost coloured by Belgium’s fundamental pro-EU policy, from which flows a natural sympathy for those wishing to join us in this historic endeavour to have peace and prosperity prevail over war and misery. So, we follow very closely Serbia’s EU policy, encouraging it to maintain the required efforts in order to slowly but surely get there. Both our countries enjoy developing bilateral police and justice cooperation, which serves our respective citizens well.
Commercially, we seek to gradually expand our businesses here, and we welcome Serbia’s policy (in cooperation with the EU and the EBRD) of encouraging the activities of SMEs, which are key to economic development (and to the expansion of our trade). Contributing to gradually expanding these relations in all fields of society, in cordial cooperation with the Serbian officials, civil servants and civil society remains a fascinating mission.