Ambassador Anick Van Calster: Belgium Remains among Bulgaria’s Top Trade Partners
Novinite.com is interviewing ambassadors of Bulgaria's main trading partners as well as neighbouring countries. Here is the interview with Anick Van Calster, Belgium's Ambassador to Bulgaria.
What major bilateral projects are currently in the making??
For the moment we are preparing the Belgian Days. This event – for the 9th consecutive year - will take place mid-November and we will continue to promote the already excellent relations between Bulgaria and Belgium. Through our partnership with the Belgium – Bulgaria – Luxembourg Business Club, we organize professional and networking events in various business spheres throughout the year. The Belgian Days are a hallmark of this and they give the general public an opportunity to discover or rediscover Belgium with more cultural and entertaining events. This year, the program includes for instance the screening of several silent films from our national film archives accompanied by live music – just like in the old days. There is also an exhibition and a jazz concert to honour the 200th anniversary of Adolphe Sax. This is just to mention a few events, the full program will be published later. Some things new, some things old: we bring it all together.
What are, in your opinion, the biggest challenges in bilateral relations?
First of all, let us remind that the relations which unite Belgium and Bulgaria go back to the early days of the modern Bulgarian State. Belgium has not only enjoyed a very positive reputation in Bulgaria but it has also been the largest trade partner and investor in Bulgaria until the outbreak of World War One. For instance, in 1898 the successful Belgian industrial Solvay founded Bulgaria’s first sugar-making plant. When Sofia’s first power and tram companies were established, Belgians were again amongst the majority shareholders. Today, about a century later, Belgium remains among Bulgaria’s top trade partners. In 2009, Belgium was the largest investor. In 2012 there was still Belgium over 27 million euros being invested, to which we can add that there are about 140 Belgian businesses active in Bulgaria. There is however one major challenge remaining in our bilateral relations and that needs to be addressed: the fact that Bulgaria is a country which - unfortunately - remains quite poorly known amongst the Belgian public in general. I believe that this is holding us back: the fact that the Belgian population is not fully aware of Bulgaria as a European country and the things it has to offer.
Where do you see the greatest potential for cooperation and untapped opportunities??
There are plenty of opportunities and those already in place prove that working together can be very successful. I am for example thinking of the confection industry, in which both Belgium and Bulgaria have a long tradition. On the other hand, there are more fields for possible collaboration but they remain less exploited. For instance, mass-tourism is quite well developed in Bulgaria. Why not look further in the area of tourism and try to develop other aspects, such as ecotourism or cultural tourism? After all, Bulgaria has a lot to offer in this respect. Another promising field is agriculture, not only the farming as such but also the larger agro-business that would help to market Bulgarian produce in other countries.
How are Bulgaria and Bulgarians perceived by your compatriots?
As I confessed before, the general Belgian public is not particularly familiar with Bulgaria. They know very little about this country. Even though there is quite a large Bulgarian community in Belgium, most of these people have blended in so well that they pass unnoticed. So, what people do hear and speak about is what the media tell about Bulgaria. And, unfortunately, what hits the headlines is mostly bad news; things like drug trafficking, corruption, and other crimes. On a more positive note though, in the field of culture, there are some interesting exchanges: Bulgarian artists such as Ivo Dimchev or Galin Stoev are working in Belgium, and the NTGent theatre (in Ghent) is preparing a literary evening focusing on Bulgaria next spring. And of course, last year’s protests opened up a new perspective in the way Bulgaria is perceived abroad. It portrayed the awakening of civic conscience; something which could not pass unnoticed and created a better awareness of the country and sympathy for the Bulgarian civil society.
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