King to make economic state visits
It was no accident that when the king took up his functions on July 21, he kept his honorary presidency of the ACE (Agency for Foreign Trade), through which he participated in seventy economic missions when he was crown prince.
In keeping this presidency Philippe demonstrated his continuing interest in foreign trade and employment and his ambition to continue helping businesses.
On November 6th, during a preparatory briefing for the India mission that has just been completed, he confirmed his intention to continue down that path, even though he asked his sister Astrid to preside over his reign's first two missions (Angola - South Africa in October, India in November).
What form might this royal support of exports take? The question is currently under discussion between the king's entourage, the federal government and the Regions. However, some ideas have been made public.
1. State visits with a significant economic component. There is no doubt that during future foreign State visits, business leaders will accompany the royal couple. During his last visits, Albert II brought along representatives of the academic and economic worlds. In India in 2008 approximately 100 of these representatives accompanied him.
Philippe's idea is to enhance the economic component of State visits making it "stronger." "The king is very supportive of the economic side, and wants to show off Belgium's economic strengths, with the additional objective of maintaining employment," sources at the Palace explained. How? The discussion is underway and will depend on the desires of the Regions and the Foreign Affairs ministry.
One of the king's confidants says, "Philippe thinks that the services he can provide extend to the economy. The discussion is about how much and in what countries could we enhance State visits with an economic component at the same time that we are talking about an economic recovery. We have to see what is the most efficient approach: if we believe that a 500-person delegation is necessary, that cannot be a State visit." It would be more of a classic economic mission.
Future royal State visits with an economic dimension could be reserved for CEOs and business leaders.
2. Will the king preside over economic missions? Can Philippe preside over economic missions as he did while he was prince? Behind the scenes some have let it be known that the king wants to take up the torch again. Are they credible? "It's too early to say," responds Pierre-Emmanuel De Bauw, Palace Communications director, adding, "The king remains the honorary president of the ACE because the fact that he is head of State raises the level and the importance of economic missions. It's true that he wants to continue the economic component; next year, he will return to economic visits within Belgium."
In theory, Philippe could preside over the ACE's economic missions because he is still its honorary president. In practice the probability of that happening is low, at least in the near term.
The two approaches, State visits with a strong economic component and royal missions, could coexist, and interest among business people in trips presided over by a member of the royal family remains strong. In 2013, a new record was set for participation in royal missions.
According to some, royal missions are already taking place. Thursday, Mathilde will be in Hong Kong for "Fashion Week," (a fashion, design and architecture fair) where Belgium is the guest of honor. "It is a royal mission," according to the office of Walloon Foreign Commerce minister Jean-Claude Marcourt, "because the queen is accompanying the Regions and is familiar with regional interests." "It's an economic mission led by the queen," one diplomat confirms.
3. Reduce the number of economic missions and compensate with State visits? How can State visits with an economic focus and royal missions be reconciled? There is currently an idea in the works that could meet the two Regions' aspirations.
The Flemish Region and its minister-president Kris Peeters have already suggested reducing the number of royal economic missions from four to two or three per year, even though the request has not been made officially to ACE. Walloon Jean-Claude Marcourt wants royal missions with a strong economic component. So, why not reduce the number of royal missions to two or three and compensate with one or two royal State visits with an economic focus? The idea is under study, and many of those close to the issue support this solution.
The decision will depend on the federal government (prime minister and Foreign Affairs minister) and the Regions, along with the Palace. The issue is not simple because State visits are under federal jurisdiction (Foreign Affairs) while economic missions are primarily the responsibility of the Regions. To make this scenario a reality, there will need to be an agreement between partners on several points: the frequency of these State visits, their organization (with or without ACE?), and, above all, their financing.
In light of the economic and political situation, it's hard to imagine the Regions and the federal government providing a significant amount of money or staff for royal trips and royal economic missions. One pragmatic solution is to cancel one or two annual royal missions and replace them by royal visits. "Continuing four trips with a combined approach seems the most realistic," says a source close to the issue.
When would the first royal State visit with a strong economic component happen? And where? Several sources say that it may take place before the elections, at the end of March or beginning of April. Contacts are being made by Foreign Affairs. Brazil and Korea are possibilities, as are Japan and China, although they are less likely. Russia is a candidate for 2015. A royal economic mission was planned in June for Moscow, but was cancelled because of the Belgian elections. "Ever since, the Russians have been saying, ‘next time, the king will come!'"