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Ministers at loggerheads about economic diplomacy

5th February 2013, Comments0 comments


Federal diplomats have gathered in Brussels for the annual 'diplomatic days'. Meanwhile behind the scenes a huge struggle is taking place between the federal government and the regions. At stake is the question who will run economic diplomacy. Flemish minister-president Kris Peeters CD&V and federal minister for foreign affairs Didier Reynders MR are preparing to lock horns after a letter Peeters co-wrote with his Walloon and Brussels counterparts Jean-Claude Marcourt PS and Benoît Cerexhe cdH to object to Reynders' policy paper which aims at more federal involvement in economic diplomacy. “Economic interests should assume a key position in our network of diplomatic and consular posts,” it states. He seems clearly intent on establishing a stronger economic foothold in foreign affairs and set on creating the function of ‘advisor in economic diplomacy’. This does not sit too comfortably with Peeters, who has responded by saying: “The regions have been empowered with foreign trade and policy since 1993. Reynders’ policy paper is an attempt to turn back the clock”. Reynders, in turn, feels the criticism is unfounded and based on misunderstanding as it is not his intention to create any additional functions but to appoint local business leaders in advisory economic positions within the diplomatic service. There’s nothing new about this notion as ambassadors used to be supported by non-remunerated economic advisors in their network to provide them with local business information. “Pressurized by the regions, the federal government decided to no longer appoint such advisors,” a former diplomat states. “But the ambassadors soon missed their expertise. I’m disappointed about the regions’ decision to question the appointment of these advisors for purely linguistic reasons.” In theory the federal government supports the regions’ powers concerning economic diplomacy, but in practice the vague distribution of powers between regional and federal diplomats as far as economic diplomacy is concerned has been a bone of contention for many years. For lack of institutional agreements positive collaboration often depends on personal relations at embassy level. This, the regions believe, must change. During a formal consultation between the regional states and the federal government early in November last year it was decided to renegotiate the existing cooperative agreements, which date back to the nineties. Early this month three parallel task groups were established, with each group respectively responsible for representation at multilateral organizations, internal Belgian agreements for representation within the European Union and operational functioning of foreign diplomatic posts; with the latter focusing on the hierarchy between federal and regional diplomats and the distribution of assignments within economic diplomacy. Peeters, who wants  a ‘code of conduct’, hopes to receive the results of the task group assigned to this matter “as soon as possible and before the summer of 2013”.  

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