Consul General: a trade mission led by the Princess could presage a “second wave” of Belgian investments

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When 150 Belgian companies descend on Atlanta next month, they’ll see a part of the country that most don’t show up on radar.

But what they may not realize is what Belgian diplomats have noticed over time – that the South, and in particular Georgiahas become a breeding ground for Belgian investors in flooring, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, digital displays and many other sectors.

This critical mass helped Atlanta make the cut as one of three cities (along with better-known hubs Boston and New York) targeted by an economic mission led by the Princess Astrid next month, bringing together more than a diverse coalition of 300 Belgians including C-level executives, university deans, regional ministers and startup innovators.

“It’s time we had a second big wave of companies moving here”, Consul General of Belgium Michel Gerebtzoff Told Atlanta World in a Consular Conversation interview in March. “I am convinced, and my predecessor was also, that here is a very good place for Belgian companies.”

The problem, if you can call it that, is that many of the more than 50 Belgian companies in Georgia arrived decades ago, often setting up factories in remote parts of the state. While the Belgian success story has taken root among insiders, it has yet to catch on widely to those now eyeing an American presence.

Mr. Gerebtzoff said that many companies are considering New York or California, places too expensive to enter or far from their end customers. He credited the former Belgian ambassador Dirk Woutersa frequent visitor to the southeastern United States, for encouraging Belgians to “go take a look at Atlanta or Charlotte (NC) or Greenville (SC), those kinds of cities where we also have a very active relationship. » Former Consul General Guillaume de Baets also played a key role in promoting the region in Belgium.

What’s different at this time is that while the South remains a growing manufacturing hub, Atlanta in particular is carving out a niche at the intersection of many forward-looking industries, from technology to film and to the music.

“The fact that Atlanta is so strong in technology, but also so strong in cultural industries, in general, is similar to what we have in Belgium as well. And when you look at the composition of the delegation, a very, very large number of companies that come are actually in this creative sector,” Gerebtzoff said.

The group will also include companies in biopharmaceuticals, fintech, agriculture, artificial intelligence, advanced logistics and other sectors where key “commonalities” exist with Georgia’s strengths, said said Mr. Gerebtzoff. A little-known example of Belgian innovation at work in the South is the Van Gogh Experience, an immersive digital exhibition of the Dutch painter’s work, made possible by projectors and 3D mapping technology from Belgian companies. Companies joining the delegation will include composers of video game music, software for utilities and many more.

As a former forest and water engineer who got his start in the private sector, Gerebtzoff sees an analogy in the way Belgium and Georgia are embracing diverse industrial ecosystems.

“I’m a bioengineer, and we know that the maximum level of diversity, of richness is always at the border between two different environments,” he said. “I always look at the boundaries of these things.”

The itinerary of the delegation is currently unfolding, including visits to the local operations of Belgian companies UCB and Solvaydiversity talks with Atlanta business leaders and dinner at the law firm of King and Spalding. A supply chain public event with the Flemish Minister-President John Ham just released, one of the limited engagement opportunities for companies that have not yet been included in matchmaking meetings.

Engineers and Diplomats

Mr. Gerebtzoff is perhaps more fascinated than most diplomats with the inner workings of corporate innovators, given his unconventional background in the foreign service, one of his three “dream professions” as a young.

He graduated from the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences in Gembloux, Belgiumbelieving that he could work backwards from engineering to his other desired fields of diplomacy and education.

“So that’s what I did, and I’m pretty happy about it because, indeed, being an engineer doesn’t close too many doors,” he told Global Atlanta.

At 30, Mr. Gerebtzoff has achieved a second goal, to pass the foreign service exam and pass a panel of investigators to become one of 15 new diplomats selected from a pool of 5,000 applicants.

“At the end, they said, ‘You know, you don’t really fit the bill.’ At the same time, we in Belgium have a lot of atypical people for many reasons,” he said.

His background in highly technical areas discussed in the interview, from cybersecurity to energy policy, helped him outshine others who were better at politics or law, well-trodden paths to diplomacy.

“People perceive us as primarily communicators, but I get the job done, and from 20 years of experience that I’ve had as a diplomat, we’re actually tech people too,” he said. he said, noting the importance of attention to detail in tasks such as drafting multilateral policy communiqués and helping to think through the logistical challenges of getting Belgian military equipment from Port of Antwerp for Ukraine — a real-life scenario Mr. Gerebtzoff worked on long before Russia invaded the country in February.

Ukraine’s predicament has spilled over to Belgium in multiple ways, from Brussels’ role as host of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and as a place of discussion on European Union stock. As the seat of both, Belgium sits at the crossroads of multilateralism, a country of 10 million people which Gerebtzoff said has outsized influence because of its convening role.

“Belgium, being a country that is not generally suspected of having a very strong personal or own agenda, we have always played this role of a place where people or countries can meet,” he said. .

Ironically, this helped Belgium secure a seat at many tables where they normally wouldn’t have been invited. “We are very well represented wherever we need to be,” Gerebtzoff said.

Ukraine, pandemic and geopolitics

The day of the consular conversation at Miller & Martinin Atlanta, an extraordinary NATO summit was held to determine an action plan to respond to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. About a thousand new journalists were accredited to cover it, showing how the eyes of the world were on Brussels. Although a once-in-a-lifetime event, business was also business as usual for the city: the G7 summit was scheduled for later in the week, where President Biden and other heads of state would make statements affecting the future of many of the world’s largest economies.

“Really, I am impressed by what has been achieved since the beginning of the war, in terms of transatlantic solidarity,” Mr Gerebtzoff said, noting that the EU and NATO have realized the need for more funding. their armies. . “I believe one of the bets Putin made was that the West would be too divided to really confront his offensive, and it didn’t.”

Europe has made gestures that have gone largely unseen, but have had a huge impact on fleeing Ukrainians seeking refuge – a huge burden for frontline border countries like Poland. At EU level, fees for train tickets have been abolished and access has been provided to social security and benefits.

In Belgium, many individuals have opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees, encouraged by government policies aimed at helping the 5 million Ukrainians who have settled there. The state has provided an insurance policy to those hosting refugees in a bid to encourage their generosity, while the Ministry of Education has used the lessons of pandemic-era distance learning to ensure that Ukrainian children continue to learn in their mother tongue.

Mr. Gerebtzoff, Russian speaker born in Swiss to the father who served as an official for the World Health Organization, tries to avoid being sucked into the information ‘black hole’ around war, but he said it provides even more evidence, in addition to a pandemic, that the world is more interconnected than ever – and should act that way, even in the midst of a downturn in globalization.

Before coming to Atlanta, the consul general worked as deputy chief of staff in the office of the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, where he was part of a body responsible for managing the international aspects of the country’s response to the pandemic. Very quickly, it became clear that Belgium – a multilateral hub and one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers – needed to maintain a mindset of engagement, despite the fact that its density and openness may have contributed to an early death rate from COVID-19 that was among the highest in the world.

“In the very early days of the crisis, countries tended to really close borders and take all kinds of restrictive measures. It didn’t even take a week to reopen everything and we decided, ‘We’re not going to rush in and let the most powerful or the wealthiest country get all the vaccines and the rest stay on the sidelines.’ We are going to have a system which distributes the vaccinated among the different countries and we have fully played this European card.

Belgium never restricted vaccine exports, a politically difficult but economically necessary decision, and the result was that millions of doses ended up in the hands of the United States and later, in developing countries. Vaccines, biologics and other drugs account for about half of Belgium’s nearly $25 billion in exports to the United States in any given year.

Mr. Gerebtzoff relished the challenge of managing the pandemic, but it was hard work, so he was excited to reach Atlanta and the South, where he expected to find natural beauty, personal hospitality and hospitality. economic dynamism, but it has been somewhat taken aback by the degree of racial separation the lack of public infrastructure for bicycling and transportation.

Even in less than two years since its arrival in August 2020, the publication reiterated that “we can’t just tend to our gardens” and that global issues have local impacts. For Belgium, with a population like that of Georgia, the question is always in the foreground.

“It’s part of who we are; it really is our DNA.

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