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Country of no holidays from Geopolitics

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Mr. Yves Leterme, former Prime Minister of Belgium and Deputy Secretary General of the Paris-based OECD.

In a 15th-century priory nestled away in a prestigious neighbourhood of Geneva, an exclusive audience from Europe, Asia, and Africa (under the program focused on International Relations and Global Politics) gathered on the gorgeous grounds of a university before His Excellency Yves Leterme, former Prime Minister of Belgium and Deputy Secretary General of the Paris-based OECD. He was speaking as part of the Geneva Lecture Series concepted and conducted by Professor Anis H. Bajrektarevic.

Until recently, a basic principle of good governance was summarised in the motto “To govern is to foresee“. Now increasingly, it sounds “To govern is to manage the unforeseeable.”

This was the starting point of the presentation by his Excellency Yves Leterme.

Prime Minister deeply impressed students with a combination of rational political and business approaches, a clear definition of key topics in society, and providing enough space for discussion from various perspectives. Political decisions and plans Mr. Yves Leterme has made throughout his career are built on well-known characteristics of Belgium, the current situation of its economy, history, and his ability to predict the situation in the world.

“The basic idea of government is how to take responsibility to manage public affairs, to manage unpredictable situations and events, political energy, and opinion-making with importance to manage unpredictable and crisis situations”.

Topics touched and following interview were focused on governing the rapidly changing world, demographic explosion, climate change, and shortages, geopolitical shifts, globalization, information society, uberization, and democracy vs. autocracy. 

Speaking about building up a business relationship, Yves Leterme claims that the capacity of the EU to develop a real strategic economic autonomy and independence is limited, starting from the mere fact that EU faces a lack of the so needed natural resources which will be key for future sustainable economic development. Europe is in fact the only part of the world that is almost completely deprived of the key energy and rare material resources. This should be the starting point for the external and global engagement by the EU in its Foreign Affairs, Security and Trade Relations. According to Yves Leterme, Europe has to be cautious in stressing the conditionality of its engagement based on its values such as human rights, democracy, etc. It is fair to defend values as Europeans do, but at the end of the day international relations and diplomacy are also about defending interests.

European politics is focused on the Green Deal. People generally need optimism to achieve targets such as the reduction of fossil fuels, energy mix and CO2 reduction. A critical remark is that we are very ambitious in transport system cars and fossil fuel-driven cars. When it comes to semiconductors, batteries, and all components, Europe in not ready for advanced technologies on the market yet. Fossil fuel car reduction is possible when people make it their own topic. It is about consumer behaviour, price setting, and social policies. People have to work very hard to meet the targets, says Yves during discussion. There is a risk that these ambitious changes will have a dramatic impact on the industrial sectors. Chinese market is advanced regarding electric cars, and car assembly, while the EU is not ready to protect its market. That means very hard competition with China. The EU should indeed develop its own technical capabilities, its own production and future-oriented industry. But this can never be achieved in isolation or through protectionism.

Another issue which His Excellency Leterme evaluated in his brief, but comprehensive account is the current security situation and high risks in Europe. In his view, a weakness lies in the fact that EU mandate US to take care of its security needs. “Europe needs to take care of itself and increase investments and budgetary efforts. EU shouldn’t take its security for granted and should strengthen the European pillar of NATO”.  

According to Yves Leterme, EU didn’t have to deal with any critical security issues like the war in Ukraine and Covid for 2 – 3 decades. “The economic stream flows, EU is an open society, an open economy but safety and security are more crucial than other parts. US contributes more finance to safety and security of NATO than 10 following countries. It is advisable for EU to allocate more finance to this sector”, Mr. Leterme says.

Next topic, more related to internal situation in EU countries, which was discussed with the former was the question how to solve inflation and the impact of decreasing living standards on vote preferences. Inflation helps eliminate a little bit, 11 – 12% in Belgium, in lowing the debts. The stagnation of the economy is bad for enterprises, including a problem with energy prices. The solution is Innovation, restructuring of industry growing capacities, and investments to R&D for increasing innovation and productivity of the economy.

EU is already taken important steps by investing in research and development. “We have to catch up with the train of innovation and invest in the progress of different domains”, Mr. Leterme commented.

One of the most important factors with impact of eurozone economy was Brexit in January 2020. Nevertheless, actual public meaning in UK is still diversified. There are growing tendencies to return back under the EU umbrella.

Brexit has, according to Mr. Leterme, a negative impact on the economy, the enterprises, and the daily lives of people in the UK.

According to the former Prime Minister of Belgium, it is wrong to expect a U-turn of the political leadership of the UK, asking for re-entering the EU. It is more in the interest of both the UK and the EU to negotiate a specific trade and investment agreement and to develop specific framework for people-to-people relations and for travel between the UK and the EU Member States. And of course, there are common security and migration concerns that must be well managed.

Being the former Prime Minister of Belgium Yves Leterme also naturally focused on current role of Belgium in EU politics and NATO. Even more than it is the case in other Western democracies, the political decision-making in Belgium is often blocked. Currently seven different parties are needed to form a government. The consequence is of course complexity and difficulties to find compromises that work. Belgium is blessed by hosting the EU and NATO headquarters. Major parts of its political decision making are structured by this European and Atlantic framework.

At the end of the discussion Yves Leterme recommended to all students and young people to stick to their dreams. “Invest in fulfilling your dreams and expectations”, Leterme said. People too easily drop their dreams to take up jobs that don’t make them happy and that are not in line with their expectations. His recommendation is to be ready to invest, to develop interests, take some risks and always put energy and time in achieving your dreams.

Belgium in brief

  • Belgium is a sovereign state with a parliamentary system, complex structure and centrifugal federalism which mean multilevel governance, no national parties, language, newspapers, public opinion.
  • Belgium is multilingual country with language dialects. It is divided into tree highly autonomous regions the Flemish Region – Flanders, in the north, the Walloon Region -Wallonia, in the south and the Brussels-Capital Region. Brussels is the smallest and most densely populated region, as well as the richest region in terms of GDP per capital.
  • The country has two main linguistic communities: the Dutch speaking Flemish and French speaking community and in the East Cantons, and about one percent German speaking population. The Brussels-Capital Region is officially bilingual, French and Dutch.
  • The complex system of governance is made up of six different governments related to linguistic diversity as Christian Democratic and Flemish (CD&V), Groen, New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats (Open Vld), Forward (Vooruit) and Vlaams Belang. There are no tendencies for separatism. However, the political parties are mostly of regional outreach.
  • An important milestones in history of Belgium were the Peaceful transition on 20 December 1830 – creation of Belgium and Industrial revolution turning Belgium into an industrial power house with the large overseas dominions, such as the former Belgian Congo.
  • Belgium was the first country in continental Europe to experience the Industrial Revolution and was the most intensively industrialized country in the world throughout most of the 19th century, with a focus on iron, coal, and textile production.
  • Belgium now is the second most open economy in the world focused on chemistry, pharma, SMS’,  and export generally; strong economy, based on innovations with firm human capital.

Yves Leterme journey through institutions, personal and political background

  • Yves Leterme was born on 6 October 1960 in the city of Wervik, West Flanders.
  • Mr. Leterme studied law at the Catholic University of Leuven where he received a LL.B. degree in 1981 and then studied at Ghent University where he obtained a BSc degree in Political Science (1983), a LL.M. degree (1984), and a MPA degree in 1985.
  • Yves Leterme has obtained different political responsibilities at all levels, including Minister President of Flanders (2004-07), Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs (2009), State Vice-Premier (2007) and the State Prime Minister (2008 and 2009-11).
  • During his tenure as Prime Minister, Belgium held the Presidency of the EU (II 2010).
  • After leaving active politics in Belgium, Yves Leterme was Deputy Secretary General of the Paris-based OECD (2012-16) and Secretary General of International IDEA (Stockholm).
  • He is or was active in different companies and organisations like TeleColumbus AG, Volkswagen AG, UEFA, Tojoy, Kofi Annan Foundation, Themanagementlab, Equanim …
  • Yves Leterme is a member of the Board of Club de Madrid and a Trustee of the Nizami Ganjavi International Center.
  • Despite very successful political and business career, Yves Leterme, was very open to speak with students, discuss various perspectives, find solutions and support others with their own activities and personal growth. 

About the author:

Jana Žaludová, Chief development officer at Charles University Innovation Prague.

Jana Žaludová is a Chief development officer at Charles University Innovation Prague, in Czech Republic.

She graduated in Regional Policy and Public Administration and in Andragogy with focus on Human Resource Management, she is a PhD student at the Information and Knowledge Management and a graduate of educational programs focused on technology transfer.

Her activities are focused on transfer technologies to business, building bridges between academic and business sphere, especially in BioTech, medical devices.