BELGIUM: 'The fight against terrorism is a common fight'
Karin Palmquist

Along with several other European countries, Belgium vehemently opposed the American-led military intervention in Iraq - a discord that caused a seldom-seen rift between Europe and the United States. asked Belgium's ambassador to the United States, Frans van Daele, if he perceives any lingering tensions with the United States after the differences over the war in Iraq. Below are excerpts from the interview.

"The relations between Europe and the United States are definitely returning to normal. After the difficulties of last year you can see the relationship improving in different forms of cooperation. I'm thinking of Afghanistan and the common efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Iraq.

"Another proof of things returning to normal is the series of top-level transatlantic meetings that are taking place this month. In Europe you have the meetings in connection with the anniversary of the Normandy landing. Then there is the G7-G8 summit in the United States, the US-EU summit and the Istanbul [NATO] meeting at the end of the month.

"My country is actively contributing to this normalization. Belgium is committed to the stabilization of Afghanistan through an increased military presence, doubling the number of Belgian troops from 300 to 600, and deciding, at the request of NATO, to put an additional military transport plane at the service of that operation.

"As for the fight against terrorism, cooperation between the law enforcement agencies in Belgium and in the United States is quite intense. A couple of weeks ago we had basically all leading figures of our police and law enforcement agencies here in Washington to meet with their American counterparts. The fight against terrorism is perceived as a common fight and we are very much involved, both militarily in Afghanistan and in the area of law enforcement.

"The controversy over Iraq is well known. Since 9/11 we have been trying to fight a series of common challenges. Immediately after 9/11 there was a meeting of all the heads of state under the Belgian Presidency of the EU and we issued a declaration of strong political solidarity with the United States. From the very beginning we were standing very much together in fighting this common challenge. As for Iraq, of course there were differences of opinion, but all European countries want the reconstruction and stabilization of Iraq to succeed. This is not just an American interest. It is also a European interest. This is the reason why Belgium has offered different forms of help. At the donor conference in Madrid, Belgium offered to help. For example, we are training Iraqi police in Amman, Jordan. 

"Relations between Belgium and the USA are definitely back to normal. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Michel was here last week for a very successful visit. This visit was a first follow-up to a meeting he and Colin Powell had in Brussels in November of last year. There again you have proof that relations are returning to normal."  

Asked what his country's position is on a NATO presence in Iraq, the ambassador was quite clear.

"Essentially for reasons of perception in the Arab world, we do not think it is the best of ideas to have NATO exposed and engaged in Iraq at this stage, but if other allies would find it necessary to do so, we would not oppose it. We continue to think that the first priority of NATO should be Afghanistan. The need and the opportunity for NATO to be active in a productive manner is greater in Afghanistan than in Iraq. We are not in a position to send troops to Iraq, given our engagements in Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Congo. But we won't oppose our allies sending troops to Iraq. We will however cooperate in the reconstruction of Iraq, for example through police training."

Asked to elaborate on why his country would not take part in a NATO effort, he said:

"For instance there is the simple reason that we are already stretched to the limit. We already have a military presence in Kosovo, Bosnia, Congo and Afghanistan."

Asked to comment on America's military might vis-ą-vis that of European armies, and the importance of America's ability to project its forces to distant places to fight wars on behalf of Euro-American interests, the ambassador stressed the importance of Europe's role.   

"Since the so-called Berlin Plus arrangement, a margin within the alliance has been created for military autonomy and development of military capabilities on the European side. It hinges on a couple of simple rules: if NATO does not want to undertake a military mission, the European Union can, using common assets that NATO controls. If the EU doesn't need NATO assets, it can undertake operations on its own in a smaller dimension.  

"Military power is one instrument, alongside other tools and other instruments. To give you an example, the contribution we are making to stability through the expansion of the EU to include ten new member states is a very important one. Military power is not the only tool you can use to stabilize a situation. I think European countries are well versed in this."

Asked what lessons both the United States and Europe might have learned from the unexpected rift that divided them over the war in Iraq, he said:

"We all learned a lot through what happened. It is necessary to talk as much as possible with each other, even to revisit all kinds of communication channels. It is a fact that nowadays, part of our [transatlantic] communication is channeled through NATO, parts of our relations are bilateral, and some others go through the European Union. Then you are left with a question: Where does the strategic dialogue take place? It is my personal opinion that we should increase as much as we can meaningful political and strategic dialogue.

"I think the second point I would make is that after having tested the waters, it has become clear that Europe and the United States share the same strategic challenges. Differences pertain to means and style rather than objectives." 

The European Union has increasingly taken over tasks that were earlier the responsibility of individual European ambassadors. How has the European Union changed the way European ambassadors work?

"There is still a lot of purely bilateral work. But yes, the EU does impact on the work of a European ambassador in the United States. For many subjects there is a common European position. For an increasing number of fields we have not only the 25 European ambassadors speaking, but also a common representation. The ambassador of the European Union takes care of what we call community matters. Everything that belongs to the realm of trade is negotiated by the EU ambassador."

Giving examples of his purely bi-lateral work, the ambassador referred to collaboration between Belgium and the United States on security matters, and mentioned that his country is looking for a suitable location in Washington to erect a sculpture by a Belgian artist commemorating the Battle of the Bulge.

The Battle of the Bulge was fought primarily on Belgian and Luxembourgian territory, and was the single biggest and bloodiest battle American soldiers fought during the Second World War. Sixteen thousand Americans lost their lives and 60,000 were wounded or captured resisting the German offensive, which was designed to split the American-British alliance. Thirty German divisions - a quarter of a million soldiers - caught the Allies by surprise on December 16, 1944 when they stormed across the Allied front. The losses were massive. In some places, the Allies were outnumbered ten to one. The battle lasted for a month and a half and ended with the American troops reclaiming the lines they had held when the battle began.

Brussels, the Belgian capital, is really the heart of European Union, with many of the institutions that make up the core of the organization located there. We asked the ambassador what Belgium's opinion is of the recent enlargement of the European Union.

"Belgium has always been very much in favor of further integration. It comes from being one of six founding members, and a country that has benefited immensely from being a member. We were very much in favor of enlargement. I believe that with the enlargement, peace and stability are now consolidated. At the meeting of the European Council in Nice, Belgium fought for the ten candidate countries to be treated at par in the distribution of voting power."

Asked what Belgium's stance is on the inclusion of Turkey in the EU, the ambassador indicated that his government's policy is clear.

"The position of my government is very clear and in line with the stated position of the Union. If and when Turkey meets the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which were the criteria worked out for the ten new member states, negotiations can be opened. There are three sets of these criteria : the political criteria, such as the rule of law, democratic governance and respect for human rights; the economic criteria, which include a market economy, open market, economic sustainability; and, thirdly, the capability of implementing common EU laws. We feel that Turkey has made enormous progress to meet these criteria."

Asked about the impact on Belgium of the expansion of the European Union, and if his country has seen the realization of fears voiced by opponents of expansion, such as East European workers flooding into West Europe, he said:

"Enlargement is a powerful tool for stability and prosperity in Eastern Europe. The best neighbors one can have are of course neighbors that benefit from all the stability and prosperity that is available. Beyond that, we felt the enlargement was historically just."

"The worries were addressed during the negotiations," the ambassador continued. "For instance, past enlargements, where the GDP of the new members was beneath the EU average at the time, did not lead to massive migration. Over time, we have seen that the growth rates of our new member states tend to be higher than the EU average. They are catching up. Moreover, enlargement is not an economic one-way street; soon it will be a two-way street for all countries involved."

Baron Frans van Daele

Ambassador of Belgium in Washington, D.C.

Frans van Daele, Belgium's Ambassador to the United States, arrived in Washington on August 1, 2002.  The Ambassador's mandate is to strengthen and broaden the relationship between Belgium and the United States, with special emphasis on the multilateral dimension of cooperation.

Ambassador van Daele joined the Belgian Foreign Service in 1971 and his long career has included  bilateral and multilateral assignments.   He has served in Athens (1977-81) and in Rome (1986-89).   He was Deputy Permanent Representative of the Belgian Mission to the United Nations in New York between 1989 and 1993, when Belgium was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. When that posting ended, he was appointed Director General ("Under Secretary") for Political Affairs at the Foreign Ministry (1993-97).

Immediately prior to coming to Washington, van Daele was Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the European Union in Brussels, from 1997 to 2002.  During this period, he was Belgium's negotiator for the Treaty of Nice.  When Belgium had the rotating Presidency of the European Union, he chaired the Committee of Permanent Representatives.  Belgium used its Presidency to actively craft compromises, to bridge differences between partners and to build consensus every step of the way.  In this spirit, the groundwork was laid for the European Convention responsible for drafting the text of the EU-Constitution.  Moreover, many European measures in the fight against terrorism were taken in this period.  Ambassador van Daele's double experience as an actor in the EU system and as a privileged observer of political reality in the US provides a unique perspective on the transatlantic relationship. In 2002, for services rendered, particularly in the field of European integration, he was knighted by King Albert, who conferred on him the title of baron.

Frans van Daele was born on October 24, 1947 in Oostburg, the Netherlands.  He is married and has three grown children. He has an MA in Philosophy and Arts from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Throughout his career he has kept a strong interest in the arts.  He and his wife Chris are enjoying the rich artistic life of Washington, D.C.