Cathy Buggenhout – It is imperative to overcome the legacies of the past

When countries, businesses, and people cooperate, the future always looks bright.

H.E. Cathy Buggenhout, the new ambassador of Belgium to Serbia, came back to Belgrade after 30 years and spoke with us about all the differences, Serbian striving to become a member of European family and business that our two countries try to do in this challenging times.

Cathy Buggenhout, H.E. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Belgium in Serbia

This is not your first time working on a diplomatic mission in Serbia and former Yugoslavia. The first time was during the Yugoslavian wars during the ’90s. What is your opinion on our society after 30 years of distance?

Indeed, it is great to be back again in Serbia, and now for a longer while than the seven months that I spent here in 1996 when we brought the Embassy of Belgium back to full speed after some difficult years. It would be unwise to give an opinion on changes in society after only three months of tenure as Ambassador, but of course, I am happy to share some first impressions. The Serbian people are still as enjoyable company as twenty-six years ago. There is always time for a smile and a coffee in this country. Nowadays, there is a real “great city” vibe in Belgrade. And there are cycling lanes, albeit still limited. The names of the roads have changed – in 1996, I lived on Bulevar JNA. I like the new “freedom”- name better. Back then, when crossing the bridge over the Sava to Novi Beograd, buildings basically stopped at Palata Srbije until you arrived in Zemun!  Now it is full of high risers, reflecting the true international exposure of the city.

Serbia was then chosen as a major (if not the only one) culprit. Even though this would have never been possible, we still have today’s mainstream narrative about Serbia’s disobedience from the West. What is your personal opinion on this, especially from your experience in the ’90s?

The current security environment makes it imperative to overcome the legacies of the past. We are confronted with the largest geopolitical threat of our lifetime in Europe following the Russian aggression in Ukraine. So, I would rather not dwell on the nineties, but I would look at the future.

We are confronted with the largest geopolitical threat of our lifetime in Europe following the Russian aggression in Ukraine

Disobedience is a word I associate with kids, not with a country. Serbia’s place is in Europe. My country is supportive of the EU accession of Serbia and stands for, just like for all the other EU candidate countries, a strict and fair conditionality in the accession negotiations. It is crucial to make the necessary reforms, especially regarding the fundamentals – this means, amongst others, that further work and political commitment are needed to deepen reforms and that shortcomings in areas of the judiciary, the fight against corruption and organized crime, media freedom and the domestic handling of war crimes need to be addressed. I can understand that Serbia is in a difficult position to take a strong stance towards Russia. But being a candidate country to the EU, Serbia has to align itself to the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy to the fullest possible extent.

The Modern World strives for pluralism, liberty and democracy, but often it has to offer less than expected when it comes to real life. Why is it so hard for liberal ideology to accept differences sometimes?

The core mandate of a diplomat is to diffuse tensions, resolve conflicts, and enable meaningful negotiations, whether it is in the economic or political area. As I have spent many years as a diplomat in the US, I will quote Benjamin Franklin: Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place but, far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.

For the rest, I leave the reply to this question to philosophers, historians and greater minds than mine.

Belgium supported Belgrade’s Europride in September 2022. Have you seen the festivity as it should have been or social tensions as it was? Homophobes exist in Belgium as well, but there you have a system which works to prevent incidents and protect minorities. Do you think that such a supportive and protective system is missing here in Serbia?

For Belgium, LGTBQI+ rights and the fight against discrimination are an integral part of basic human rights.  Europride Week 2022 was a milestone for Serbia, as it was the very first time that both the International Conference on Human Rights and the March were held in the Western Balkans. Allow me to remind you that the decision to hold Europride in Serbia was taken in 2019 upon Belgrade’s own candidacy, which was supported by Pride Committees from Zagreb, Thessaloniki, Sarajevo, Pristina, Skopje, Podgorica and Tirana. So, it was a tremendous opportunity for Serbia to have Europride 2022 in Belgrade.  Belgian Vice Prime Minister Mrs Petra De Sutter, the Chairwoman of the Senate Mrs Stephanie D’Hose and Brussels Regional Minister for Foreign Trade Pascal Smet all came to Belgrade to take part in the International Human Rights Conference.

We appreciate that big steps on LGTBQI rights were taken by Serbia, such as the Law on Gender, or amendments and adaptations in other laws related to birth registration or non-discrimination. On the day of March September 17, Serbia, not only as a candidate country to the EU but also as a Member of the Council of Europe, had a role as an example for the whole region. Therefore,  it was all the more regrettable that the march itself was shrouded in uncertainty and controversy. Of course, in a healthy democracy, people are entitled to different opinions – freedom of speech and thought are fundamental human rights too. But respect for human rights implies tolerance and respect for all human rights, also the ones you do not agree with. So, in short,  I see the Europride March 2022 as a missed opportunity for Serbia in terms of public image.

What are your goals in this mandate, especially considering that Serbia has a new government only a few months after your appointment in Belgrade, with a still unclear agenda and the direction in which it will go?

I think the new Serbian government would not agree with your words about an unclear agenda and direction. Both direction and agenda are clear, given the energy crisis that we are all facing in Europe. From the Government Declaration proclaimed in Parliament by Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to the first contacts that I had with the government, I see conviction and purpose. As said before, Serbia is an EU candidate country. That will be one of my work areas, as Belgium will hold the rotating Presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2024.  Then, there are economic, commercial, and consular aspects that need attention. For instance, there are, according to Eurostat figures, over 350,000 Serbian citizens working in the EU – so also in Belgium. They are the best “ambassadors for Serbia” in my country, just like our Belgian companies and Belgian people in Serbia are the best “ambassadors for Belgium” too.

Would you support an expressway for Serbia in terms of EU integration as a consolation prize for Kosovo’s recognition?

EU accession is a process based on objective benchmarks laid down in each of the negotiating chapters. It is never a consolation prize. It is my country’s profound conviction that Serbia and Kosovo can work out an agreement with mutual respect – I strongly believe in diplomacy.

How is it possible that the unilateral proclamation of Kosovo’s independence is in line with International Law and welcomed by the West, but the same proclamations in Ukraine’s Donbas region are not? Speaking strictly within the legal frames, without historical excuses, where are the differences?

If you can give me facts which fully equal the military aggression of Russia in Ukraine, starting with the illegal annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014, then I will be able to give you a precise reply to your question.

The only way to resolve disputes is through dialogue and negotiations, just like Skupstina Speaker dr. Vladimir Orlic said on November 12th, “we want to return to dialogue, and therefore two parties are necessary”. Belgium fully supports the EU-facilitated dialogue and the work of EU Special Representative Miroslav Lajčak, as well as the initiatives of individual European Union member states and other well-meaning and helpful countries. Belgium believes all issues should be addressed in the Dialogue, step by step. The focus and end-game should be on reaching a comprehensive normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which is essential for your respective European paths.

Serbia and Belgium have no open issues if we’re correct. But what about cooperation between the two? Where, in which fields can you see room for progress? Compared to some other European capitals and major cities, Brussels still looks too far from Belgrade, doesn’t it?

Of course, I happily confirm our excellent and stable bilateral relations and will do everything during my tenure to enhance them even further where possible. There are frequent bilateral contacts in Brussels because Serbian Government Ministers travel to Brussels for meetings at the European Union institutions. Belgium also always seizes opportunities for major international meetings, such as the UN General Assembly or the Francophonie Summit, to set up bilateral meetings with Serbian counterparts. But bilateral relations are more than official meetings. For instance, connecting our people. There are direct flights to Serbia from several Belgian airports – so Belgrade and Brussels are only two hours apart! The Serbian expat community in Belgium is seizable, and at the Embassy of Belgium in Belgrade, there are nearly 400 Belgian citizens registered who often also hold Serbian citizenship.

The Serbian expat community in Belgium is seizable, and at the Embassy of Belgium in Belgrade, there are nearly 400 Belgian citizens registered who often also hold Serbian citizenship

It is not because we, Belgians,  are not loud that Brussels looks far away from Belgrade. In all truthfulness, maybe we should be a bit louder and twitter a bit more on all aspects of cooperation between our two countries. Did you know that Mrs Miscevic, the Minister for Europe in the new Serbian Government, studied at the College of Europe in Bruges? Also, our Belgian businesses are manyfold in Serbia, and they have been here for a long time. Maybe it goes unnoticed, but every time you do your shopping in Maxi, there is a sign with a lion figure next to it, mentioning Delhaize, founded by the Belgian entrepreneur Jules Delhaize in 1864 and employing around 10.000 people in Serbia. One must also know that economies in the EU are highly integrated, so often, you do not see the “Belgian part”. Let me give you an example. When you use the window wipers of your car in Belgrade, the odds are that they are produced by the Bosch factory in Tienen, Belgium.

I happily confirm our excellent and stable bilateral relations and will do everything during my tenure to enhance them even further where possible

Belgian companies in Serbia are active in many sectors, from renewable (wind) energy with Elicio to more traditional ones such as Carmeuse, Cordeel, or Talent4Blinds. When talking to our business community, it is clear that they are successful and that they are also bringing innovation. Like Puratos d.o.o.,  a highly innovative Belgian global food company, said to me, and I quote, “Consumers in Belgrade, and in Serbia overall, are absolutely comparable with consumers in developed markets in the sense that they are following global trends and are willing to reward producers that offer good quality or value-added products. Therefore doing business in Serbia is as exciting and rewarding as anywhere else. Furthermore, our business results in recent years led us to the decision to invest in a new factory that is currently under construction and will strengthen our presence in this market in years to come”.

To conclude, when countries, businesses, and people cooperate together, the future always looks bright.

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