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An interview with Jan Bayart, Ambassador of Belgium

In this interview ambassador Bayart shares his first impressions on Norway, its relations with Belgium, the role of the embassy, and Belgium itself.
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Ambassador Bayart in his office posing in front of a map of Norway

How did you find yourself on the path to becoming an ambassador?

I joined the Belgian diplomatic service in 1996, at the age of 26. This was a project I pursued from a fairly young age. Then, as now, it took passing a competitive entrance exam. So I deliberately tailored parts of my studies towards this goal. Over the past 27 years, I have been assigned to various positions both at headquarters and in diplomatic posts abroad. Taking on the role of ambassador for the first time is both a logical next step and at the same time an exciting new challenge that I am looking forward to embrace.


Do you have any first impressions on Norway to share?

My first impressions of Oslo are definitely positive. The city is spacious and clean, and feels like a comfortable place to live; though expensive compared to other European cities. Public transport is on point, and the city offers an interesting blend of new and older architecture. Plus, the fjord definitely gives Oslo an extra layer of charm. Unfortunately, at this stage, my impressions of Norway do not reach much further than the capital.

That said, Norwegians from different walks of life have already advised me not to make the “capital mistake” to consider the impressions and opinions I come across in Oslo as representative for the country as a whole. Norway covers a truly gigantic territory, both in terms of land and maritime space, compared to most European countries. Travel time between  the various cities and counties can be considerable, and each region has its own unique circumstances and perspectives. This is all the more significant given their economic or academic importance. I received this message well. I am planning to venture out to cities such as Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim, and Tromsø to start with. The Belgian honorary consuls there gave me a first brief but I am looking forward to discovering it for myself. And given the opportunity, I would like to discover more of Norway’s captivating coastline.


How would you define the role of an ambassador?

The role of an ambassador traditionally centres on facilitating mutual understanding and cooperation between the sending country and the host state. To accomplish this, an ambassador should understand - and be able to explain to actors at home - the historical, cultural, economic, and political factors that influence decision-making in the country where they are posted. This requires consulting various reliable sources and pursuing a continuous dialogue with a wide array of interlocutors. Based on this understanding, ambassadors have three tasks to fulfil. They should accurately convey to their home country the rationale and motivations behind the host state’s decisions. They should also advocate for their own country’s positions to the authorities of the host country. And finally they should negotiate agreements on that basis. Beyond this, embassies are also called upon to engage with a broader public to market their country as a positive brand and potential partner.

This comprehensive role covers many fields of activity, so luckily ambassadors can count on some support. For instance, our embassy in Oslo includes trade and investment counsellors who work for the different constituent regions of Belgium. They are available to assist Belgian companies looking to export to Norway or invest here, as well as to guide Norwegian firms interested in investing in Belgium. In addition, representatives of Belgium’s regions also foster cooperation in various other sectors, including cultural and academic exchange, even though not all of them are based in Oslo.

Moreover, like most Belgian embassies, our embassy in Oslo is also a consulate. Belgians living in Norway can count on it for a number of services which a town hall in Belgium would also make available to its citizens. I would certainly recommend that any Belgians who make Norway their home register with the embassy as soon as possible. Belgians in need of assistance, whether living in or traveling to Norway, can also count on the embassy, as outlined in the Belgian consular code.  Our consular tasks are important and well-defined, ensuring that those in need know what they can expect.


How would you describe the relationship between Norway and Belgium? 

The relationship between Norway and Belgium is excellent. It is rooted in a rich history with great potential for the future. Our interactions have consistently been guided by a pragmatic and constructive approach, aimed at mutually beneficial outcomes. While this may lack poetic flair, it has worked very well in the past and I am confident it will in the future.

We are both nations of seafarers and seaport managers. We know that, contrary to separating us, the North Sea in fact brings us together. Cities like Bruges, Antwerp, Bergen, and Oslo all share a Hanseatic legacy of some sort. In the 20th century, this maritime connection deepened as Antwerp again emerged as a major port in Europe, while Norway expanded its merchant fleet to impressive proportions. Such developments naturally spurred a lot of exchange and cooperation.

One of the most tangible manifestations of both nowadays is the flow of Norwegian natural gas to Belgium's Zeebrugge port, from where Belgian infrastructure distributes it further to the European demographic and economic heartland. This illustrates the fundamental interconnectedness between our countries. I recently observed in Fredrikstad that in industry too, Norwegian and Belgian engineers successfully match and complement each country’s strengths. Our countries have the potential to be "stronger together" across quite a number of fields.

But there is more. I strongly believe that as European countries we share a community of destiny by the mere fact that we are confronted by common challenges that inevitably affect us all. This sense of collective fate was perhaps felt most palpably during the Second World War, a tragedy that neither Norway nor Belgium escaped. Afterwards both Norway and Belgium sought collective security through NATO. The war of aggression that Russia has waged on Ukraine unfortunately teaches us that this remains important to this day.

Norway opted for a different path to Belgium by remaining outside the European Union; a decision Belgium fully respects. Nonetheless, Norway maintains a specific and intensive relationship with the EU. And whatever the exact framework of their relationship, I firmly believe that Norway, Belgium, and other European countries face a number of common challenges in preserving their security and prosperity, and that cooperation remains key in achieving those goals.


Which are the top priorities you are hoping to work on during your time in Norway? Where do you think the two countries can team up even better?

Our cooperation in the field of gas supplies to Europe has been very successful. I am confident that this will continue well into the future. However, as times change, so too must our strategies. Both Norway and Belgium share a commitment to mitigating climate change, and this goal necessitates an energy transition towards electricity and fuels without carbon emission. To that end, we should explore shared and mutual opportunities at hand. This is particularly relevant when considering cooperation between the countries bordering the North Sea. In fact, earlier this year, the Belgian Prime Minister convened the heads of government of the North Sea coastal states at The North Sea Summit II in Ostend to discuss exactly these kinds of challenges and opportunities. Making such collaboration work for all involved requires many factors to be taken into account, but the potential benefits certainly make it worthwhile to take this forward.

Furthermore, let us not overlook Norway's position as an Arctic country and host of the Arctic Council. The Arctic region presents its own set of challenges and opportunities, with implications even for countries like Belgium, which do not cover Arctic territory, but do possess significant maritime and industrial interests.


Do you think the challenges and opportunities will be met during your time here?

The tenure of a Belgian ambassador is limited to just four years, while the challenges and opportunities I have mentioned will require more time than that. These are complex issues after all, both politically and technically. That said, during my time here, I aim to make a meaningful and substantial contribution.


Do you think these challenges can help make the bond between Norway and Belgium even stronger?

Yes, I do. If well managed in good understanding, these challenges have the potential to strengthen the bond between Norway and Belgium while benefiting not only both our countries, but also others around the North Sea and well beyond that in Europe.


How do you plan on getting involved with the local Belgian community?

The embassy serves as a consulate too. As such, continuing to provide a quality consular service to Belgians in Norway and Iceland is high on the agenda for me. On a more informal note, I will make sure to uphold cherished traditions, in particular the celebrations of King's Day and of course Saint Nicholas which has enchanted Belgian childhoods for many generations!


Could you tell us something more about Belgium?

There is much to tell but let me try to stick to a number of key elements that I think define what and who we are in a country of just over 11 million people on merely 32.000 km² at the heart of Europe.

Belgium has been a crossroads in Europe for a very long time. It has been a place of encounter and integration between its North and South, its Atlantic coast and a vast hinterland, its populations of Latin and of Germanic tradition, and this since the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the early rise of new realms and empires in Europe. Belgium was for instance part of the heartland of the Carolingian empire. Through later ages, Belgium has been a meeting ground for armies, merchants, and artists alike. Medieval cities such as Bruges and Antwerp served as hubs for both trade and cultural exchange, including connecting people from Scandinavia and the Mediterranean basin. Sadly, our country was also often a battlefield in the power struggles of the continent.

Belgium has been a distinct entity in Europe since the late 14th century, even if its exact borders were much in flux during the two to three centuries which followed. The complex and decentralised governance structures which prevailed then can obviously not be compared to those of a modern nation state. They are often ill understood nowadays. Our monarchs often resided elsewhere in Europe but in fact had to rule the principalities that made up present day Belgium very much according to their local rules. Maybe there is some degree of similarity with Norway during the 19th century.

On a relatively small territory, Belgium hosts historical cities and former principalities conscious of their own identity and worth. This historical context has given rise to a vigorous tradition of rights, freedoms, and rule of law - rooted in the tradition of medieval city charters. Upon gaining independence as a modern state in 1830, Belgium adopted a constitution which was quite liberal for its time. It established a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. This reflected ancient sensitivities but equally struck a good balance which drew inspiration from both British traditions and French revolutionary ideals that had both emerged in the 18th century. It served as inspiration for other countries in Europe in the 19th century. Over the last couple of decades Belgium has evolved into a federal state, with considerable powers devolved to its constituent regions.

Belgium was also the second country, following the United Kingdom, to experience the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century. This transformative period had a lasting impact on Belgian society and economy, and today’s realities still reflect much of that. Coming to terms with the impact of the Industrial Revolution laid the foundation for a model of social concertation and social welfare which very much determines how the country functions today.

Today’s Belgium has a dense industrial base, excelling particularly in pharmaceutical, chemical, and engineering companies. Our sea and airports make Belgium a major logistics hub for Europe. Belgium also hosts key international service providers, SWIFT and EUROCLEAR to name but a few, as well as of course key EU and NATO institutions. Today, and in more general terms, Belgium embraces openness for business and exchange.

Last but not least, Belgium has also been committed to European integration right from its very beginnings. This project offered Belgium a solution to the key strategic challenges it faced in its history: ensuring stability and peace in Europe for a country that was often its battlefield; gaining the benefit of market access and free trade for a densely populated country occupying a small territory and dependent on both import and export; and having a seat at the table where the nations of Europe meet to decide the order of the day. After all, if not seated at the table, one risks ending up on the menu. It should therefore not surprise that the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community in 1957 was actually negotiated in Brussels at the initiative of the Benelux countries, and under Belgian chairmanship. Belgium will again be taking up the rotating presidency of the EU during the first half of 2024. We see our country as a bridge builder among European countries, but we also remain a steadfast advocate for the core principles upon which the EU was founded.