“Promoting cooperation between countries is an unlimited task”
Text: Martina Hošková and M. Zisso; Photo: archive
This is our farewell interview with H.E. Mr. Gregoire Cuvelier, Ambassador of Belgium, after his four years of diplomatic service in Prague. As a young man, he studied philosophy. We believe it could be a worthwhile philosophical task to reflect on the fact that he started our talk with the words “thank you”, and concluded it with “bring lasting peace to Europe”.
Tell us about yourself.
Thank you, first of all, for your invitation to give an interview to the excellent “Czech & Slovak Leaders” magazine. I believe that it is now, as my departure approaches, that I can best draw conclusions from my stay in Prague. To introduce myself in two words, I would say that I studied philosophy, am married to Bernadette Van Quaethoven, and we have four children and three grandchildren. I am a career diplomat, and we are particularly happy to be posted to the Czech Republic.
What made you become an ambassador?
I became a diplomat because it’s a job that, in all of its diversity, gives a great openness to human beings in many fields of activity, since it’s a job that you practice in different countries and cultural contexts. Another motivation was for me to serve the State, which is a bit, I believe, a vocation.
All of this gives diplomacy its unique character, which is to combine things that rarely come together, namely change and stability. Indeed, the diplomat changes his country, work colleagues, and files every three or four years, but at the same time he keeps the same employer throughout his career.
You have been in the Czech Republic for almost four years. Can you share some of your impressions?
My wife and I arrived in Prague in August 2019, and were blown away by the beauty and irresistible charm of the city. In addition to its well-known Baroque heritage, we have learned to discover all of its other architectural marvels: Art Nouveau, Rondocubism, Modernism… which make it a city of multiple beauties. And when I presented my credentials to President Zeman, he welcomed me to “the most beautiful city in the world”. There are obviously other very beautiful cities in the world, but it is true that Prague has a particular charm, which gives its beauty a unique character, carrying a real„genius loci“, as the architectural theorist Christian Norberg-schultz explains it.
I was also struck by the quality of the welcome given to me by the Czechs, in particular at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Work relations are pleasant and efficient – we are really “like-minded”. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which suspended the normal functioning of society for almost two years. The embassies were very affected, since their work is essentially based on meeting new interlocutors and organizing events… The COVID-19 pandemic, however, allowed me to experience new professional experiences, such as the repatriation of Belgian tourists in transit through Prague, from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Nepal, which Czech Airlines had flown back to Europe as part of a European mutual aid program. Here too, I was able to appreciate the rigour and professionalism of the competent Czech authorities, and their real sense of solidarity. Something I would also like to mention is the presence in Prague of a particularly dynamic Diplomatic Spouse Association, which constitutes a real asset for the diplomatic community. Let me also mention another matter, which kept us very busy: my wife and I had to leave the Residence that the Belgian ambassadors had occupied in Prague since 1965, and after a year spent in a temporary residence, we were lucky enough to be able to rent a perfectly suitable residence from the Czech government. It is the Diplomatic Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is our interlocutor, and we are very grateful to them for having given this possibility to Belgium.
Among the issues that we have to follow very closely, there is, obviously, the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and we can admire the very clear commitment of the government of Petr Fiala in support of this country, including by welcoming a record number of refugees. And simultaneously, our outstanding experience was of course the Czech Presidency of the EU, which was accompanied by numerous visits by Belgian ministers and senior officials, totally mobilizing the Embassy.
What is the most difficult part of being an ambassador?
It’s never being able to do everything you should be doing! An embassy must inform the authorities of the country it represents about the country where it is located, in a lot of areas. The number of staff in embassies has often been reduced in recent years, while international cooperation is intensifying. We must therefore constantly make choices and neglect certain interesting issues. In fact, promoting the establishment of cooperation between two countries is by definition an unlimited task. It is not only a question of informing, but also of explaining and convincing in order to effectively defend the interests of one’s country, which requires constant information work. Fortunately, we can count on the commitment and efficiency of our team of Czech (and Slovak!) collaborators, who are excellent and fully dedicated. And, of course, the life of diplomats also poses challenges to their families: the partners most often have to give up their own careers, and the children must constantly leave their school environment and their ring of friends. In our case, the situation was made even more complicated by the fact that we have a child with a mental handicap. I want to say that I am lucky to have a wife who has totally and effectively supported me in this endeavour!
How many countries have you served in so far?
No more than three: Sweden, France, and the Czech Republic. It’s not much, but it’s linked to our son’s disability. For him to receive a special education in French, I had three different positions in France: at the Belgian Delegation to the OECD in Paris, then at the Embassy in Paris, and finally as Consul General in Lille.
What do you do in your free time?
My wife and I are exploring the fantastic cultural and artistic resources of Prague and the Czech Republic. We are very fond of early music, so we are delighted by the extraordinary Czech musical groups specializing in this repertoire, and in the marvellous churches and concert halls that dot the city.
Can you give a piece of advice to the next generation of ambassadors?
To young fellow diplomats from EU countries, I would like to advise them to exercise, at the beginning of their career, a function at the Permanent Representation of their country to the EU in Brussels. This helps better understand the dynamics of the ongoing discussions in the Council of the EU, which is very useful when one becomes an ambassador in an EU country.
How do you promote your country as a holiday destination?
The promotion of tourism in Belgium is a competence that belongs to the three Regions of Belgium. They are represented in Prague, and defend their commercial interests, with the support of the Embassy, also making themselves known as tourist destinations. We also distribute promotional material when we have the opportunity, especially during European Days.
What is the current status of Czechia – Belgium relations?
The relations between Czechoslovakia and Belgium were very good from the start. Belgium was one of the first countries to recognize the independence of Czechoslovakia, one month after its proclamation, in 1918. During the Second World War, the Belgian and Czechoslovakian governments both found refuge in London, to continue the fight with the Allies. Czechoslovakian soldiers have thus taken part in the liberation of Belgium, while Belgian soldiers participated in the liberation of Plzeň, with the American Third Army. But then came the cold war, and the fact that both countries belonged to each of the antagonistic blocs was of course an obstacle to the strengthening of the cooperation. Even under these very difficult circumstances, though, some specific cooperation took place between Belgium and Czechoslovakia – in the industrial and scientific fields. The most striking example is certainly the development of anti-AIDS drugs, including the famous tenofovir, by Professor Antonín Holý of the Czech Academy of Science and Professor De Clercq of the University of Leuven, from 1976.
The Velvet Revolution in 1989 was of course a turning point, followed by the accession of the Czech Republic to NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. Since then, the Czech Republic and Belgium are friends, partners, and allies, cooperating closely at the political, economic, and military levels. Both countries participate in building a strong and prosperous Europe, based on common values, eager for freedom and justice. We cooperate on security matters within the NATO missions “Baltic Air Policing” and “Enhanced Forward Presence”. Exchanges have grown steadily so far, except for during the COVID-19 crisis of course.
The volume of our 2022 trade reached nearly €10 billion, i.e. a growth of 18% in one year. The bigger Belgian investments in Czechia took place in the decade following the fall of the communist regime, with Glaverbel taking over the glass producer Sklo Union in Teplice, and KBC purchasing ČSOB. At present, Belgian investments most often come from SMEs, which experience dazzling growth once established here. The strengthening of interconnections also helps strengthen economic ties. This is the case with the opening of a direct rail link between the Port of Antwerp and Ústí nad Labem in 2016, and with the opening of the multimodal terminal in Mošnov-Ostrava last October, in partnership with the Port of Antwerp.
Also, let me emphasize that the cooperation of the Czech Republic is very intense with the Regions of Belgium, which are also present in Prague, under the aegis of the Embassy: the representation of the Flemish Government, as well as FIT and AWEX for the foreign trade of the regions. For example, a new cooperation program was signed last April between the Czech Government and Flanders, in the field of transport, foreign trade, environment, social affairs, culture, education, and science. And let me also mention the Flemish government’s support for the presentation of a masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel in the Lobkowicz Collections in Prague, in a special room that was inaugurated last year.
Belgium’s capital – Brussels – is the main seat of the EU authorities. The presidency of the Czech Republic in the EU Council ended on 31st December of last year. How would you comment on it, as a representative of your country?
Overall, the Czech Presidency acted as an„honest broker“, but with great efficiency thanks to its expertise and determination. The EU thus adopted under the Czech Presidency a large part of the legislative proposals that were on the agenda. The Czech Presidency has fulfilled its mission particularly well in relation to the war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis. The EU has been able to provide a strong response, in terms of political, financial, and military support to Ukraine, and through its policy of sanctions against Russia. One of the great merits of the Czech presidency is to have succeeded in maintaining EU unity on the issue of sanctions, which can affect the Member States in very variable proportions.
Through this success, the government of Petr Fiala has strengthened the image of his country in the EU, which appears more than ever as a reliable partner, capable of playing an active and constructive role in European affairs.
At the end of our interview, what would you like for the Czech Republic and Belgium?
The war of aggression of Russia against Ukraine is a key moment in European history, where our future is at stake. This unjustified and unprovoked aggression constitutes a flagrant violation of an international rules- based order, and it is totally unacceptable. I hope that our governments – together, bilaterally, and within the framework of the EU and NATO – will find the means to effectively help Ukraine restore its sovereignty, and bring lasting peace to Europe.