Ambassador Van Rysselberghe: Closer to the people
by Bernard Kennedy
One of Ankara’s ambassadors can feel the pulse of the city more closely than most. He is Ambassador Marc Van Rysselberghe of Belgium, whose official home, built in 1929 as both residence and chancery, is situated in Bakanlýklar, just a few minutes from Kýzýlay. Today, the garden wall is surrounded by commercial buildings, but the downtown residence remains homely – and highly convenient, as Ambassador Van Rysselberghe points out, for shopping or boarding the subway. The Belgian envoy’s career has taken him to Japan, Korea, Lebanon, Thailand and Vietnam, and Ankara is his fourth ambassadorial posting, following Baghdad, Jakarta and Rabat. At weekends, he is busy touring Turkey in pursuit of his personal goal of understanding the country better. Our conversation took in a range of topics including the EU, Turco-Belgian relations and Belgium’s federal system.
Q I notice Belgium has just been celebrating the 175th anniversary of its independence…
A Yes, we have been celebrating both our independence and also the 25th anniversary of our federal structure. Belgian independence has to be seen in the context of a “liberal wave” of revolution-like movements in Europe in 1830. It’s striking to see how these movements feed on economic crisis, bad harvests and popular discontent. Then there is a politically aware elite, numbering sometimes only a few thousand, that gives political direction. I think that is more of less what happened in Belgium at that time. I could be mistaken – reconstructing history is not an exact science and historical views also change from time to time. As for the federal structure, we have actually had four constitutional changes in the direction of giving more autonomy both to the regions - Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels – and to the cultural communities, which do not totally overlap with the regions.
Q Are Belgians happy to be independent and at the same time to be living together regardless of ethnic and cultural differences?
A I don’t think there are really any ethnic differences. Belgium has a mix of ethnic elements. We are on the borderline of the Latin and Germanic-speaking worlds in Europe. So perhaps it’s interesting to see how we manage to find ways of living together and finding a political structure that fits the realities of the country in the cultural field – and also in the economic field because it may have begun as a cultural struggle but it has also found a breeding ground in the different economic realities in the North and the South. Of course, we are talking of a very small territory with a land area of only 30,000 square kilometres.
One thing I might add is that we have managed during all these 175 years not to have a single victim as a result of our squabbles. I think that is quite a positive thing that is often forgotten. We have put a lot of energy into it but we have always managed to resolve issues peacefully. In the end that is the most important thing – that a democratic system has the capacity to move and evolve, so that polarisation does not take terrible proportions and lead to violence.
Q How is the Turkish community in Belgium getting along? We don’t hear too much about them. Is this a case of ‘No news is good news’?
A Yes, this may be a positive indicator. Just a few days ago I had an informal visit here from our speaker of parliament Mr De Croo, and one of the visits we made was to Emirdađ in the province of Eskiţehir. Perhaps one in two of the people of Turkish origin in Belgium originate in the region around Emirdađ. The speaker went over there and he was joined by a Belgian senator of Turkish origin and we had a walk around. The city normally has about 20,000 inhabitants but in summer-time it swells to about 60,000. Some members of the community settled in Belgium; others went to the Netherlands or France. They still come back for holidays and they have built houses there.
We also went to a neighbouring village where I witnessed an unusual example of cohabitation between Sunni and Alevi creeds: a combined mosque and cemevi – something I had never imagined before. I think the name of the village was Karacalar. The region seems to have benefited from the mass emigration. It looks quite prosperous, and there was a very relaxed atmosphere. But when we talked at length with the mayor and the district governor it appears that economic problems were one of the main reasons for emigration back in the 1960s.
As you know, originally, it was meant to be a short term passage of people going over there to work and then coming back after a few years. In the event, we now have a population of about 200,000 people of Turkish origin in Belgium out of a total population of 10m. I think about half of them have now acquired Belgian nationality. They tended to settle– not all of them but a substantial part of them –in certain towns or in separate quarters of towns, which is understandable in a first stage, where people look for well known faces and language they can understand. But as generations pass the aim should be that they become mainstream Belgians. In fact, we have parliamentarians of Turkish origin and a regional minister of Turkish origin. In Emirdag we met a Belgian of Turkish origin who was a pilot in Brussels. He told me that he was bringing his children up trilingual – Dutch, French, Turkish. It was an encouraging example of social evolution. Of course I am sure that every individual has a different story to tell. There may be people who do not feel part of the Belgian community but who no longer feel totally Turkish either, and who have difficulties identifying with the group. I hope and think that in time this can be overcome.
Q What is the Belgian position on Turkish accession to the EU? Again, I haven’t seen much news about it compared to the debate in other countries…
A I haven’t seen a recent opinion poll on it. It looks as though we have been by-passed by the pollsters. So I can’t cite you percentages for popular opinion. However, I can tell you that the Belgian government has been very positive and encouraging towards Turkish membership of the EU. This was again reiterated during the visit of our speaker, who has a good grasp of the sentiments of Parliament.
We have not organized a referendum as you know on the EU constitution. But we have to push the agreement through all parliaments in Belgium which is quite a time-consuming thing. There are about seven parliaments. The federal parliament has two chambers. There are three regional parliaments for Wallonia, Brussels and Flanders. And we also have community parliaments, one for the very small German-speaking community in the East, one for the francophones and one for the Flemish. In fact, it’s an asymmetric system because the Flemish community and regional parliaments are combined. However, in no Parliament is there any significant opposition.
That doesn’t mean that we do not have parties who have second thoughts or which are opposed [to Turkish membership]. There is a right-wing party on the Flemish side which is definitely against, and the Christian Democrat segment of the political spectrum has not made up its mind totally. However, the socialist-liberal components of the present coalition government apparently are very strongly in favour of Turkey joining the European Union and starting accession talks on October 3.
Q What do you think the outcome will be?
A Well I’m not a clairvoyant. I am also reluctant to comment on what other countries will do. Belgium hopes that the negotiations will start on October 3. The rest is speculation.
Q Do you sense any dissatisfaction in Turkey in recent months or any loss of leverage for the EU in Turkey?
A I know what the various politically active people in Turkey are thinking. Of course I have contact with them. There are recent declarations of the prime minister vis-ŕ-vis another European member country. There are declarations to the effect that Turkey will certainly not accept additional criteria added to the ones that were agreed on the 17th of December. I follow that very attentively.
Q How would you sum up bilateral relations between Turkey and Belgium, apart from Belgium’s position on the Turkey’s EU membership.
A Well, we have already mentioned the community of Turkish origin in Belgium. In tourism, Turkey has this year become the number one foreign destination for Belgians, ahead of Spain, which used to be the traditional number one. Of course there have been some disturbances this summer, and we hope that this will remain under control. Turkey is an important commercial partner. Last year we had a volume of trade of over €4bn. The trade balance was in our favour but Turkey increased its exports more than we increased ours. We have had an important investment announcement by the Belgian-Dutch bank Fortis Bank, which has bought Dýţbank, and which will appear on Turkish streets as Fortis Bank in the Autumn. We have had important investments before. Just to cite a couple, Deceuninck-Egepen, which makes frames for windows and doors, is a market leader in Turkey. This is an example of a medium-size, family-run business that is expanding into a kind of regional or multilateral player. And Tractebel has invested substantially in the energy sector. In fact, the electricity of Ankara is generated by a combined gas turbine power plant situated about 40km from Ankara that was inaugurated last year during a visit by our Crown Prince.
Coming to visits, we’ve had several visits of the Turkish prime minister and foreign minister to Brussels. It’s a continuous stream of visits, of course, not for Belgium proper but because we happen to host the executive branch of the EU and also to some extent the European Parliament in Brussels, and also the headquarters of NATO. At the end of last year we had an official visit from the speaker of our parliament, Herman De Croo, who was here again just recently on an informal visit. We also had visits from Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht. All these are indications of the very close relationship which we have with Turkey.
Q As an embassy what do you spend most of your time on?
A Well certainly on political developments. Consular matters are very important as you can imagine because of our huge community of Turkish origin. If you come here in the morning you will see that we are a very busy, much-visited embassy due to the visa requirement. And then there are lots of related consular activities such as marriages (and sometimes divorces). The tourists that visit Turkey are sometimes involved in problems that we have to take care of, and so on.
We have regionalised foreign commercial relations and we have actually three commercial attaches, one here in Ankara, who represents Wallonia, and two in Istanbul, for Flanders and Brussels. They also take care of each other’s interests actually - so not too much energy is lost and there is no sterile competition. Culture and education, including the international aspects, are exclusively in the competence of the cultural communities in Belgium, but they make use of us, the federal services, as a go-between because they do not have direct representation here on the spot.
Q On a more personal note, how long have you been in Turkey, had you visited the country before, and what were your responsibilities immediately before you came here?
A I came to Turkey in September last year. I came straight from Brussels where I was head of foreign personnel. The risk with diplomats when they stay abroad for too long is that they lose touch with the realities of their own country. We have to go back to Belgium after every two postings abroad, and a posting lasts 3-4 years, so we have to go back to Brussels for a 3-4 year period every 7-8 years.
When I was in Iraq I visited Eastern Turkey by car. I went up to Lake Van, Dogubeyazit and Artvin, followed the Black Sea coast to Trabzon, and then returned via Erzurum, Diyarbakir and Siirt. And when I came out of Iraq at the end of 1990, I drove along the whole southern coast. I had also been here on other occasions to visit Istanbul and Cappadocia. So before I came here as ambassador I already had at least a visual appreciation of the diversity of the country.
Q Were you pleased to be appointed to Turkey?
A Yes, I tried my best when I was in Brussels to come to Turkey. In my previous postings I had met several Turkish diplomats, some of whom I got rather well acquainted with, and they always impressed me with their intellectual level and human qualities. So that was one factor. And then the importance of Turkey in the present stage of its history vis-a-vis the European Union was certainly another reason to be interested in coming to Turkey.
Q Has it matched up to expecations?
A This is the time when we make our annual report to Brussels, and the past year has clearly been a very active time in terms of Turkish preparation to become a member of the EU - and in terms of European preparations too, of course, because it is a two-way process. Yes it is living up to expectations. But then again I have never had any regrets in any of my postings. It’s no good being happy in the past or in the future. One has to try to be happy in the present and make the best of it in order to improve the future. One has to have that philosophy as a diplomat.
Q How do you find living in Ankara?
A It has characteristics of large, fast-growing cities all over the world. At the same time, there are very distinct districts. And of course there are Turks here from many different regions. The language barrier can be a little bit frustrating. This is a very Turkish city, there isn’t much tourism, and it’s rather exceptional to find ordinary citizens who speak English fluently. Similarly, the cultural life is very Turkish. It’s hard to go to a theatrical performance or see a Turkish film if you don’t understand it, or to listen to Turkish music when you don’t get the lyrics. I hope to improve my Turkish and to have easier direct contact with people, rather than talking through interpreters which always contributes to a substantial loss in contact. One should be constantly prepared to learn languages.
(DIPLOMAT - August 2005 - Ankara)