President of the Belgian Consular Union (BCU) on the Foundation and Merits of the BCU
On a certain day, I was contacted by the Consul General of Japan in Napels, an Italian whose son was studying at the College of Europe in Bruges. This man was secretary-general of the Italian Union of Honorary Consuls. That was in 1986/1987 and at that time there was in Europe only one country where a national union of the consuls existed. And this man has asked his son if there was a consul of Italy in Western Flanders. ‘Yes’, the son answered. ‘Can you ask him to come to Bruges?’, the father insisted. So that is how they asked me, as consul of Italy to Western Flanders, to come to Bruges where I met this Italian man.
He asked me during this meeting if I could found a society of consuls. I replied him that I was only consul for a couple of years now and that I couldn’t give even a complete definition of my consular work. I was just appointed. I was not the person to do that. But I didn’t want to say no, so I replied that I would think about it. No further action was taken. Years passed by and after three years still no action was taken. In the meantime I had already visited Naples two times to meet him, I met there also his family and I learned about the death of his wife who lost the battle against cancer. This was for me a turning point. I said: ‘God, I promised three years ago to do something, I didn’t take action and now this man is facing such family troubles:
I have to do something.’
So then I asked him if he could give me the addresses of the consuls in Belgium. I got these addresses and I have sent letters to these addresses. I still have a copy of this letter. I explained the consuls in this letter what was asked of me and I asked them: ‘Why not?’ It would have been pointless to found such society for consuls if the consuls would not have been interested in this. I wrote in the letter: ‘If 50 consuls can convince me that this is a good initiative, then we will do this. Otherwise we won’t.’ And I got more than 50 positive answers, amongst others from Albert Frère — I always mention this because I didn’t expect that from him — who answered me: ‘Allez-y’. So I answered these 50 consuls who confirmed their participation and invited them to come together somewhere in Brussels. This gathering happened in the office of Stefan Broeckx, with Flemish, Walloon and Brussels Consuls and with an immediately positive atmosphere. The Consul General of the Netherlands in Ghent was a well-known lawyer in Ghent and he proposed to write the Principles. Then we were discussing who would found the society. I said to them: ‘We are here with a group of around 30 consuls, if someone is interested to found the organization, this person can do this.’ Then a Consul from Wallonia, from Liège, said: ‘You took the initiative, you should do this.’ Then I indeed founded our Society.
Our Society was founded in 1993 with a first, founding gathering — if I remember correctly — in the ‘Cercle Gaulois’. We then invited as guest speaker Willy Declerq. So this was the start, with a group of 60 Consuls of the BCU, the Belgian Consular Union. At that time we were not known in Belgium. We made contact with the Belgian Chief of Protocol. We are now attached as Society to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and directly to the Chief of Protocol, Jacques De Baenst, who received us very well.
We introduced ourselves to each other. I explained our Society to him as a recently founded organization with the intention to bring the Consuls together in a context where they can meet each other.
Before that time, the Consuls didn’t know each other. There were before some provincial circles of consuls but consuls didn’t know other consular colleagues operative in other Belgian provinces. So in our Society, all Belgian Consuls could come together for the first time and respective Consuls could become friends. This was the main goal.
The second goal was to help determining the rights and duties of the Consuls through our contacts with the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, assisting each other. They decided who could become Honorary Consuls and what would be their rights and duties. These right were limited by many prohibitions.
This is how our organization started and evolved. Three years ago, the Chief of Protocol had decided to make a new verbal arrangement for the appointment of the Consuls. And this verbal note was in fact quite restricting, decreasing opportunities with further restrictions. As a society we have studied this and declared that a number of points are very difficult for us to accept. So we said to the Minister of Foreign Affairs which points we didn’t accept. We don’t decide, you decide. But these points are for us unacceptable. As a reply, he invited us then to his Cabinet where a meeting was organized with his Cabinet collaborators and with our representatives. And he invited us to outline which points were for us unacceptable and which solutions we wanted to see instead in the note. We have contested 5 points and proposed new texts for these points and these were all accepted by the Ministry. This illustrates that a society, founded 25 years ago, was having an impact after 20 years: the society was accepted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as such and the Ministry was listening to the objectives of the Consuls.
What did we achieve in all these years? First of all, we wanted to facilitate the opportunities for the Consuls to meet each other, also outside our planned events or general assemblies: therefore we composed and gave them a text, a directory, with the names, pictures and all contact details of all the Consuls. This document has been reedited every year of our existence, now 25 years long. Secondly, we have established contact with the Dutch Consuls and we have initiated in this way also the foundation of our sister organization in the Netherlands. I went to Rotterdam and had contact there with the Belgian Consul in Rotterdam and I told him about our organization in Belgium with the invitation to found a similar organization in the Netherlands.
This happened indeed: three Consular Corps (Rotterdam, The Hague and Amsterdam) were brought together in a newly founded organization. We stayed in touch with them and every year we come together with the two organizations, one year in a Dutch city and the other year in Belgium.
In the beginning, we were thinking that it would be interesting to organize a study trip to a country of one of the Consuls. And we organized 5 or 6 travels like this: to Sri Lanka, to Uruguay, to Cyprus, and to Bhutan. Every time we organized these travels successfully, with a beautiful group of Consuls. This was the third initiative we organized. A fourth initiative, was the foundation of a magazine for the Consuls. We edited a number of successful issues and our intention was to send this magazine to the Consuls. Because we had a good relationship with the Consuls in the Netherlands, we also sent the magazine to the Dutch Consuls, providing us also with news about their work. During a number of years this was working well, until the moment we couldn’t support the functioning any longer by our own financial means. Then we let it go and the firstly consular magazine became a diplomatic magazine.
We had taken the initiative for the magazine that became Diplomatic World.
We existed as Belgian society and our intention was also to found together with our sister societies in the Netherlands and in Italy, a European society for consuls: the FUECH or the ‘Fédération des Unions Européennes des Consuls Honoraires’. We founded this with five countries: Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Malta and Germany. Afterwards France joined. This society still exists and gathers now consular societies from ten countries. I have to say that since 35 years, there is a World Organization of which we became a member: the FICAC or the ‘Fédération Internationale des Corps et Associations Consulaires’. The President has Turkish and Belgian nationality, to illustrate further the influence of the Belgians. One of our board members is also member of the board of this World Organization, François Piers. And since the latest congress, the consul of Belgium in Chili is also member of this organization.
The influence of Belgium on the international scene is indeed great. Otherwise we could never have arranged that the World Congress would take place in Brussels.
6 years ago the idea to organize this World Congress in Brussels arose: in Monaco we decided to also present our candidacy which brought us in competition with Bali in Indonesia. When people have to choose between Brussels and Bali, they will choose Bali. But the Indonesians took no further practical initiatives in this direction during an entire year. After this year, they asked us to organize the World Congress, with only one more year left. We refused, because it is impossible to organize this event in one year. In Istanbul, we presented our candidacy for the following World Congress. We were the only candidate. All other countries understood that they were without chance in competition with Belgium. So in Istanbul our candidacy was accepted and during three years we have planned and organized the World Congress of Brussels. If you study closely the way in which we have organized this Congress, you have to say that it was never organized at such high level. The other Congresses are always the same: a beautiful hotel is chosen where during three days the Congress is held, closed by a Gala at a special location. I thought if we did that, the extra merits for Brussels are quite small. What could we show to people coming from all over the world and provoking the reaction: ‘now we saw something that we would never have expected.’ So we invited these people in the most beautiful places of Brussels: the Grand Place, the Senate, lunch at the Cercle Gaulois, in the evening Bozar and the next day the Egmont Palace. So our international guests came into contact with the most beautiful parts of Brussels. The next World Congress will be held in South Korea.
This statement is based on a personal interview composed by Barbara Dietrich and Maarten Vermeir