One of the most important aspects of Belgian investments in Bulgaria is that companies with long-standing involvement in the country have chosen to make investments anew, says ambassador Marc Michielsen.
Belgian has a long and proud history of involvement in Bulgaria, dating back to the late 19th century when it reached out in Europe as one of the first and foremost industrial powers. Belgium was among the first countries to recognise the Bulgarian state, in 1879, meaning that this year the two countries celebrate 130 years of formal relations.
Among Belgian investors, there is an appreciation of the advantages of Bulgaria – this country’s strategic location, and relatively affordable labour costs coupled with an educated skills base that boasts crucial specialisations such as information and communication technology.
In an interview with The Sofia Echo, Michielsen tells just one of several stories that illustrate the potential of Belgian-Bulgarian co-operation.
About seven to eight years ago, an entrepreneur came to Bulgaria with a view to specialist production of electronic circuits. Drawing on local skills and the ability to get quality work while facing a salary burden less than that he would have faced in Belgium, the entrepreneur has seen the business grow to the point where he employs 100 people in Bulgaria and 13 in Belgium – a scale that the operation might not have achieved had it been attempted in Belgium only, Michielsen says.
The interview took place amid days of change as Bulgaria prepared for a newly-elected government.
Asked about Brussels’s perspective on this change in terms of bilateral relations, Michielsen said that he did not see it as the government of Belgium that was "waiting for change" because the question had to be seen in the context of Bulgaria’s membership of the European Union.
He referred to the European Council meeting’s conclusions in December 2006, on the eve of Bulgaria’s accession, that the member states welcomed Bulgaria as an EU member, but they said that there were some shortcomings to be dealt with.
Dealing with these shortcomings was taking place under the Co-operation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) by the European Commission and Bulgaria. Progress was required, according to the European Council conclusions, in rule-of-law and in combating corruption and organised crime.
The reports from the European Commission that had emerged so far showed that progress is still needed and said what Bulgaria had to do. "Linked to this, of course, is also the utilisation of EU funds. I think that it is the expectation of the European taxpayer that this money will be used, to quote a term from Roman law, in the way of a bonus pater familias ("the good head of household"), which, in modern terms, you could call good governance."
Asked about the perceptions of Belgian investors towards Bulgaria in the context of the financial and economic crisis, Michielsen said that Bulgaria was seen as a place of interest, even amid an economic crisis of a scale not seen for decades; Bulgaria is part of the EU, it is not too far away from Belgium, and in the context of globalisation, Bulgaria is well-placed to serve the needs of Belgian business people.
"Everybody knows that in Belgium, on the one hand, salaries are about the highest in the world, productivity too – which is why we are still surviving – but if you want to continue to do business, you have to look for new markets and to make your goods more competitive.
"Bulgaria is interesting for business people, to ‘de-localise’ parts of their business to Bulgaria, especially because here you find qualified people, companies of standards matching the hi-tech of Belgium. ICT companies come here because Bulgarian universities are at a level that the students are suited to their needs."
This creates a win-win situation, Michielsen says – telling the story about the entrepreneur’s success.
Pressure from foreign players, the cheap own brands of retailers entering the Bulgarian market and stiff foreign competition will not shatter the determination of local producers to pump fresh amounts into new development.
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