“The EU also needs to give new hope and the perspective for a better future to many people, especially in Greece, that have been severely affected by the grave economic crisis. We need to revitalise the economy and favour the creation of new jobs. Therefore, building on the Investment Plan for Europe of the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, we need to stimulate investments and lift obstacles to the swift implementation of new projects. At the same time we need to maintain the social cohesion in our societies and Luxembourg supports the initiative launched by the European Commission of an EU ‘social triple A’.”
GDL: The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is a land-locked country in Western Europe, surrounded by Belgium and the big EU giants, France and Germany. What are the main aspects of your country’s foreign policy?
CB: Because of its geographic situation and its history, Luxembourg is a natural strong advocate for international integration and multilateral diplomacy, while maintaining excellent bilateral relations with its neighbouring countries. Throughout our turbulent history – Luxembourg has been a strategic location coveted by its neighbours – we have pursued a policy of cooperation and integration in order to guarantee our freedom and independence. Also, as a small market, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg needed to trade with bigger entities in order to survive.
With a history of more than 170 years of integration with our neighbouring countries, we have the longest experience in the EU. After the Second World War, this policy has become the result of a deliberate choice and a deep conviction. Luxembourg is a founding member of all major European Organisations and many International Organisations. Luxembourg City is one of three capitals of Europe, hosting the seat of major EU institutions such as the European Court of Justice, the European Investment Bank and the European Court of Auditions. The Schengen agreement on the free movement of persons, that has abolished the borders between its member states, was signed in this little village at the Moselle in Luxembourg bordering with Germany and France. On 14th June there was a celebration of the 30th Anniversary of this agreement that has a very strong symbolic meaning for many European citizens, especially for those for which free movement of persons was not always granted in their recent history. Luxembourg also promotes actively the respect and protection of human rights and the rule of law. Its international commitment is reflected notably in the field of official development assistance, which represents almost 1% of our gross national income (GNI), ranking the Grand Duchy among the five countries spending over 0.7% of GNI on development cooperation.
“The European year for the development will be an opportunity to stress the link between development and migration. In this sense, the deepening of cooperation with third countries of origin, transit and destination will be central in the work of the Presidency.”
GDL: Speaking in Parliament, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said that the upcoming EU Presidency will be a big responsibility, but also a unique opportunity for Luxembourg to shine a light on the 500 million EU citizens, focusing on regaining their trust. What does Luxembourg hope to achieve during its term and what are the main issues on the agenda under your Presidency?
CB: On the 1st of July, Luxembourg will take over the important task of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union until the end of the year. During these 6 months, we will have the huge responsibility to lead the work of the Council in its different settings to define the policies that will affect the 28 EU member states and its 500 million citizens. Even if it will be the 12th time that Luxembourg has the honour to act as EU Presidency, we have prepared very well for this occasion and we will concentrate all our resources to make it a success and show our strong commitment towards European integration. As we always did in the past, we want to act as an honest broker.
We have set clear objectives for the coming 6 months: first of all, the Luxembourg Presidency will put the citizen at the heart of the European project. We need to make the European Union more attractive to its citizens and show its invaluable benefits. As one of the founding members, we have a special responsibility to outline the common values that are at the heart of European integration and demonstrate, through its “acquis”, that the EU is an enormous progress for all.
The EU also needs to give new hope and the perspective for a better future to many people, especially in Greece, that have been severely affected by the grave economic crisis. We need to revitalise the economy and favour the creation of new jobs. Therefore, building on the Investment Plan for Europe of the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, we need to stimulate investments and lift obstacles to the swift implementation of new projects. At the same time we need to maintain the social cohesion in our societies and Luxembourg supports the initiative launched by the European Commission of an EU “social triple A”. Finally, we will have the responsibility to coordinate the EU positions in view of the important UN conference on climate change in Paris (COP21) where there are high expectations to come to an ambitious commitment for a sustainable development of our planet after 2015.
GDL: On the hot issue of migration, what are Luxembourg’s goals in the area of cooperation policy?
CB: Following the tragedies of thousands of migrants putting their lives at risk to cross the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea, on one hand, and the steadily increasing flow of migrants that overwhelm the countries on the southern periphery of the EU on the other hand, the Luxembourg Presidency believes that it is necessary to act decisively and determined in the field of migration.
As you probably know, on May 13th May 2015 the European Commission presented a European agenda on migration with immediate actions to address the crisis situation prevailing in the Mediterranean, as well as the actions to be taken in the coming years to better manage migration in all its aspects. On May 27th, the Commission completed its strategic agenda with concrete measures on the relocation and resettlement of refugees in the Member States of the EU. I can assure you that the Luxembourg Presidency will take to heart this important issue and firmly commit that the discussions within the Council will lead to the implementation of concrete measures. There will be high level meetings dealing with migration issues right at the beginning of our Presidency.
In that respect, the Luxembourg Presidency will continue, with a high priority, actions in order to save lives and to conduct an effective fair and credible immigration policy. All common means of action are to be mobilised against the activities of traffickers and smugglers. The pressure at the external borders and on the national asylum systems requires a renewal of our policies. It is necessary to improve the management of migration by strengthening solidarity between Member States and through increased cooperation with third countries. The issue of legal migration should also be addressed within this context, to make the EU an attractive destination for talents and skills.
The European year for the development will be an opportunity to stress the link between development and migration. In this sense, the deepening of cooperation with third countries of origin, transit and destination will be central in the work of the Presidency.
“In order to remain one of the most competitive financial centres, Luxembourg has to remain at the forefront of the rapid developments in this field (information and communications technology and financial technology).”
GDL: Since the seventies, Luxembourg is the place in which many financial and banking institutions have settled down. How important is this financial sector to the economic growth of Luxembourg?
CB: Until the 1970’s, Luxembourg’s economy relied heavily on its overwhelming steel production sector, that had developed steadily since the discovery of vast deposits of iron ore in the 19th Century. Our economy was then severely hit by the shock of the steel crisis in the seventies and from that time on the government decided to pursue a policy of economic diversification.
The development of Luxembourg as a financial centre, that started in the 1960’s and 1970’s with activities linked to the European market and developed as a private banking centre and, from the 1980’s onwards, as a management centre for investment funds, is only part of that economic diversification strategy. Today, thanks to its modern legislative and regulatory framework and its openness to the world, Luxembourg has a much diversified financial centre and has managed to attract banks, insurance companies, investment funds and specialist service providers from all over the world. According to estimates from OECD, the whole financial sector makes up for about 30% of GDP production, which leaves a large part of our economic activity to other sectors such as industry, agriculture and other services.
Nowadays the government still continues its policy of economic diversification by promoting investments in new fields such as logistics, digital economy, media and audiovisual production, research and innovation.
GDL: As priority areas, Luxembourg has chosen the diversification of its economy, the information and communications technology (ICT) and financial technology (Fintech) sectors. Can you tell us more about this?
CB: The government’s efforts to diversify in this sector have resulted in excellent connectivity with major European centres, the establishment of very high-level data centres and a regulatory environment which is favourable to the digital economy with, amongst other things, an attractive framework for intellectual property management and domain names. Luxembourg also boasts one of the highest numbers of IT specialists in the world. Many small and large multinational companies in the digital economy have established themselves in the Grand Duchy. They confirm Luxembourg’s position as a hub for companies operating in data processing, e-commerce and the communications sector in general.
As part of the ICT, the rapid expansion of the FinTech sector, which deals with all the technologies applied to financial services, is of a great interest for every financial centre. Luxembourg provides an attractive environment for Fintech companies with its diversified financial centre, its international character and its openness to innovation and at present there are around 150 FinTech companies in Luxembourg. In order to remain one of the most competitive financial centres, Luxembourg has to remain at the forefront of the rapid developments in this field.
“Ever since we arrived in Greece, in the summer of 2012, my wife Carole and I fell under the charm of this country… Most of all we have been impressed by the Greek people who, despite the grave crisis affecting them, have remained positive and very friendly and hospitable. Their capacity to enjoy life despite the material difficulties they face can teach a lesson to many of us.”
GDL: Relations between Greece and Luxembourg are very good, largely determined by their participation in the EU. What is the level of this cooperation and in your opinion, which areas should both countries focus upon?
CB: Luxembourg and Greece have indeed traditionally maintained excellent bilateral relationships. As EU members, our countries support each other on all important issues in the international agenda and there are no outstanding issues in our relations. Since I arrived here in 2012, I was heartened by the many positive comments I received on Luxembourg by Greek politicians, high officials and many citizens.
Our political representatives meet and cooperate regularly. On 15th May this year, our Minister for Foreign Affairs, Jean Asselborn, came on a bilateral visit to Athens where he met with Prime Minister Tsipras, Foreign Minister Kotzias, Vice Minister Choundis, as well as the President of the Hellenic Parliament Mrs. Konstantopoulou, to discuss bilateral issues, as well as the EU agenda. It is worth noting that this was the first visit of a European Foreign Minister to Athens since the new government took office.
In the economic field, the links between our countries cannot be described as intense although there is definitely potential for increased cooperation in several fields such as logistics, ICTs, satellite communications and tourism. Hopefully, as soon as the economic situation in Greece improves, I look forward to promoting economic cooperation between our countries in these areas.
This year, our Embassy has organised several cultural events such as participation at the Athens Jazz Festival of a jazz trio from Luxembourg, the Jeff Herr Corporation. We also plan to organise some cultural events during our Presidency. The Embassy of Luxembourg also participates in several local activities in order to represent and promote our country. I think it is very important to develop a rich cultural programme and we are committed to continue these important exchanges.
GDL: The Friends of Greece Association in Luxembourg and the Greek Embassy have organised several activities under the umbrella ‘cultural encounter with Greece’ which gained a great deal of media attention. Likewise, your Embassy has also organised several successful events. What are you planning for the future?
CB: In Greece, there is an Association of Friends of Luxembourg in Crete that is based in Heraklion and counts more than 100 members. That Association has an intense relationship with the sister association ‘Les amis de la Grèce au Luxembourg’ and, together, they promote and strengthen the good relations between our countries. Last year, the Friends of Luxembourg in Crete hosted several commemorative and cultural events within the context of the visit of a large delegation from Luxembourg to which I had the honour to contribute. This year, within the context of the Luxembourg Presidency, our Embassy will organise a concert by the renowned jazz band from Luxembourg, the Pascal Schumacher Quartet, that will participate in the Heraklion Summer Arts Festival and present its latest album. The same Pascal Schumacher Quartet will perform in Athens in an opening event of the Luxembourg Presidency in July. Our Embassy also plans to organise a photo exhibition on Luxembourg at the end of our Presidency and to participate this year at the Thessaloniki International Fair. Furthermore, we plan to contribute to an exchange of students between schools from Luxembourg and from Crete that will take place within the context of the 10 year celebration of the Association of Friends of Luxembourg in Crete and the Luxembourg Presidency.
GDL: During your three-year term in Greece, both you and your charming wife Carole have been very active in the diplomatic, cultural and social circles of Athens. Can you tell us more about your personal impressions of the country?
CB: Ever since we arrived in Greece, in the summer of 2012, my wife Carole and I fell under the charm of this country and the friendliness of its inhabitants. I don’t have to convince you of the fantastic climate we are enjoying here, nor of the endless discoveries you can make or the wonderful landscapes and impressive culture you can admire. Most of all we have been impressed by the Greek people who, despite the grave crisis affecting them, have remained positive and very friendly and hospitable. Their capacity to enjoy life despite the material difficulties they face can teach a lesson to many of us.
My whole family feels at home here and well taken care of. We have often benefited from the hospitality of the people we met and we have made many friends. I fully understand why many people decide to come back to Greece after they have been posted here.
I would like to seize this opportunity to congratulate you and Mr. Costas Kostakis, whom we have the pleasure to meet regularly during official events, for your dedicated work. And thank you for this interview.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life
Published in June 2015