Ambassador Gidwitz Remarks for AmCham Belgium Board Members

November 19, 2020
Via Zoom

Good Evening,

Thank you for the invitation to join you today. It’s been my genuine pleasure to meet with AmCham, its member companies, and its leadership – as often as I’ve been able – since my arrival in Belgium in July 2018. Our Thanksgiving events have always been a highlight and a wonderful opportunity to get together.

The global pandemic, as we know, has brought enormous challenges to our businesses and our lives. Lockdown measures, economic uncertainty, and the dramatic decline in growth has damaged the profitability and competitiveness of our companies.

But it has done little to diminish this strong and enduring relationship between our two countries, and our business communities. We both prize innovation, free trade, and free markets.

Promoting economic growth is one of my top priorities as Ambassador. Over the past months we, at the Embassy, have reached out to various business groups to discuss ways to keep our economies going. Among others, we have engaged with the Council of American States in Europe, Flanders Investment and Trade, VOKA, the American defense community and, of course, AmCham, encouraging all to work with us to find new ways to promote business.

We are in this together.

The Travel and Tourism sector and the airlines have greatly suffered. However, we have made some progress.

After five years of negotiation, the U.S. and Belgian governments signed a preclearance agreement on September 28. It’s an historic deal that will establish Brussels Airport as a leading commercial hub in Europe, and will boost bilateral trade and travel between our two countries.

This means that air passengers will be able to pass through U.S. immigration and customs here in Belgium, and upon landing in the United States, walk immediately to baggage claim, collect their bags, and enter the United States without waiting in lengthy immigration lines. For business travelers especially, this is very welcome news.

Moreover, the agreement will serve as an important pillar in post-COVID economic recovery plans for the aviation and tourism sectors. Our experiences in other markets show that the number of flights, the number of travelers, and the number of tourists will all increase markedly. This is good news for the airlines, but is equally good for all of the related industries that support and benefit from this increased travel.

The safe and efficient transfer of data is also something we have been working on. Last October the event we held with AmCham on Digital Service Taxes and Data Privacy provided us with excellent insight into the implications for Belgium of the EU Court of Justice decision in July to invalidate the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield Framework. This threw into disarray the future of our

$7.1 trillion economic relationship. More than 5,300 companies had relied on the framework to transfer data in the course of everyday transatlantic trade. The world is watching and businesses are hurting. We must find a path forward to restore legal certainty around these transatlantic trade flows.

Make no mistake. Uninterrupted data flows are essential to economic growth and innovation, for companies of all sizes and in every sector, which is particularly crucial now as both our economies recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decision directly impacts both Belgian companies doing business in the United States as well as American companies, of which more than 70% are small and medium enterprises.

Moreover, the decision does not only implicate data transfers in the tech and digital sectors. On the contrary, it has implications in areas like the healthcare sector, including ongoing medical research and clinical trials related to treatments and vaccines for COVID-19; in law enforcement and intelligence cooperation; and in EU financial institutions’ participation in U.S. financial markets.

The United States, Belgium, and the EU have a shared interest in protecting individual privacy and ensuring the continuity of commercial data transfers. The United States will continue to work closely with the EU to find a way to support the commercial transfer of data from the EU to the United States.

A number of prominent European business groups have voiced their opposition to the decision in Schrems II and their support for our efforts. Because of your efforts and other private companies and associations making your concerns known to your elected leaders, we expect to start negotiating a replacement for Privacy Shield shortly. We will continue to encourage impacted businesses – regardless of whether they represent American or European companies – to speak up. To tell their governments to find a sensible way forward, and to keep our businesses open.

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak today. I look forward to supporting you in your efforts in the future.