Ambassador Gidwitz remarks to VOKA Antwerp

October 27, 2020

Good Afternoon,

Thank you for the invitation to join you today.  It’s been my genuine pleasure to meet with VOKA, its member companies, and its leadership – as often as I’ve been able – since my arrival in Belgium in July 2018.

In that time, I’ve encountered many business people who have told me how much more they prefer doing business in the United States than in any other country in the world.  I could not agree more. And I’m here today to ensure that our economic ties continue to grow.

The global pandemic 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’s 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.

But there’s more we can do.  I believe we must now ask ourselves – what more can we do together to ensure we overcome the challenges of today, and emerge stronger and more resilient?

As I see it, first, Belgian companies should strongly consider new trade and investment opportunities in the United States in order to grow their businesses and diversify operations. Secondly, we must ensure that our companies can transfer data efficiently and securely across the Atlantic, and finally we must protect economic growth and security through strong investment screening laws.

BUSINESSES SHOULD CONSIDER NEW TRADE AND INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES IN THE UNITED STATES

Promoting economic growth is one of my top priorities as Ambassador.  Belgium and the United States have longstanding business ties.  Our bilateral trade numbers top $65 billion each year.  Belgium is the 12th largest investor in the United States, supporting more than 60,000 American jobs.

The U.S. market and its 328 million consumers offers tremendous opportunities for businesses of all sizes to grow on a global scale.  For start-ups looking to find venture capital, the United States is the place to be.  For medium-sized companies looking to expand operations and find new markets, there is no better place.  Our stock market has remained very robust during the past two quarters – despite the impact of COVID-19 – a telling sign that both investors and consumers are expecting a strong rebound in 2021.  The average GDP-growth forecasts for next year are around 4%.

Moreover, many of the supply chain problems your businesses encountered during the pandemic can be avoided by finding new markets such as the United States.  This will help ensure your customer base is diversified, your product inputs are readily available in the event of disruption, and your number of consumers continues to grow.  My team stands ready to help you make this transition.

Some of you are probably familiar with Select USA, our flagship investment program, which is designed to attract foreign investors to the U.S.  Karel Vantomme of the U.S. Commercial Service will tell you more about it later.

WE MUST ENSURE THAT OUR BUSINESSES CAN TRANSFER DATA EFFICIENTLY AND SECURELY

The European union Court of Justice issued a decision in July that invalidated the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield Framework, throwing 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.  We are now at an impasse.  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 European 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.  To 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.  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.

Please keep up your good work on this matter and let us know how we can help!

WE MUST PROTECT ECONOMIC GROWTH AND SECURITY

Foreign direct investment (FDI) will be an essential part of restarting the Belgian economy.  But some investments – especially those in cutting-edge technologies and critical infrastructures – pose potential national security risks.

It is vital that Belgium retain control of its critical infrastructure and sensitive technologies.  We must work together to ensure our technologies of the future remain secure, and that malign actors cannot disrupt the marketplace.

This is all the more important here in Belgium, as the host of NATO and EU institutions, and scores of other international organizations with deep interests in maintaining safe and secure communication networks.  The risks posed by (1) commercial espionage, (2) the unauthorized use of sensitive data, and (3) predatory economic behavior must be countered, otherwise the long-term health of our economies will be in doubt.

An investment screening law, as applied with great success in the United States and in an increasing number of European capitals, represents the right approach to address these risks. And while Belgium does not yet have a nation-wide investment screening mechanism, it is well on its way to establishing one.  I encourage you to speak with your federal and regional representatives about your concerns related to malign foreign investment, and foreign control of critical infrastructure.

One quick example before I conclude.  The government of Belgium rightfully excluded unreliable suppliers from providing equipment and software to the core and backbone of the nation’s 5G network, while limiting the participation of those same unreliable suppliers to 35% in the Radio Access Networks.  5G network security is crucial to Flanders. Allowing unreliable suppliers to provide 5G radio access networks would jeopardize the data of Flemish companies and citizens and make sensitive sites like the Port of Antwerp less secure.

WE MUST MAKE A SUCCESS OF OUR PRECLEARANCE AGREEMENT

After five years of negotiation, the U.S. and Belgian governments signed a preclearance agreement on September 28.  It’s an historic deal which 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.  I encourage you to learn more about the benefits of the agreement from the leadership of the Brussels Airport.  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 in the region that support and benefit from this increased travel.

Of course, the economic impact of COVID-19 on the aviation sector will make operationalizing the agreement more challenging.  The U.S. Embassy will continue to work closely with the airport to find practical solutions to many of those challenges.  After the Brussels Airport finalizes its MOU with the United States, which we hope will be completed by the end of the year, we would appreciate your help in ensuring that this historic agreement gets the support it deserves from Parliament and all of your elected representatives.  If so, we all stand to win.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. as i said earlier, we stand ready to assist you.