“It has always been a priority to help our compatriots in Belgium, and now more than ever”
Interview to your Excellency Beatriz Larrotcha Palma, Ambassador of Spain to the Kingdom of Belgium
The Embassy of Spain to the Kingdom of Belgium is a large diplomatic representation, with numerous departments. Anticipating that the pandemic was going to spread, we organized very early in March the services in shifts, thus, establishing teleworking in those sections where it was possible, and maintaining the work in person in the services that required it. Our General Consulate and specialized Councils have greatly facilitated the tasks in these complicated times.
We suspended attention to the public for a time, except in extraordinary cases, and replaced it with a coordinated online service and emergency telephone service in all areas. Hence, we managed to reinforce the Consulate General, which increased the number of emergency lines. Likewise, the Labor Department, the Consulate, the Education Department, the Scientific and Cultural Department have maintained constant coordination with the local authorities and the Spanish community in Belgium.
The Embassy has always remained operative. Its General Consulate, Labor Council and Tourist Office, have been key in organizing and coordinating the services of attention to the Spanish residents in Belgium. They have also helped groups of tourists and national passers-by who were in this country.
The political section of the Chamber has continued to be active at all times, informing our government of the different measures adopted by the Belgian authorities and its position in the different negotiations within the European Union.
What services does the Embassy offer to help the Spanish community in Belgium?
In these extraordinary circumstances, the Consulate has intensified efforts to give information about the pandemic, e.g. , effects and evolution. The Consulate assumed these efforts in view of the avalanche of calls and mails that has received throughout the crisis period. Additionally, the Consulate has constantly updated the border situation, medical and social assistance in coordination with the Tourist Office, which gives information on authorized travel, flights and other means of transport to return to Spain. Furthermore, the Consulate have also provided assistance to Spaniards who stopped over in Brussels from distant countries, and for repatriation flights from Africa or Latin America, travelling to the military or civil airport.
We have kept open the documentation service for urgent cases, such as the issue of laissez-passer to return to Spain. The notary’s section and the civil registry (especially for births and, unfortunately, deaths) also remained open. We have also managed in coordination with the municipal social services some situations of Spaniards who found themselves suddenly unemployed or in precarious situations.
In accordance with the programme of deconfinement established by the Belgian authorities, the Consulate reopened its doors to the public on May 11th . We offer all the usual services by appointment, and in strict compliance with the health protection measures established by the Belgian and Spanish governments.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the Interior Attaché’s Office at the Spanish Embassy in Belgium has provided constant support to the Consular Section. This office has supported both the preparation of the information provided to Spanish citizens and foreigners who have requested it, and the dialogue with the bodies of the Ministry of the Interior (more specifically with the Directorate General of the Police). The latter institution is the competent authority for border control and the issue of documentation. The office also helped organizing the return of Spanish citizens to Spain through contact with other departments and attaché offices of the interior and the various units of the Belgian Federal Police deployed at the airports and border posts authorized for this purpose.
We based our coordination and support work on agile feedback at central and peripheral levels. In the first case, the Border Coordination Centre (CEFRONT in Spanish) and the International Police Cooperation Service (SECOP in Spanish) of the National Police’s General Directorate for Foreign Affairs and Documentation have been instrumental in facilitating the exchange of information required by the public 24 hours a day. At the peripheral level, the Police and Customs Cooperation Centers are providing a practical overview of the situation. These are units designed to develop, in the border area, cooperation in police matters with those States with which Spain shares a common border in accordance with the provisions of the relevant international conventions or agreements (France, Portugal and Morocco). They also facilitate the sending of accurate documentation, adapted to the needs of European citizens and residents in Spain.
“We all want the recovery to be as fast and intense as possible. There is still room to increase business relationships and investment and we will continue to work towards this end.”
On the other hand, the Ministry of Labor has been able to respond to most of the requests that have been made either by telephone or by e-mail. The simplification of procedures agreed by the Ministries of Labor and Social Security has contributed to this.
The greatest demand has been in the area of health care. In Belgium, there is a significant volume of Spaniards as a non-permanent or displaced population. In view of the pandemic situation, the measures adopted by the Spanish Government to provide the European Health Insurance Card or the Provisional Replacement Certificate have been decisive in meeting the needs that have arisen.
As for the management of Social Security pensions, the Ministry has extended the management deadlines. This has facilitated our responses to the Spanish residents here. We have been able to help with communications with the IMSERSO for those who have not been able to travel.
Most of the temporary workers who wanted to return to Spain did so in the first days of the declaration of the pandemic through regular flights. In the last few weeks, the greatest demands for information related to employment are made by companies and temporary workers who need to come to Belgium, because they have here their contracts.
In addition, we have put into place mechanisms to monitor the possible situations that Spaniards could face in Belgium. For this purpose, we have relied, on the one hand, on the boards of directors of the Spanish Associations, which have permanently informed us about the needs of the people belonging to their Association.
On the other hand, we have counted with the support of a group of volunteers to conduct a follow up of Spaniards in retirement homes. These mechanisms have allowed us to act in a direct way on the alerts that have been generated. We have been able to count on the immediate availability of the social services of the Communes to attend to situations that Spaniards are facing. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the Spanish volunteers and the Belgian local authorities for their generosity and help.
The Tourist Office will continue to work with the airlines to get the flights up and running again, and thus facilitate the work of the airlines. Let us remember that until before the pandemic we had 22 Spanish destinations connected to Belgium. As far as the sanitary conditions and the framework established by the authorities allow it, we are willing to help them again to operate flights, making our destinations attractive to tourists, so that the connections are profitable and of course safe. This is an important point because we all want to recover the direct connection with Spain.
The Economic and Commercial Office has continued its work to help Spanish companies in their internationalization. The information work has multiplied: Ofecome responds daily to many questions related to exports, movement of people and border crossing of both goods and workers, in a context where it virtually applies a new regulation to address the Covid-19 pandemic in all countries.
We have also kept up to date a guide to assist companies and entrepreneurs established in Belgium and Luxembourg.
We have also maintained the provision of personalized services to companies, especially for those requiring an in-depth study of the markets in which they operate, and the identification of possible clients or business partners.
Promotion work has continued in a very difficult context. Even though most of the direct and reverse missions have been postponed due to the closure of borders, this has not prevented to further progress with new digital formats. For example, Frank Smulders organized an online masterclass on Spanish wines. The Conecta2 interviews, where an exporter can meet with the Office to find out first-hand the basic information on the market he intends to tackle, have been held. Moreover, we will hold on May 27th a webinar aimed at Spanish companies with the purpose of orientating on the response of multilateral organizations to the Covid-19.
We have also made progress in the production of information material and market studies, and in a guide to providing occasional services in both Belgium and Luxembourg.
With regard to the Ministry of Education, the Spanish language and culture classes (ALCE), which are imparted to some 1,400 pupils of Spanish origin in the Belgian education system, have continued to be held in a non-attendance mode. ALCE students have participated in a campaign to support vulnerable groups by sending messages of encouragement that have been broadcast on Radio Alma. Guidance and support services have continued to be provided to secondary school students who want to study at Spanish universities.
“The gradual return to normality can be an excellent opportunity for tourism to grow under the pillars of sustainability and accessibility. It will not be easy to return to the level things were before, but, the Spanish tourism sector undoubtedly has this challenge within its reach and we Spaniards like challenges. “
In the cultural field, the Cervantes Institute, the Department of Education and the Cultural and Scientific Department of the Embassy, guided by the principle of solidarity, have focused their efforts on generating digital content that can be useful in the current context, especially for the most vulnerable groups. We have been able to reach these groups thanks to the collaboration of media such as Radio Alma, which broadcasts in Spanish throughout Belgium.
The Cultural and Scientific Council supports initiatives such as #helpToHelpArt, from the Brussels-based Noon Art Consulting gallery. The manager of this gallery, the Spanish artist Désirée Meza, expressed that the gallery aims at donating at least 50% of the sales of artwork by the international artists with whom the gallery works to institutions that are in the front line of the fight against Covid-19. One of these institutions is the fund set up by the Higher Council for Scientific Research.
For more information on these contents, you may consult the websites and social networks of these Units:
It has always been a priority to help our compatriots in Belgium, and now more than ever. The Embassy and the Consulate update the information addressed to our compatriots daily through the website and social networks (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), and the online and emergency telephone assistance I earlier mentioned. Our relationship with the media also continues as before.
Likewise, we continue to work on ordinary matters, whenever possible, with the desire to recover as soon as possible. Nonetheless, we are aware that it will be a new ‘normal reality’.
“This Fund should agree on non-refundable transfers to the countries most affected by the crisis, as well as to the sectors most affected.”
How do you think this crisis will affect economic relations between Spain and Belgium?
Belgium is a very important market for Spain, it is our eighth customer as an export destination for goods.
We are working to overcome this crisis so that its effects on economic and commercial relations are reduced to the minimum. The magnitude and typology of this crisis is unprecedented. Therefore, the duration of the closure of activities will vary.
The resilience of both countries will be decisive. The scale and materialization of the measures adopted in the EU framework will also be key, as it will be the reaction of the sectors where bilateral interests are concentrated once the crisis is over.
We all want the recovery to be as fast and intense as possible. There is still room to increase business relationships and investment and we will continue to work towards this end.
It is clear that this crisis is having a very specific impact on the flow of tourism between the two countries. Last year, Spain received 2.5 million Belgian tourists, and this year the forecasts were very good and due to the pandemic the sector as in the rest of the countries is very affected. The objective is to transmit confidence in the tourist. Our country is, according to the World Economic Forum, the most competitive tourist country in the world. Moreover, our industry and tourist destinations are used to reinventing themselves. Likewise, our health system is one of the best in the world.
The gradual return to normality can be an excellent opportunity for tourism to grow under the pillars of sustainability and accessibility. It will not be easy to return to the level things were before, but, the Spanish tourism sector undoubtedly has this challenge within its reach and we Spaniards like challenges.
What is your view on the id for business that are being implemented in Belgium?
I have a positive opinion about these measures. They are designed to “buy time”, alleviate liquidity problems, and thus, avoid solvency problems. An agreement between the federal government and the financial sector is very important. In addition to the federal aid and measures, those implemented by the three regions should also be added. I hope that all of them will serve to limit the damage from this crisis as much as possible, and to put the country on the road to recovery as soon as possible
How do you think the lifting of the containment measures and the economic revival should be carried out, both in Spain and in Belgium?
Most countries are implementing very similar procedures. This means that, in the absence of vaccination, there is no other option but to lift the containment measures gradually, trying to combine protection with the reactivation of the social and economic life of each country.
The Plan that Spain has presented for the gradual lifting of the measures has only one objective: to recover economic activity and daily life without putting collective health at risk. The opinion and proposals of experts in the scientific, health, social and business fields have been sought. The common roadmap for the lifting of the containment measures presented by the European Commission has been a key reference, in line with WHO recommendations.
“Health coordination at European level is absolutely essential, as it is solidarity and the need to adapt to the new reality.”
What can be learned from this crisis at European level?
We can learn a great deal of lessons. In my view, the first lesson is that we are neither safe from the pandemic, nor from the speed of its spread in a globalized world. Health coordination at European level is absolutely essential, as it is solidarity and the need to adapt to the new reality. Global society is also vulnerable. We will only be effective if we move forward together. First, we must defeat this virus, and then rebuild the economic and social fabric. If the EU is not up to the task, it may jeopardize its own future.
Economically speaking, it is a pandemic that will hit all Europeans hard. All countries are going to have to invest extraordinary amounts, in a great effort of solidarity, so that this pandemic does not leave anyone behind. Furthermore, the fall in economic activity is going to damage the accounts of all countries. Therefore, since it is a problem for everybody, it is necessary to coordinate the exit from it, so as to guarantee the normal functioning of the internal market and of the Eurozone. It is not just a question of Europeans showing solidarity, amongst ourselves and with the rest of the world, we must also emphasize that it is in nobody’s interest for the consequences of this situation to end up generating new and more profound imbalances.
Spain is advocating for an effective European response, with very concrete proposals such as a Recovery Fund in line with the magnitude of the economic and social crisis caused by the pandemic. This Fund should agree on non-refundable transfers to the countries most affected by the crisis, as well as to the sectors most affected.
This crisis must also help Europe to give tourism the importance it deserves, as it represents around 5% of European GDP and the European workforce. Tourism must start with common rules for the whole of the European Union.
As Minister González-Laya remarked, this pandemic requires a multilateral response. WHO must renew itself with a broader mandate and greater authority. The European Union could provide a model of preparedness and crisis management to the rest of the world by joining resources and designing new mechanisms for common action.