“there are many avenues for cooperation between Belgium, the EU, and Japan”

Seizing opportunities for cooperation

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Belgium Sophie Wilmès


JANUARY 2022 The Interview / Text by Andrew Howitt 

Sophie Wilmès is Belgium’s deputy prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, European affairs, foreign trade, and the federal cultural institutions. She began her political career 15 years ago, serving as first alderwoman on the Sint-Genesius-Rode Municipal Council from 2007 to 2015. She was then elected to federal parliament in 2015 and acted as minister of the budget and civil service, in charge of the National Lottery and science policy, until 2019. Wilmès was prime minister of Belgium from October 2019 to October 2020.

How would you describe the relationship between Belgium and Japan?

The importance Belgium attaches to its relations with Japan cannot be overstated. Our country enjoys an outstanding, dynamic, and multi-layered partnership with Japan that is underpinned by our historic ties, shared values, and a large degree of overlap in the way we believe the global community should move forward.

On an economic and trade level, Japan is one of our most established and important partners. It has been an important investor in Belgium for many decades. I firmly believe Belgium and Japan should continue to collaborate closely to ensure we create stronger and more sustainable supply chains, which have come under severe stress following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today, Belgium, Japan, and other likeminded countries are facing many similar challenges, such as climate change; the pandemic; an erosion of global governance and multilateralism; and the backsliding of democratic values and principles across many parts of the world. Now more than ever, we need to join forces in coming up with ways to address these daunting challenges. Every crisis also provides an opportunity, and there are many avenues for cooperation between Belgium, the EU, and Japan, as evidenced by the EU–Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in 2018, and the recently adopted EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

How do you hope to see bilateral trade develop over the coming years?

The EU and Japan already enjoy a very solid trading relationship which — I hope — will only grow as a result of the EU–Japan Economic Partnership Agreement [EPA], which came into force in 2019. Japan is the EU’s second-biggest trading partner in Asia and the EU is Japan’s second-biggest trading partner worldwide. The EPA provides us with the tools to expand on this relationship. As the EU Commission has stated, “Openness, trust, and a commitment to established rules help deliver sustainable growth in trade [between the EU and Japan]”.

Almost 2,000 Belgian businesses export goods and services to Japan. The vast majority of these are small and medium-sized enterprises. The EPA is a useful agreement for these businesses as it specifically sought to make exporting to Japan easier and more cost-friendly for them. We expect the EPA to give a boost to export figures for the agricultural and food & beverage sectors, in particular. The vast number of Covid-19 vaccines that Belgium has exported to Japan — the number one recipient — has also pushed up our export numbers.

Other promising areas of growth and cooperation include the pharmaceutical and life sciences sectors, renewable energy — including hydrogen and offshore wind energy — and trade in services. We are also keen to explore future opportunities coming from Japan’s push towards digitalisation. However, there also remains a lot of untapped potential, for instance, in the chemical industry. It is therefore crucial that we continue to promote the EPA and make our industries aware of how to make optimal use of the agreement.

“Trust and unity are important to meet the challenges we face and to defend our shared values”

What are your long-term hopes for Belgium–Japan ties?

It is my hope that we can continue to build on our strong and vibrant relationship by seizing all opportunities for future cooperation, such as in the economic, energy, scientific, and academic sectors.

Both our countries fully subscribe to multilateralism and international cooperation. Climate change is a perfect example of the need for international governance, as no nation alone can carry this struggle. We were delighted to see that Japan followed the EU’s example in announcing the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. This type of shared commitment will strengthen our concerted efforts and provide us with pathways to engage in concrete forms of collaboration as we set out to create a more sustainable and greener economy.

Cooperation is the only effective way to address other challenges, such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. We also need to resume sustained economic, academic, and people-to-people exchanges, which benefit both our countries.

What are the current priorities of the EU with regard to foreign affairs, and how is Belgium working with the EU to achieve its aims?

My fellow ministers and I meet every month — once for the Foreign Affairs Council meeting and once for the General Affairs Council meeting. We also meet on a regular basis for the Foreign Affairs and Trade Council meeting, and the agenda is always very dense. This reflects our commitment at the European and international level. These regular meetings ensure the unity, consistency, and effectiveness of the EU’s external actions.

During the Foreign Affairs Council in November, among the topics we discussed was Belarus and the precarious humanitarian situation at the border between Belarus and Poland, where several thousand people are being held in appalling conditions. Belgium has spoken out strongly against the instrumentalisation of migrants by [Alexander] Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus.

The recent developments in Ethiopia were also on the agenda. An unconditional and immediate ceasefire is an absolute priority for Belgium. I also strongly emphasised the importance of preparing a European contingency plan that guarantees the security of our citizens and diplomatic missions on the ground.

We also took stock of the growing tensions in the Western Balkans and reaffirmed the importance of an agenda of reform for these countries.

Finally, we adopted conclusions expressing the EU’s unequivocal support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Belgium is a staunch and committed EU member state. This is not only because we are one of the founding members of the European Union, but also because we believe that we are stronger when we work together. Alone, we might go faster. Together, we go further. Of course, unity does not come from heaven. It takes time and it takes work. It requires dialogue and mutual understanding. Belgium’s location, in the heart of Europe, allows me to meet with many colleagues and to have exchanges with them on the situations that are of deep concern. Trust and unity are important to meet the challenges we face and to defend our shared values.

What are Belgium’s energy and climate goals?

Belgium’s goal for implementing the Paris Agreement is the common goal of the EU and its 27 member states: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. This goal will be implemented by an expansive package of EU legislation that is called the “Fit for 55 package”.

For emissions specifically in the sectors of transport and housing, each EU member state will have national targets. The EU Commission has proposed for Belgium a national effort-sharing target of reducing emissions 47% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels, and negotiations on this legislation are ongoing.

One example of federal measures we are taking is the tripling of the capacity of offshore wind energy, which will make us a leader, per capita, in this area. Furthermore, our ports are making very significant investments in infrastructure for hydrogen storage and transport, and the federal and regional governments support investments in the production of green steel.

How is Belgium working to safeguard the rights of women and children at home and abroad today?

The rights of women and children are very important to me, and I’m proud that my country is a fierce defender of these rights. One area where we have acted recently is in fighting gender-based violence and promoting internationally the ratification of the Istanbul treaty, which addresses this kind of violence. We are also active in combatting sexual violence in conflict, notably by funding the UN Trust Fund, which supports having a justice mechanism to address those crimes.

At the national level, Belgium has a good record in some areas — such as reducing the salary gap between men and women — but there is still work to be done in terms of reaching a better gender balance in the labour market, for example. Attaining a better gender balance in my administration, notably among diplomats, is a goal I’m striving towards. I am delighted that the Belgian ambassador to Japan is a woman, and I would like to increase the ratio of female ambassadors of Belgium worldwide.

Also, Belgium works at the UN and other international fora to implement rights for every child. During our last mandate at the Security Council, we chaired the working group dedicated to children and armed conflicts, and we have actively contributed to developing tools to ensure better protection for them. Our work at the diplomatic level is combined with the work of our trusted partner organisations in the field, such as UNICEF, for the monitoring and reporting on grave violations against children.

In the context of our candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council for the period 2023 to 2025, the situation of children’s rights is also an issue that we want to put high on the agenda. Here again, there is room for further engagement with Japan, as Ms Mikiko Otani, the Japanese human rights lawyer, is chairing the Committee on the Rights of the Child.