The charming business of diplomacy

Credits©: Siska Vandecasteele
On May 12, the ELP fellows had the opportunity to meet Baron Franciskus Frans van Daele, one of Belgium’s finest and most qualified diplomats. He shared anecdotes and insights about his experience in the diplomatic service and offered the fellows his unique perspective on the current challenges faced at the European and Global levels.


The power of words

A recurrent discussion between his father and his grandfather about which of the two World Wars was the worst, triggered the Baron to enter the Foreign Service. While the two veterans couldn’t decide who was right, the Baron understood the importance of reflecting about building a future of peace, instead of wasting energy arguing about the past.

Some years later Mr Van Daele succeeded in his attempt and had an extensive diplomatic career. He has been the permanent representative of Belgium to the EU, the UN and NATO as well as Ambassador to the US and finally private secretary of His Majesty’s Cabinet.

Thanks to his wide experience on the ground he pointed out the most important skills needed to become to become a diplomat. First of all, in order to work in the diplomatic corps one need to be an able observer in order to negotiate and understand the other’s constraints. In this vein, diplomats have to make sure to always have the right information about the dossiers on which they are working. Further, it is fundamental to stay grounded. In order to cope with the stressful and hectic lifestyle of a diplomat, it is important to have deep roots and a strong and supportive family.

The Foreign Service: a career with no regrets

The Baron revealed that joining the diplomatic service in 1971 was a decision that he has never regretted. His career allowed him to handle stimulating and hot international dossiers. Most importantly, each situation handled turned out to be a true learning experience.

Credits©: Geert Van De Velde

When Mr Van Daele was appointed to the US Embassy in 2002, it was the worst moment ever in terms of relationship between the US and Belgium. Indeed, the European countries, led by Germany and France, were united against the Iraq war, therefore they were perceived as the villains in the States.

Every mission to which a diplomat is appointed involves facing a different challenge. Regardless of whether you want to avoid major consequences during a currency crisis or are handling a communication campaign for a newly crowned sovereign you need to remember that there is always a way to turn things around.

In his own words: “even if you are put in the corner, if you reflect well, you can always find a way out. Thanks to manoeuvrings and time you can end up on the other side”. It is under pressure that a person can learn how to develop her/his problem-solving skills and how far s/he can push her/him self.


The European Union integration process

With over 50 years of experience in the Foreign Affairs, the Baron stated with unwavering conviction that every crisis that the EU faced made it stronger and contributed to its integration. It happened with the currency crisis and we are witnessing the same during the Covid-19 crisis.

A clear example of his thesis is the European Commission’s strategy of joint vaccine procurement. The decision of Von der Leyen to take the responsibility to manage the vaccine negotiation and distribution collectively was risky. Indeed, the Commission was accused by national leaders of being too bureaucratic, too limiting to its members and too slow. Nevertheless, the President decided to go ahead with her decision contributing to create an even more integrated and united Union.

According to the Baron increasing the required levels of contributions slowly over time rather than requiring a high level of contribution immediately is the only productive way to build a more and more cohesive Union. After all, Member States are usually quite reluctant to transfer their competencies to the Union, for this reason the institutional transferring competencies process it is very difficult to undertake.

Comments about the future

Given that Biden is the new US President, we can affirm that the US is back and the Europeans cannot miss this opportunity. This world is going to turn to turmoil unless the EU and the US work together to impose some order. Getting together is essential!

The European Leadership Programme (ELP) Fellows in a private session with Mr Van Daele, May 12 2021.

In conclusion, it was an opportunity for the fellows to come into close contact with an expert diplomat who has fascinating experiences to share about some of the most important events of our recent history. The consciousness that nothing is impossible with the right mindset and skills is stimulating and inspiring for young professionals such as we are.

Eleonora Masoni
ELP Spring Cohort 2021 Fellow