Who are they, the Walloons ‘unknown’ in Flanders who rarely get the media here, but feed the public debate or draw up policy on the other side of the language border? What do they teach us about Wallonia? About how the Walloons are in life, looking to the future? This summer we will take you through seven Saturday interviews across Wallonia. Today: Pascale Delcomminette, head of the Walloon foreign trade service AWEX. Before that, she worked for several PS cabinets for years. “Admittedly, …
“Admittedly, I am an optimist, but not a blind optimist,” it says at the end of the interview at the AWEX headquarters just outside the center of Namur. For over an hour, Pascale Delcomminette tried to counter the perception of a region that – despite all the plans for the past few years – is failing to scramble up economically, let alone keep up with the Flemish neighbors. Where she mainly advocates a little more understanding and patience. ‘Former FEB chairman Luc Vansteenkiste, a Fleming who knows the economic situation in Wallonia very well, last year spoke of a period of another fifteen years before this region can fully recover economically. I fear this is realistic. ”
Fifteen years ago you co-sponsored the first Marshall plan, which was to pull Wallonia out of the economic swamp. What has actually happened in recent years?
“Today we are much more committed to economic specialization, based on the different competence poles that have been defined over the years. In my view, this is indeed a major break with the past. There is really much better cooperation between the academic and research world on the one hand and the business community on the other. This is gradually creating innovative ecosystems. Admittedly, it has taken a while, but we notice that this approach is starting to bear fruit, so we can now gradually start harvesting. ‘
What are the spearhead sectors of the Walloon economy in 2020? ‘
The pharmaceutical sector obviously really stands out: that sector – which is very strong in Walloon Brabant, but also in Liège and Charleroi – accounts for about a third of total Walloon exports. Before we started working with the competence centers, pharmaceuticals was only the fifth most important export sector in Wallonia. In addition, the logistics sector, the broad food sector and the production of aircraft parts also play an important role. All these sectors – in terms of exports – have grown much faster in recent years than the rest of the Walloon economy. This does indicate that the new approach is the right one. Overall, 2019 was a truly grand cru year for Walloon exports, with growth of over 11 percent compared to 2018. ”
However, many experts doubt the effect of this competence poles strategy: there would be far too little invested in it to achieve a real economic recovery. Moreover, there would also be too much focus on the further growth of the pharma, a sector that is also receiving important incentives from the federal government to continue to invest in our country. ”
‘You can of course always discuss the amounts you have to invest in it as a government, but it has since become apparent that public investments have also led to the injection of new private capital. Someone like Luc Van Steenkiste – who was closely involved in the competence centers until last year – has already emphasized several times that this approach has indeed led to the creation of many new jobs. ‘
“But at the same time he also indicated that Wallonia would still need a lot of time to successfully complete the economic transition that has been initiated in recent years. Of course we would rather see it all go a little faster, but such a bottom-up approach just needs time. In the past, our economic policy was not sufficiently specialized. ”
Have wrong economic choices been made for years?
(Evasive) ‘There were perhaps too few clear choices made at the time, that’s right, but in the meantime we have really changed our gun. And above all: a much closer collaboration between academia and the business community is finally being made. More research has also led to the creation of many more SMEs, which are also increasingly active internationally. ‘
Gap with Flanders
You cannot ignore that gigantic elephant in the room, of course: the economic gap between Wallonia and Flanders just remains the same, as the most recent figures from the National Bank showed once again. The governor of that institution also criticized the far too great role of the government in Wallonia, even referring to ‘a communist model’?
‘Until a few years ago, the gap between Flanders and Wallonia became even deeper every year. Today there is a stabilization. And Walloon exports are now growing even faster than those of neighboring countries. We are not there yet, but something is really moving. ”
‘A little more pride in what is going well in Wallonia, would sometimes not be bad. And as for the statements made by Governor Pierre Wunsch: I find it rather unfortunate to question the magnitude of public expenditure. I think almost everyone agrees that now, in these times of unseen crisis, it is imperative to support the economy through public investment. In my position, I do everything I can every day to attract new investors to Wallonia and to support the Walloon companies abroad, so that I also create new private jobs. ‘
Nevertheless, the Walloon unemployment rate is still a lot higher at 7.1% than in Flanders or in most neighboring countries. Is the calf not mainly tied to education, which apparently fails to respond to the increasing demand for more specialized and technological knowledge?
‘I don’t think education should be fully attuned to demand from the business world, but it is true that we may have to take this into account more than was the case in recent decades. In regions that are doing a lot better economically, we indeed note that education is part of a highly integrated approach. Here too, there is now more and more focus on vocational training, or on innovative forms of alternating learning and working. ‘
“But you have one point: even better matching is needed between education and industry. At the same time, I don’t think it’s right to be compared with Flanders all the time: Wallonia has a completely different economic fabric. Why are we not opposed to regions with a similar industrial past, such as Picardy or Nord-Pas de Calais? Don’t forget that Flanders also benefited from the Walloon industrial development until the 1960s. Economic cycles are long, and you don’t just turn the tide in a few years. ”
Where are the main economic differences between Wallonia and Flanders today?
‘I think it is best to summarize it under the heading’ dare to grow ‘. Walloon companies sometimes show too little ambition, especially when it comes to further internationalization. In addition, it still remains a lot easier in Flanders to find the necessary risk capital as an entrepreneur, which means that Flemish companies can of course also grow faster. ‘
You yourself were closely involved in the long negotiations with Zalando, in an attempt to bring a new large distribution center of the internet giant to Wallonia. That did not work in the end, but the Chinese Alibaba promised to invest 75 million euros in a new Liège distribution center. Is this type of employment – in often particularly precarious circumstances – sufficiently sustainable and future-oriented?
‘Look, you are talking about’ precarious’ jobs, but these are jobs in the logistics sector that often also have an important training component. At the same time, this type of investment is also part of a structural partnership with China and a broader strategy aimed at developing the environment of the Liège airport more economically. Moreover, with Alibaba we also bring one of the giants of e-commerce to Wallonia, and the expertise we gain in this way can also help many Walloon SMEs to get into that e-commerce faster and more efficiently. ‘
Couldn’t the money now pouring into subsidies to lure companies like this to Wallonia be used more usefully to accelerate a truly sustainable industrial conversion?
“Those subsidies are in any case tied to many criteria: for example, there were no concessions in terms of working conditions to persuade Alibaba anyway. And again: I see this as an important step in a long-term strategy, in which the Liège airport and surroundings can become an important European logistics hub. ‘
‘You mentioned the high number of low-skilled unemployed people just now. Well, with these kinds of jobs we are trying to get that group back to work. The pharmaceutical sector provides many jobs with high added value in Wallonia. At the same time, however, we must also focus on a wider job offer for less highly educated profiles. Investments in the logistics sector are part of that. ‘
Investing in Wallonia
Suppose you have to convince an important candidate investor today to invest in Wallonia, what arguments do you put on the table?
‘Our central location, of course, from which some logistical assets arise. In addition, this region also has a lot of space on the company sites. However, the most important argument in my view is the innovative ecosystem we are building here. Investors can take advantage of this close collaboration between research and industry. ”
“The days when we only lured companies here to produce, as Caterpillar did, for example, are definitely over. If a company also invests in research and development here, the added value is much greater for all parties involved. And as a Walloon government, I think we should dare to draw even more resolutely the map of economic specialization and digitization. ‘
Four years ago, Caterpillar announced that it would close its Gosselies site, causing thousands of job losses. What lessons have you learned from that drama?
(fast) ‘Probably the same lessons that Flanders also drew when a large car manufacturer decided to move there. We have realized that as a Walloon government, we must focus much more on a relationship of trust with large companies of this kind, there must be partnership originate. Only then can you really integrate such companies into the new ecosystem that we are fully developing, which will also make them less likely to move away from here. ‘
You work in the field, of course, but do you feel that the French-speaking politicians are on the same wavelength and that they really understand the seriousness of the situation?
‘I have quite a few guardianship ministers, but in recent years I have received the same message from all angles: every effort, every new initiative and every investment must now also have a clear economic return on investment stand. This is what we in Wallonia today describe as zero-based budget. This has long been controversial, but it is now really the touchstone for every euro spent by the Walloon government. So there is indeed something changed here, this is undeniable.‘