21 years and 27 nations: one Mr. EU in Hong Kong

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Diplomat sits down with Mr. EU, Vincent Piket, to get inside the world’s largest supranational representation and understand its significance for Hong Kong.

Vincent Piket strikes one as a steady-as-he goes, no frills Dutch Eurocrat. A soft voice in a giant frame seems to house the classic European diplomat, phlegmatic and careful, with no dramatic flourishes. And yet the novelty-seeking gene hides in the DNA of this globe-trotting climber who is now in the key position with a vital European partner: Hong Kong.

Unless it was in his genes, how else would a Dutch student of American literature be drawn the Wild West of American lit to the Wild East of turbulent Moscow and on to the Far East?

I was bitten by the bug…of the EU!

The Iron Curtain had just come down, opening up a totally new perspective on the European continent. Starting over 20 years ago (and with the long-service gold medal to prove it) he left the warm embrace of his native Holland’s education promotion system to join the EU diplomatic service. He took part in the reformation and adaptation of new EU members in Central and Eastern Europe. This was completely new work for him, but then there were no experts as countries emerged from the devastation of Communism and country break-up to join the market economy. The lure of the new was what he signed up for.

It was a discovery for everybody

From the pristine Slovenia, which he loved for its clean air and beautiful mountains, he was off to Moscow. In 2001, everything Russian was falling out of the sky. Airplanes in particular, but also the long-lived space station Mir which retired into the Pacific Ocean. The Red Square Bombing and theatre kidnappings happened in Moscow during his time there. Was he fazed? Not really. “Moscow is a great place to work, I wouldn’t mind going back there….There is a special excitement about working there.” He was rather more concerned with the importance of the Europe- Russia relationship on trade and energy. And he loved the culture. “Moscow and St. Petersburg…are [together] a great cultural seat of Europe.”

From there, he was off to Asia. Malaysia was his first stop as the EU Ambassador from 2008–2012. On Malaysia: “Fascinating…but complex with many equilibria to be struck.”

And then…Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is a very attractive destination for a diplomat.” Vincent would love to extend his stay past the standard 4 years, but believes there is ‘little chance’ of that happening. Hong Kong is a coveted post within the EU diplomatic network. His being here is a sign of his success representing the EU.

He hit the ground at full speed. After establishing himself with his colleagues, Hong Kong government counterparts and diplomatic peers, he took on his unique role as the representative of a multilateral, supranational body. Mr. Piket’s task is unusual compared with his diplomatic colleagues.

With another 15 Consuls General and 10 Honorary Consuls, Mr. Piket and his fellow European colleagues work hard to promote Europe and keep the EU on Hong Kong’s radar.

Mr. Piket doesn’t seem concerned that his high profile might offend his counterpart national representatives. “It is a natural division of work supported by this fairly sophisticated coordination mechanism. I look after overall EU interest and EU objectives, and my colleagues look after principally their specific national interest while representing EU point of view whenever it’s relevant. Of course  UK has a closer tie and special relationship with Hong Kong, same for Portugal with Macau, but most countries follow the EU line on the key topics.”

It seems to be working. Just behind China, EU is Hong Kong’s 2nd largest trading partner. Trade and investment kept growing through the global financial crisis. He spoke to the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce yesterday: “2012 was another record year for EU-Hong Kong trade with a total volume of EUR 62 billion, for goods and services. It means that EU products and services remain competitive. The EU sees trade as an engine for creating growth and jobs. Even during the economic crisis our trade borders have remained open.”

In our interview, he spoke on China. “Of course the Euro Zone debt crisis has affected business and lead to reputation loss to some extent, but somehow the EU continues to be an attractive place. We are also happy to see China’s rise…Interestingly China’s rising share has not led to a decline in the EU share [of total global trade].”

I, as the representative of EU , focus more on the trade policies. As one single market, EU needs a single voice on trade policies. We… distinguish trade policy [an EU jurisdiction] from trade promotion and investment promotion [a national level responsibility]

The future for the EU in Hong Kong?

Mr. Piket has the expected trio of major priorities – trade and investment (including environment), political considerations (with a report on Hong Kong and the One Country, Two Systems status forthcoming), and people to people exchanges covering education (his first love), culture and more.

He looks forward to Europe being ‘back in the black’ by the end of his tenure (2016) and would like to be able to point to the Hong Kong-Macao EU relationship as a contributor. “Economy and trade is the core reason why the member states and EU are here in Hong Kong. We have about 1,900 European companies based here and we are the biggest foreign business constituency here in Hong Kong, bigger than anyone else.”

July 1 will be a special day for the EU. It will, for the first time in many years, be proving the attraction of the EU by admitting a new member: Croatia.

Croatia Loves EU 

This one will be a little special for Vincent Piket – his wife is Dutch but of Croatian origin. They met in the Netherlands but Croatia’s accession will no doubt carry some extra resonance for Mr. EU and his wife at the celebrations to happen here in Hong Kong.

In the meantime, Vincent will keep focused on his key priorities and try to manage the usual pressures of Hong Kong that all his colleagues deal with – such as rising rental costs:

“It is indeed very difficult to explain to people sitting back in Europe 10,000 km away, a 20%, 30% or even higher rental increase. As you can see, we have a nice office here, but the size is not overly…expansive. That’s how you try to keep the cost within the limits that you can manage. It is an issue and the pressure to leave is there. Quite a few missions have moved out of Central already.”

In addition, Mr. Piket finds Hong Kong a very attractive destination among his fellow diplomats. “Hong Kong is such an open and vibrant society with so many bright people concentrated in this very small territory. One can learn so much from each other and it’s great to meet all these interesting people from all walks of life.”

But he has a warning for newcomers. “Be ready for the fast pace of work and life here in Hong Kong. The number of social professional functions here in Hong Kong is extremely high. As a career diplomat, it’s hard to avoid it, but one also needs to say where the limits are otherwise it’s not sustainable.”

The next novelty?

One might ask what this novelty seeker will look for next. In one way though, coming to Hong Kong has been like going home. “What I like is the sea. It is in a way ironic that even though I come from a country that borders on the sea, but I have to be moved all the way to Hong Kong to be living close to the sea. So what I enjoy very much is to look at the waves in Deep Water Bay and sip a glass of wine at a cozy beach cafe. That’s nice.”