The King’s Man: Evert Maréchal

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Approximately a month before the Occupation even began, Diplomat arrived at the doorstep of Mr Evert Maréchal’s home. The first thing one notices is a huge portrait of the King and Queen of Belgium, welcoming visitors to the Official Residence in Hong Kong. The very same Queen Mathilde that graced Hong Kong in December last year, when Belgium was the partnering country for Business of Design Week 2013 (BODW).

Regal relations
Now in the final year of his four-year term, Evert considers the event one of the main accomplishments of his time in Hong Kong. “It was important because Belgium has a lot to offer in terms of design,” Evert told HT. The event garnered a lot of visibility for Belgium design, and not only in Hong Kong, “Business people and actors in the design sector had lots of opportunities to explore the possibilities of doing business in Hong Kong with China and Asia.”

On a political level, it was no easy feat coordinating the arrival of a 300 plus strong delegation consisting of the Queen, accompanied by the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders, and the heads of Governments of the regional entities of Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels. “It was good for the officials to talk to the Chief Executive. It was a perfect way to enhance the bilateral relations between Belgium and Hong Kong,” explained Evert, “To have all of them here at the same time! It will take a long time before it happens again.”

Bilateral relations between Hong Kong and Belgium, date all the way back to 1845, making next year the 170th anniversary. The first full consul general was established in 1925. Belgium was also the first country to sign a double tax agreement with Hong Kong in the tail end of 2003. “I think it has enhanced trade relations between HK and Belgium a lot,” said Evert. “I see the presence of Belgium in Hong Kong continue to increase every year.”

According to Evert, the Belgian community has increased in the past 6 years from around 700 to over 1200, and that’s only counting the Belgians registered (including movie star, Jean Claude Van Damme). He estimates there may be an additional 500 non-registered Belgians. “For Belgium, that’s a very sizable number of people, and it’s actually one of the biggest communities we have in Asia.”

Accessible Art
Hong Kong is in fact only Evert’s second bilateral posting in 20 years of diplomacy. Before that, his first experience as a civil servant on foreign soil was during mandatory military service in Cologne, Germany in 1989. His duties as a soldier lay in the cultural sector of his the military, where he was responsible for the movies to be played for troops. “I wanted to limit the duration of my military service to as short as possible,” Evert explained. When asked what films he played during this 10 month stint, he answered, “mostly Hollywood.” No Tin Tin, no ‘Schtroumpfs’ for the troops.

Evert in The Land of the SovRussians
Moscow was Evert’s first bilateral posting. During his probation period as a career diplomat, he was posted to Moscow on several occasions between 1991 – 1993. His time there began just after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Drastic changes were unfolding politically and economically, and Evert was sent under the framework of one of the first Common Actions of the European Union to supply humanitarian aid to Moscow and St. Petersburg. “My primary role at that point was the coordination of receiving and distributing food and medicine.”

Democracy in action
When he would return later, Russia seemed to be turning a page. Evert arrived a month after the constitutional crisis in October 1993, when the military stormed the parliamentary building under the orders of Boris Yeltsin. Things had calmed down and Russia had requested the European Union to observe the first free, multi-party parliamentary elections held in December. “Since we had the presidency of the European Union, I was there to coordinate all this.” Evert led a task force which coordinated a large group of observers consisting mostly of members from the European parliament. They were tasked with visiting and observing poll stations. “The importance of something like media and power structures were not really taken into account, and that’s very difficult to gauge for an observer coming to a country for only a couple days or at most two weeks to have a more valid opinion,” Evert commented, “but the conclusion was, the elections were fair and free in general.”

Culture on the cheap
One thing that delighted Evert during his stay in Moscow, was how easily accessible culture was in Moscow. Spectacular performances were heavily subsidized and thus very cheap. “There were big changes, and for old generations it was very difficult, but for younger ones it was much more exciting.” Evert remembers fondly, “You saw the best theatre, opera, ballet for a very cheap price. It was the first time it was so accessible to me so I enjoyed it as much as I could.”

When asked to compare this experience with what he has seen in Hong Kong, he thinks the complaints about Hong Kong not having a cultural scene are unfounded, “I think what Hong Kong has to offer is really not bad at all.” While Evert is able to affectionately list all the cultural attractions that contributes to Hong Kong’s art scene, he did have this to say, “I must admit that I experienced difficulties in finding available venues for the exhibition of Belgian art – the existing venues are booked out for several years,” he shared. “But this will improve a lot once the West Kowloon Cultural District is up and running.”

Curious Coincidence
Evert’s next posting was as First Secretary of the Belgian mission to the United Nations in New York from 1997- 2002. Two ironic experiences were especially memorable. At the time, Evert was assigned to deal with issues related legal affairs and international security. “I remember I was sitting in a meeting on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea,” he said, “”and a colleague came in and asked me to go see an ambassador.” The colleague had insisted, stating it was very important, forcing Evert to leave the meeting. The ambassador invited him to his office, and told him something very serious had happened “I was already sweating, and then he told me – ‘Your ship went down.’ ” The cargo ship that contained Evert’s possessions had sunk en route from Russia to Belgium. “Apparently the boat broke into two pieces, one half remained afloat and the other half sank. It all happened while I was discussing the sea bed, with all my things sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean,” he said with a wry smile, “Luckily, I was insured.”

The second story is much less light-hearted. In 2001, Evert was in charge of legal affairs, and on one morning, just before setting off to chair an EU meeting that speak on combatting international terrorism, a local staff said to him, “a plane crashed into the World Trade Centre.”IMG_1576

That morning was September 11th. “I went on the news and thought it was a relatively small plane, and thought I should focus on the meeting.” It is not unheard of for small, single engine aircrafts to run into buildings in America. About half an hour into the meeting, someone whispered into Evert’s ear, ‘Please stop this meeting immediately and evacuate now.’ “We had to evacuate immediately. We were all on the street, and there were thousands of people on the streets, barely knowing what happened.” Evert remembers, “There was an official order to evacuate the UN building, and we later found out it was said to be on the list of targets for Al Qaeda.”

The city, and even the world, transformed from that day on. Evert would return to the office two days later, and a resolution on international terrorism was submitted by Belgium on behalf of the European Union. “International terrorism was always an important issue among many issues, but from that day onwards it was the only issue.”

Between 2002 and 2011, Evert and his family would move back to Brussels. It was a deliberate decision for the sake of his family. His wife was happily working in Belgium and they also considered it important to give their children a feeling of what their home was like. They wished to familiarize them with Belgium with more than the 3 or 4 years they usually get. “For a Dutch speaker, if you live abroad you don’t have the opportunity to send your kids to Dutch speaking schools. So many of my colleagues they have children who don’t speak Dutch or [only] in a very limited way.” As a result of his commitment to working in Brussels, “my children speak Dutch and German very well.”

Since then, Evert has been enjoying his posting here in Hong Kong, “I had enough of multilateral diplomacy and I wanted to go into bilateral diplomacy. Asia was also unknown to me and I thought why not go there.” But for a time, it seemed very uncertain where he might end up. “The way the postings are assigned is very chaotic and it can change.” Where might he have ended up, if not Hong Kong? “I was almost posted to [one of the] the Arab[ic countries] before the Arab Spring.” Phew.

Hong Kong today
Now just beginning his fourth and perhaps final year in Hong Kong, Evert wishes to further raise Hong Kong’s profile in Belgium. “People too often focus only on Mainland China and tend to go past Hong Kong, although this city in many cases can offer them much more than cities in Mainland China or is much more suitable to their projects or ambitions,” he said. “For Belgian people and entrepreneurs, Hong Kong has a potential for partnership which is largely untapped.”

Evert fondly recounts his first encounter with the fragrant harbour, “Arriving in 2011, we were struck by Hong Kong’s open, dynamic, and energetic character.” The recent events unfolding in Admiralty, Mong Kok, Causeway Bay, and the rest of Hong Kong in a broader context, has not changed that impression on Evert. “[The debate regarding fundamental economic and societal issues] is actually a debate that we are having in Belgium,” he compared. “Having such a public debate is a vital ingredient of a democratic society and is made possible here in Hong Kong thanks to the core values and freedoms that are so typical of this wonderful city and make it so unique.”