One king and two barons...March, 2023
“But do you know how two barons have had an extraordinary influence on the development of Bulgaria... Both, I can proudly say, did it with Belgian investments... Both of them bear the prestigious title of "baron"!”
If an ambassador, or a friend from Brussels had asked me this question, I would probably have thought twice, taken out my phone and immediately started searching on Google what it was about.
But those words came from the mouth of King Albert II of Belgium,
casually, over a cup of tea.
at the government's Boyana residence while discussing an upcoming meeting with business. With him are several people from the Belgian Chamber of Industry, who are also standing a little stunned and confused.
Nobody naturally expects the King to ask such a question, and while I can almost guess what it is all about, King Albert II adds gently and a little like a schoolmaster:
“I'll help you, I'll help you... Dig into Bulgarian history, go back to 1873 and see who actually built Bulgaria's first railway, that is from Varna to Ruse... The German Baron Maurice de Hirsch, through his Belgian company Eastern Railways, took over the construction of the line from the High Gate of the Ottoman Empire and although there was a lot of mixed capital in the company, the Belgian engineering involvement was crucial...
King Albert II was actually the brother of King Baudouin, whom he succeeded to the throne in 1993, until his abdication twenty years later in favor of his son Philippe.
And... a cousin of our own King Simeon the Second.
He arrived in Bulgaria on a "state visit", but together with a huge group of Belgian businessmen and already at the airport his first words were, "Let's now help my friends with whom I was on the plane to make good investments in Bulgaria, a wonderful and fast growing country."
Just days before the visit, together with the Belgian Ambassador Philippe Becquet, we had invited a group of representatives from different business organizations in his residence to discuss how to make this visit really successful and useful for Bulgaria. The first Belgian investors had already appeared, and our country had a pretty good image among the Belgian business organizations, not without the participation of the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), in which my great friends at that time, the Belgian Piet Steel, supported by the Secretary General of the ERT, the Dutch Wim Filippa, had a leading role.
In short, those were glorious times.
Business delegations arrived in Bulgaria one after the other, all of them wanted to see the Prime Minister, then King Simeon, to look for business opportunities here, to assess the environment and quickly, back home, to make plans for investment.
That's how we welcomed King Albert II. He wanted to pave the way for more Belgian projects in the then-awakening Bulgarian economy, and he also knew how important this was for his country.
“You see, Mr. Behar, I would be happy to look at all the things on my cultural agenda, meet with the politicians, I studied your history for weeks before I came. You have an incredible country to be proud of and admire! But excuse me, for me
the most important part of my visit,
is the business forum, my meetings there, and the colleagues who came with me... We cannot develop our relationship without having a strong and profitable business, times are different now, I want to leave that in Bulgaria, and I know that this will help both countries...
At the forum at the Boyana residence there were several hundred business representatives from both countries, King Albert II presented himself with a long speech about history, culture and especially about the economy, answering questions, smiling, positive, praising the changes in Bulgaria and when, already a bit tired, we sat him in one of the small rooms of the residence and drank another tea, I innocently asked him:
"You mentioned Baron Hirsch and his railway,
but you also said it wasn't just him, there were two..."
“Well yes," replied the King. “There are two. And both of them remain forever in Bulgarian-Belgian history. The second is Baron Daniel Janssen, the president of the Solvay Group... He actually opened the way for Belgium's modern investments in your already modern country!”
P.S. I dedicated an article about my meetings with Baron Janssen in a previous issue of the magazine...