Over a month ago, I returned from my internship at the office of Flanders Investment & Trade (FIT) in Vilnius, Lithuania. An internship at FIT combines multiple interesting tasks and I believe it is worth sharing my experience. It’s not only an opportunity to get involved in economical diplomacy, but also a chance to get to know the complexities of regional diplomacy within the Belgian context. (Feature Image © Jan-Hendrik van Sligtenhorst)
The Belgian State Structure and the Role of the Three Regions
The transition from a unitary to a federal state paved the way for the creation of regional diplomacy in the country. The state reform of 1988 and the Saint Michel agreements of 1992 resulted in giving the different regions and communities international legal personality.
This was based on two principles: The first one is “in foro interno, in foro externo”, which means that the regions and communities could develop their own foreign policy for all policy domains in which they are internally responsible. For instance: the regions could develop their own economic foreign policy as they were internally responsible for economic affairs. This is unique as no other federal state uses this system.
The second principle is the juxtaposition of the federal state, the regions and communities. The federal state cannot prohibit or suspend decisions taken by the regions and communities. General Representatives were created for the Flemish and Walloon Governments to lead foreign relations. These, however, are not directly responsible for companies and investments abroad. Each region has its own separate agency for foreign trade and investments: Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT), the Walloon Export and Foreign Investment Agency (AWEX), and Brussels Invest & Export.
FIT was created in 2005 out of the fusion of ‘Export Flanders’ and ‘Service Investment in Flanders’. It is an external, independent agency with its own board of directors and is currently headed by Claire Tillekaerts.
My Tasks and Experiences in Vilnius, Lithuania
I was an intern at FIT from October to December 2017. The office I worked at represented Flanders in the three Baltic countries: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The situation in the Baltic countries is unique as there are no Belgian embassies in any of these countries, since it was decided to close these embassies at the end of 2014.
It was, however, decided that there would have to be trade offices representing the three regions in the Baltic countries. The office of FIT came to Lithuania, and the office of AWEX and Brussels Invest & Export is in Riga (Latvia). Officially, these offices are part of the embassies in Warsaw (which is also accredited to Lithuania), Stockholm (which is responsible for Latvia) and Helsinki (concerning Estonia).
If one would think that working as an intern at a government agency would include nothing more than dull tasks like serving coffee and tea, than they would be completely wrong. Each day, I would begin by reading the news in order to prepare the weekly news updates. Then, I would continue with the tasks of the day. One of the most important tasks was to aid Flemish companies through trade requests, but working as an intern at an office of FIT also entailed many other diverse tasks.
These tasks included, among others: supporting marketing efforts, preparing market and sector studies, elaborating on trade proposals, data management of the office, sensitizing Flemish companies about economic opportunities in Lithuania, preparation of a roadshow or trade mission, etc.
The office is located in an office building, located halfway Gedimio Prospektas, the main boulevard of the city centre. It was a very pleasant work environment, and a lot of other offices – both of Lithuanian and international companies, a chamber of commerce, etc. – were also located there. From the first week onwards, I immediately had an agenda filled with a lot of interesting activities. I started with a visit to a furniture fair, then there was a book launch aimed at start-up companies by the Flemish author and entrepreneur Omar Mohout, followed by a big fair on innovative technologies. There was, put shortly, plenty to do and learn!
Applying and Scholarships
Be careful: not all offices accept interns. It’s best to inform yourself with Mrs. Katty De Vos (firstname.lastname@example.org). Furthermore, internships at FIT are unfortunately non-remunerated. This is a downside that needs to be considered, but, luckily, for students in their last year of higher education there is the possibility to apply for an Erasmus + scholarship. You can only get this scholarship for a period after you studies, but you have to apply before you graduate. I experienced the procedure as tedious and time consuming. I would therefore recommend to apply as quickly as possible for an Erasmus+ Scholarship.
Good luck to all of you!