INTERVIEW: Belgian employers organisation Agoria: Bert Mons
Despite the presence of pan-European automotive components body CLEPA in Brussels, Belgium still has a strong national supplier base represented by employers' trade association Agoria, based in the Belgian capital. Simon Warburton talked to Agoria director Bert Mons in Brussels to find out his take on the current issues facing the organisation and how the lack of a formal government is hindering - or helping.
j-a: How important is the automotive sector to Belgium?
BM: "In the vehicle sector, we have around 200 member companies representing more than 85,000 employees. It is one of the most important sectors [representing for example] Ford, Volvo Trucks, Daf Trucks and suppliers of course."
j-a: It appears western economies and Europe in particular, are heading into choppy economic waters - what's Agoria's take on the outlook?
BM: "2012 will be an extremely difficult year because sales will probably drop [as] consumer confidence is going down rapidly - we have the financial crisis.
"We had a very good 2011 and a second half of 2010. At the association level [we had] rather good news because we have new models at Volvo and Ford from 2013, but we will need to bridge that very important year in 2012. Suppliers are doing quite well because of the Chinese market, but we expect to a drop there as well - it is a mixed feeling. Given consumer confidence will go down, it will be very challenging times."
j-a: What can Agoria do as an association in the difficult economic times ahead?
BM: "The only thing we can do is make our government aware of the need to support industry in general and the automotive industry in particular. Scrappage will not be there this time - I don't have a crystal ball but it will be a very difficult period. Companies - thanks to the crisis in 2009/2010 - should be better equipped so to speak - their financial structure should be better [able] to cope with the double dip.
j-a: Does the lack of a formal Belgian government act as a hindrance to Agoria?
BM: "It has been a problem not having a government. There were very good anti-crisis measures taken a few years ago - for the time being we have stand-still decisions. We also see the regional government in Walloonia and the Flemish government hesitating to take decisions.
"It is clear we need a government. The financial markets were knocking on Belgium's doors. They were forced by the international market and the European Commission to come up with a bridge loan - that is quite severe."
j-a: As an employers organisation, how would you characterise industrial Belgian relations at the moment?
BM: "We are the spokesperson on behalf of the industry and we negotiate the collective agreement every two years with the unions. We had the negotiations on a new agreement a few months ago and we hope for social stability.
j-a: Thousands of workers lost their jobs as a result of Opel closing its plant at Antwerp late last year. What is your view of what happened at the GM factory?
BM: "The problem with Antwerp was we wanted to keep the plant open, but it was an international game. It was Germany/US against Belgium. They [GM] needed to close one and it was clear it was not going to be a plant in Germany. Productivity was extremely high at Antwerp - higher than in Germany but we reflect we were not able - perhaps because of the political situation - to find a new investor for the plant.
"We perhaps could have done more towards new Chinese investors or any other investor."
j-a: CLEPA is a powerful lobby body within the automotive industry and the European Commission - what's your view of the supplier body?
BM: "We are a member of CLEPA. As any client to a supplier, we always want to have a better world, but I think CLEPA has done an extremely good job to protect the interests of suppliers.
"They have done an excellent job and Lars [Holmqvist - CLEPA CEO] in particular."