They may not be the biggest international news made in Atlanta this week, but just like the negotiators who came here for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, these two government officials had a trade mission.
In this case, that was literally so.
The four-day trade mission to Atlanta is led by Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, and Geert Bourgeois, minister-president of Flanders. They have been talking to Georgia businesses leaders and introducing some of their own business people.
“The United State is our most important trade partner, outside of Europe
Bourgeois told the Journal-Constitution today. “This will go in both directions. We are looking for possibilities to invest here, but also for trade.”
With an eye to the U.S. penchant for innovation and entrepreneurialism, the delegation includes 125 representatives of 85 companies from Flanders and the Netherlands, he said. “We see the entrepreneurial system in Atlanta as being very strong.”
Netherlands and Flanders rely heavily on ports and together are known as the Delta Region, which provides a broad path of entry into the heart of Europe.’
“We see a lot of similarities to Georgia,” Bourgeois said.
Flanders, a region of Belgium, has a population of about 10 million with a large political movement pushing for full autonomy.
Its larger neighbor, the Netherlands is a nation of about 17 million people and has a more sizeable financial footprint.
A few hundred years ago, the Netherlands dominated global trade. While a series of other, larger powers eclipsed or simply seized Dutch possessions, the nation’s businesses and bankers continued to have worldwide reach.
Today, Dutch exports annually:
— to the United States: $18.9 billion.
— to Georgia: $901.2 million.
That trade accounts for tens of thousands of jobs, according to Netherlands officials. Among Dutch companies with operation in Georgia are Akzo Nobel, Heineken, Philips and Randstad.
Rutte said that the Europeans can learn from American business culture – albeit with some reservations.
American politicians have commonly decried Europe for its supposedly sclerotic rules, labor laws that restrict firing, regulations that bind the hands of innovation and a safety net that makes unemployment tolerable.
“There is some truth to that,” Rutte said. “Although we are not here to copy the American model.”
Still, there has also been change in the Euro-system, he said. “The number of entrepreneurs starting businesses in Flanders and the Netherlands is much higher today than it was five years ago.”
Rules have been loosened, sometimes for unfortunate reasons, he said.
“What has helped is that we have had a crisis. There has been quite a downturn in the economy and in that phase we have changed labor laws to an extent.”
Citing a study by Kauffman Foundation, Bourgeois said he sees Atlanta as an argument for change, but not mimicry. “Atlanta has the second-highest rate of entrepreneurialism.”
Neither European nor U.S. system is perfect, he said.
“We need more of that entrepreneurial spirit. We do need more flexibility. We think a system that is between both would be good.”