The Art of Diplomacy: In conversation with Bart Vodderie 

Bart Vodderie is a Belgian diplomat currently serving at the EU Delegation to the United Kingdom. Bart visited UCL on 27 April 2023 to speak about the art and practice of diplomacy at an event co-organised with EISPS and SPP. The event was part of the EI’s student masterclass series and was co-hosted with the UCL Diplomacy society. 

EI student ambassador Yanis Fekar sat down with Bart for an insightful interview discussing EU-UK relations, shambolic cycling, and the art of diplomacy.

Y: Can you tell me about your work as Brexit lead for the EU Delegation and what your day-to-day looks like? 

BV: I began following Brexit in 2016 and became the Head of the Brexit coordination cell in September 2017. Later, I shifted from the Belgian system to the European system and continued following Brexit for the EU Delegation in London. My days are quite varied. As an example, today I attended the Specialised Committee on the Windsor framework, went to the Polish National Day, and then quickly fired off a report about a meeting my Ambassador attended before coming here. 

Y: You’ve mentioned your role in Brexit. How do you see the role of the EU Delegation to the UK evolving post-Brexit negotiations? 

BV: Our team played a supporting role in the Brexit negotiations by keeping tabs on UK politics and helping with logistics, while the actual negotiations were handled by the European Commission in Brussels. Our hope was to have everything sorted out and the post-Brexit framework established by early 2021, but unfortunately, it took longer than expected. Nevertheless, we’ve been working hard and making progress, especially within the Windsor framework. There’s also the fact that with events such as the invasion of Ukraine, it has become even clearer that countries that share the same values, history, and geography as the EU need to work together. 

Y: So, are you confident that the relationship is moving in a positive direction? 

BV: Yes, definitely. 

Y: Do you think the toxicity surrounding Brexit negotiations will still be part of the political scene post-Windsor framework? 

BV: I think there was a lot of misunderstanding about the EU and what it meant to be in it. Before the referendum [on Brexit], you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could explain the difference between the customs union and the internal market. There were a lot of unrealistic aspirations as to what a post-Brexit UK would be. We respect the UK’s decision to leave, but it has consequences. You cannot leave the club and expect to have all the same benefits as you did when you were inside it. I don’t condemn the people who said we’d be better off outside the club but I do condemn those who pretended that there would be absolutely no disadvantages to or price for leaving. I hasten to add that post-Brexit, of course, things have not become impossible. You can still travel. You can still trade. But it is harder to travel, harder to trade. Hopefully, the political focus has lessened, and we can solve issues more at the technical level. Not every problem has to spiral into a political problem. 

Y: Moving on to a lighter topic, what surprised you about working as a diplomat in the UK? 

BV: It’s very subtle, you know, when I walk around, I look exactly like everybody else on the street. You can’t see the difference between a Belgian and a British person on their face, but there is a certain uniquely British approach to respecting the rules. I will give you a silly example: I always get shouted at when I cycle here, because I cycle somewhat… 

Y: Shambolically?  

BV: Yes, you could say so. And in the UK, there is this form of community policing with, for example, lots of people shouting at you if you cycle badly, whereas people in Belgium would not necessarily bother. You could also see this in approaches to the pandemic. The country took a very different approach to its European neighbours, an approach that I think is rooted in its culture.  

Y: Is there anything else that comes to mind? 

BV: There’s also the fact that the British have a distinct way of saying “no,” which can be confusing for those unfamiliar with their customs [laughs]. There were instances where I had to clarify to my colleagues that a British colleague had declined their request, even if they didn’t explicitly do so. Sometimes, my colleagues would continue to push for what they wanted, thinking that the British counterpart had left room for negotiation. I had to intervene and explain that this was simply a polite refusal and that it was best to accept it. You just have to get used to it and know when to stop pushing for something.    

Y: What are some important lessons you learned from your postings in Uganda and at the Belgian Permanent Representation to the EU? 

BV: Uganda and the Belgian Permanent Representation to the EU were two distinct experiences, but each taught me invaluable lessons. When I was working at the Belgian Permanent Representation, I got to see first-hand how negotiations within the EU really work. I had always thought that once you had enough votes to pass a text, negotiations and compromise would be over. But I was wrong. The goal was always to strive for a consensus and find solutions that would address the concerns and problems of every member state, which meant that compromise and listening to everyone’s perspective were key. It was definitely a complex process of balancing interests, and I was surprised by just how much effort was put into ensuring that everyone’s needs were being met. 

Now, when it comes to my posting in Uganda, I learned that it’s essential to make an effort to escape the so-called ‘diplomatic bubble’. I noticed that a lot of colleagues would content themselves with only talking to, say, other Western allies. But I always made an effort to reach out to, say, my Kenyan or Congolese colleagues, as I knew they would have a very different view on Ugandan politics compared to a Danish or a German diplomat. They were very often pleasantly surprised when I reached out to them which made making connections easier. I also tried to reach out to local academics, local journalists, and ordinary citizens. It’s not always an easy task, but it was extremely valuable. Discussions with ordinary citizens in particular really improved my cultural awareness. 

Y: Thank you for that. Finally, what advice do you have for UCL students aspiring to a career in diplomacy? 

BV: Go for it. That’s my advice. Diplomacy is a unique career that offers both adventure and stability. Of course, it’s not for everyone. If you’re the kind of person who wants to study something and become The Expert in it for the next thirty years, then maybe it’s not for you since diplomacy involves a lot of change, starting from scratch every four or five years. I often joke that in diplomacy, by the time you know your job well, you’re moved to the next one. But still, there is a lot that you learn that is transferable. Diplomats are generalists. Now, as I was saying, a career in diplomacy combines the adventure that comes from postings all around the world and the stability of knowing you always have a future posting lined up if you stay in the system. It is the best of both worlds. You experience different cultures and countries while remaining within a secure system. 

Y: A very strong case for a career in diplomacy then. Thank you very much for answering my questions today, it was an interesting conversation.   

Yanis Fekar studies Politics and International Relations at UCL. He is Vice President of the UCL United Nations Association and a Student Ambassador of the UCL European Institute. 

Image credit: Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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