WATER has been intertwined with the foundations of Dutch democracy since the 16th century, when people had to pool their resources to make the ever-present water in the Netherlands work for everyone’s benefit. These first ‘water boards’ and their elected representatives still exist, says Dutch Ambassador Daphne Bergsma, who believes that the Netherlands’ experience with managing water could greatly benefit Slovakia, as it has recently experienced widespread devastation from flooding.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Bergsma about Dutch businesses and their continuing interest in economic ties with Slovakia, the role of civil society in both countries and the help that Slovak non-governmental organisations could provide in other countries, as well as ways to build more tolerance and support diversity within society.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The European Union has been experiencing a very turbulent period: the financial crisis in Greece and public deficit problems in several other member states along with efforts to create a huge financial security mechanism. What in your opinion are the shared interests of Slovakia and the Netherlands within the EU?
Daphne Bergsma (DB): Indeed at the moment all members of the EU are facing tough economic and financial challenges: How do we survive this crisis, how do we come out stronger than when we entered it? This, of course, means that every member state will need to evolve and adapt its economy to the new challenges. A shared challenge, for example, is how we can secure enough jobs in the European Union for its citizens. Lured by lower labour costs, companies often move eastwards. The question I always ask is when do they reach the point that it will no longer be possible to go eastward in search for cheaper labour.
In the past, several foreign investors, including Dutch companies, came to Slovakia because of appealingly low labour costs. But now you begin hearing that some are eyeing countries further east. But what is certain is that moving to Ukraine, for example, does not necessarily make their life easier because Ukraine is not yet an EU member, and while within the union member states share most regulations, outside the borders of the EU companies often have to start all over again.
Yesterday [June 22], I was talking to a mission from our investment development agency, the Dutch equivalent of SARIO [the Slovak Investment and Trade Development Agency]. They confirmed that they are now talking to Dutch companies which might in the short-term consider low labour costs, but when it comes to other aspects of doing business they understand that the training and education level of the labour force, especially in technical fields, might be more advantageous here and when they do the final math, they find that moving eastward is not always the best option for them.
TSS: Surveys done by foreign chambers of commerce in Slovakia speak in rather clear terms about what businesses see as good conditions for doing business and making investments in Slovakia.
DB: We do share these views. The big players such as Shell, Hypernova, Ahold, Probugas, Heineken, Leaf and Brinkers and others are already here. We also know that there are many small and medium-sized companies from the Netherlands that are interested in doing business in Slovakia. However, they might now be a little more hesitant, partly because of the economic conditions as they are still suffering from the impacts of the crisis. On the other hand, the Dutch economy is a pretty open economy and we want to go abroad; but we also need to have some assurance – not so much in a sense that their operation would succeed – but that they want to be assured that if there is a dispute or a problem they will get fair treatment from the ministries, SARIO or the local courts. There have been some concerns like this voiced through local media, observers and the companies themselves.
In this sense the visit of our investment agency is very well-timed now, after the parliamentary elections. We also can feel much enthusiasm among the people, as though they are saying some negative tendencies will change. We hope that in the coming months we will be able to take back to the Netherlands the message to those companies who are considering coming to Slovakia that the situation is indeed going to improve.
TSS: Are there any specific areas of interest for the companies you just mentioned?
DB: There are sectors where we have had intense interest over the last couple of years, for instance, water management. Two or three years ago we had already identified this as a possible sector where the two countries can work together. I would just mention that 70 percent of our country was reclaimed from the sea.
TSS: Slovakia has been hit by massive floods this year with environmentalists warning that the state has not taken the most effective steps in flood management. Is there Dutch expertise that Slovakia could use in this area?
DB: We do have world-wide experiences and not only regarding our specific needs in the Netherlands since our environmental problems are related mostly to the sea but we also focus on a much wider area. Slovakia’s problems are linked to rivers and over the past decades we have managed to gain expertise also in these fields. Currently, Dutch experts are working in Poland and Hungary and we are indeed thinking about organising a seminar in the context of the Visegrad Four countries since water management is always a shared problem – rivers and their waters do not acknowledge state borders. We have a lot to offer in this respect and we would like to organise a seminar about this. For instance, we were among the first countries to jump in and help when Louisiana was hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
TSS: The Dutch embassy has always been supportive of NGOs and the third-sector in Slovakia. Now Slovakia has reached a point where the country and its third sector should be a provider of help and assistance for other regions in need. How do you see Slovakia's role and what expertise do you think Slovakia might share with societies in need?
DB: We have been discussing recently with the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Defence Ministry the issue of what Slovak NGOs could do in Afghanistan, and even in its Uruzgan province. Our military will cooperate with the NATO operation there until August. The Foreign Ministry has asked NGOs active in Afghanistan to consider starting activities in Uruzgan but they are still hesitant – which is something I understand because it’s not easy to operate there as you cannot just walk around and you need to be protected all the time. But we do have NGOs working in Uruzgan. Also, NGOs worldwide are sometimes hesitant to cooperate with the military, but in places like Uruzgan they cannot afford to work separately since the NGOs need protection by the military while the military needs the NGOs to get small projects running.
The Slovak Foreign Affairs ministry is now working on a strategy since there are some funds, but the question is how to start. These projects focus on very basic areas, as I said, gaining the trust of the population and basic things that we take for granted here. The NGOs also have to work with local people in order to overcome the language barrier and cultural differences.
But of course Slovak NGOs do a lot of work, and can do more, in closer regions such as the
Balkans. From a regional perspective you are very well-suited to work there as the language barrier can be crossed more easily than in Afghanistan and Slovak NGOs can still refer to their own experience – what it means to live in a country in transition.
I have a background in development cooperation and I have understood that the Balkan countries get inspiration from the smaller countries with recent experience in transition. It is important to really cooperate and not just tell them what to do.
TSS: Last year the situation of the Roma community in Slovakia became an intense topic for political parties and one Slovak village built a wall to separate the Roma population from the non-Roma inhabitants. The Dutch embassy has always devoted attention to this vulnerable community. What areas do you think deserve urgent attention?
DB: During my visits to Roma settlements and Lunik IX [in Košice] I have understood how important it is that ideas come mainly from the Roma themselves. It is never going to work if non-Roma people are telling them how to do things. But the Roma issue has proven to be a very difficult one worldwide. Projects don’t work if they aren’t really geared to what the local community wants. They have to tell us what they want and then the outside world can bring the special expertise. We have seen so many projects fail because they weren’t taking into account the local cultural surroundings. I went to a Roma settlement where mothers asked for a kindergarten where children could learn the language and have a place to play. Often with Roma communities, or with some immigrant communities in the Netherlands, these children don’t have toys to play with. And if they don’t have the years in a kindergarten, they start at school already lagging behind because the other children already know how to play and how to use a pencil.
Also, integration is not only about the minority, it’s about the majority as well: for instance, training the police or people in local administration to understand a little bit about the Roma minority, to understand why they sometimes raise the questions they do.
TSS: But intolerance has intensified towards minorities across Europe.
DB: We are very much confronted with that issue because in our recent election we had Wilder’s Party for Freedom gain 24 seats in the 150-member parliament. And this is indeed an indication from part of the population that they are not satisfied with the current policies and what is being done about integration. In our particular case, it is partly because for quite some time we have not really been open enough to face the problem – but now the nation simply has to face the challenges.
TSS: You also signed the open letter from many ambassadors supporting Slovakia’s first-ever Gay Pride parade.
DB: This kind of openness has always been part of Dutch culture. Back in the 16th century the country already accepted foreigners to come and live; for example, Jewish communities from southern Europe. We, ourselves, have also always been travelling around the world. We were the first Europeans to go to Japan back in the 16th century. For us, it has been normal to live with other cultures, inside the country or abroad.
Concerning homosexuality, I had a discussion with young people about the current perceptions of society. Going back to the 1960s, we weren’t that open and tolerant to homosexuality either. But now it’s just a normal part of society for us. Even the outgoing government had as its national and international policy to support the homosexual community. We have ministers who are openly gay; but it’s not necessary for that to happen in Slovakia soon. That happens when the country is ready for it; until then it’s important that the Gay Pride parade can take place without being disturbed.
28. Jun 2010 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová