The Dutch love for commuting by bike

ONCE Dutch children start walking they get their first tricycle and for the rest of their childhood they are given bigger and better bikes until they become financially independent – and then often buy even more expensive bicycles.

Ambassador Daphne BergsmaAmbassador Daphne Bergsma (Source: Jana Liptáková)

ONCE Dutch children start walking they get their first tricycle and for the rest of their childhood they are given bigger and better bikes until they become financially independent – and then often buy even more expensive bicycles.

“But it is not something we think about, as biking is part of the Dutch lifestyle: of course you get a bicycle; of course you ride to school on a bicycle; of course you do your shopping on a bicycle,” said Daphne Bergsma, the Dutch Ambassador to Slovakia, in explaining her country’s enthusiasm for non-motorised transport. “It has no environmental impact and it is healthy and fun.”
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Bergsma about the Netherland’s passion for environmentally-friendly transport and the challenge of rising extremism in Europe as well as issues such as migration, support for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and decriminalisation of cannabis.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Your homeland is a leader in promoting non-motorised transport. How has your country managed to convince people to switch from cars to bikes? Can this model serve as an inspiration for Slovakia?
Daphne Bergsma (DB):
Over my three years in Slovakia I have seen that interest in cycling and setting up the infrastructure for it has been growing, with the authorities becoming more interested in this approach. For example here in Bratislava, Mayor [Milan] Ftáčnik actively supports any bike-related initiative. Last year, I spoke about the issue with the mayor of Banská Bystrica at the Cyklofest we sponsored and where we were cycling together. A couple of weeks ago when I met the mayor of Trnava I asked him whether he was an active cyclist and his answer was ‘yes, I am’. I am surprised how frequently I am able to discuss cycling with government officials here, which shows that there are people who are interested in cycling even though the infrastructure is not always up-to-date and it is not easy for people to use a bicycle as their primary means of transport to school or work.

There are some geographical differences between Slovakia and the Netherlands, of course, as my homeland is a flat country while Slovakia has many mountains. Nevertheless, my homeland is windy and the wind can be just as tough a challenge when cycling as a hill can be. I have memories from my childhood how I was cycling to school just like other kids and I had to go against the wind, and when I was about to cycle home, guess what happened? In the afternoon the wind direction had turned and I had to work hard again. But in the Netherlands the infrastructure is more advanced, thanks to active government policies and an advanced approach by our municipalities. And cycling is part of our culture: we grow up with it and we actually do not think about it as something special.

In cities like Amsterdam it is very difficult to find a parking place and if you find one it is
very expensive. People are generally discouraged from using cars as a means of commuting to work. In fact, with some employers you have the possibility to trade some of your free time for membership at a fitness club, for instance, or three free days for a bicycle. Of course, there is nothing like trading all your vacations for one car. So cycling is actively promoted and using a car is actively discouraged.

TSS: Perhaps as one of the impacts of the global crisis, Europe has been witnessing rising expressions of intolerance towards immigrants along with extremist groups entering into mainstream politics. What are the dangers of these trends and how can societies manage to control them?
That is, indeed, a big challenge for all our countries. I don’t think that we can completely exclude these forces and to a certain extent they also have the right to express their opinions as long as it does not cause discrimination against other people.

Diversity in political opinion has been part of Dutch culture for centuries already. What we basically need is tolerance, respect, and mutual understanding. People usually like travelling to exotic destinations and tasting exotic food, but once people from these nations come closer, the majority population all of a sudden gets afraid. We have to make sure that the education system embeds teaching tolerance and mutual respect for people of different skin colours and religions, which has to be truly mutual.

On the other hand, we in the Netherlands had avoided talking about the problem of an influx of people from different backgrounds – for the Netherlands mostly from Turkey and Morocco – and also what it has meant for society. It was a political taboo to speak about these trends and we failed to realise that people with such different backgrounds might have difficulty in integrating into society and thus we did not make enough effort to understand their cultural background. Then one day when we realised that some of our neighbours walk outside with head scarves it was late by that time and it came as a cultural shock for both sides. The only way to actually solve this is mutual understanding and respect for each other despite the very different cultural or religious backgrounds.

Most of these conflicts come from a lack of understanding and the inability to communicate. For illustration, here is an example: the Dutch have a tradition or custom that you clean your windows every week; if you wanted to be a good housewife in the Netherlands in the 1960s, you were supposed to clean your windows every week, sweep the pavement and also sweep the stairs that you share almost every day in the building where you live. All of a sudden you are surrounded by neighbours who do not have that tradition and who do not see why they should clean their windows every week when once a month is enough. But they did not talk about it because they didn’t share the same language.

TSS: Bratislava hosted another Rainbow Pride event on June 9. Have you noticed any progress within Slovak society in the perception of gay rights since you came here?
If I recall my own first Pride march here, it was the first time in my life that I had teargas in my eyes. The second march was much better protected, for which the mayor of Bratislava played an important part. There are people who oppose this event and it is their right to do so – as long as they leave others to march and express their opinions. I found it interesting that this year before the march there was a seminar on LGBT in the workplace. For gay people to be able to come out at their workplace and for a man to say to his colleagues ‘I have a boyfriend’ is a significant step forward. There was quite a large interest in the seminar. I am not talking about hundreds of people but the fact that there was an event about diversity policies in companies, mostly those with an international background established here, is very important.

Of course none of the progress can happen overnight. If you asked my grandma in the 1960s, or at least her generation, they would all say ‘no, gay marriage is not possible’ but today it is legal in the Netherlands.

TSS: Efforts emerge from time to time to start a discussion in society about decriminalisation of cannabis. What are your opinions about this issue?
I think it is important to define why we want to decriminalise drugs: not because we want to make it easier for people to enjoy using drugs, although that is sometimes what we hear. ‘You Dutch want to go to your coffee-shop every day,’ some people say. It is important to stress that we are talking about cannabis, since hard drugs in the Netherlands are a completely different story and one must understand that the debate is about soft drugs. For us, using cannabis is not much different from drinking alcohol: both should be consumed with moderation. It goes for alcohol and it goes for soft drugs as well. We legalised cannabis because we wanted to prevent drug-related crimes. We thought that decriminalisation at least for soft drugs takes part of the pressure away.
People will use soft drugs one way or another. Young people will try it at least once. If the drug is illegal it will become more attractive, especially for young people. Once it is legal the perception changes as well. Nevertheless, it must be combined with education and programmes on the risks of drug use since if you consume too much cannabis you might become dependent on it just like you become dependent on alcohol. The number of people using soft drugs in the Netherlands is among the lowest in Europe. When you decriminalise cannabis it does not mean it’s like an open invitation for everyone to start using it, quite the contrary. It is very important to make sure that once young people have tried soft drugs they do not go to the next level and start using hard drugs. We also have the lowest number of hard-drug users in Europe. But I would also recommend making this part of biology lessons at schools and explaining to young people what it does to their bodies. Decriminalisation of cannabis must go hand-in-hand with a tougher fight against hard drugs.

TSS: You were one of the ambassadors who attended disciplinary proceedings initiated against some Slovak judges and the president of Slovakia’s Supreme Court was critical of diplomats sitting in Slovak court rooms. What message, if any, did foreign diplomats convey by attending these proceedings?
Within the EU, the enforcement of the rule of law is a fundamental principle, just like human rights and freedom of expression. It means we want to be able to mutually trust each other’s legal systems. Luckily, it is something shared among all EU member states, by Slovakia as well as by the Netherlands. We require new member states to bring their legal systems into harmony with European standards. When I first arrived to Slovakia, I heard that three-quarters of Slovaks say they do not fully trust the judicial system. Then you read the polls done by the American Chamber of Commerce, for instance, where the majority of investors or potential investors are concerned whether law enforcement is functioning properly in Slovakia. You also hear a group of judges from the initiative For Open Judiciary communicating their concerns. As an ambassador you are here to represent your country and refer back to your homeland as well as to potential investors who want to come here, and thus an ambassador wants to personally see how the system actually works. That is why I went to these disciplinary proceedings, that are actually open to the public, and with other ambassadors we spoke to people and heard their opinions.

I am very happy that for more than one and a half years there have been very few disciplinary proceedings. Please don’t misunderstand me: the system as such is fine here and it is part of how your judiciary works. Judges are human beings and they also have to be corrected once in a while, and malfeasance needs to be punished. But it is very important how the well-designed system is used. On paper, the Slovak system is much better than the Dutch system since you assign cases to judges electronically, for example. So it is crucial how this system is applied in practice. I am happy that the new government is also stressing the importance of transparency, open government and a well-functioning judiciary.

TSS: How do you perceive the current inflow of Dutch investments into Slovakia, either from established investors or those first coming to Slovakia? Has the economic crisis left impacts on the investment environment?
The crisis has absolutely influenced the inflow of Dutch investments to Slovakia and over the past years investors have stayed home or have concentrated only on the investments they already have. We are still the number one foreign direct investor here but we are always openly saying that it is not only due to what we all understand as typical Dutch companies to name, for example Heineken, but also thanks to companies such as IKEA, U.S. Steel, and IBM, while of course, no one would consider them to be Dutch. For example, IKEA has its financial headquarters in the Netherlands and that means the investment is counted as a Dutch investment. This happens because the business climate in the Netherlands is very good for these companies. It has to do with support for investment, taxation treaties and all kinds of stimulating measures. You also see a lot of companies from the Netherlands that are in one way or another related to the automotive industry, which is your top product. For example, we are very good at producing sunroofs in the Netherlands and there is now a branch here in Slovakia because it is close to the car assembly itself. But there is absolutely room for further improvement even though at the moment the overall financial situation in Europe does not make it possible. I think potential investors are now a little cautious, waiting to hear what the new government will propose. Slovakia’s flat tax and related issues were always a big attraction for companies to come here and they simply want to know what to expect and then they will decide on potential investments.

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