'Putting responsibility where it belongs'

COUNTRIES should not be over-ambitious when it comes to their presidency at the Council of the European Union, but they need to prepare well ahead for the tasks they want to accomplish, said Richard van Rijssen, the ambassador of the Netherlands to Slovakia, who has already experienced four presidencies in diplomatic positions. His homeland will preside over the EU for the 13th time in 2016, the same year as Slovakia, for the first time. The Dutch ambassador suggests that the discourse around the presidency should also involve debating “what is really necessary that we do at the European level and what we can do at the national level”.

Richard van RijssenRichard van Rijssen (Source: Courtesy of Dutch Embassy)

COUNTRIES should not be over-ambitious when it comes to their presidency at the Council of the European Union, but they need to prepare well ahead for the tasks they want to accomplish, said Richard van Rijssen, the ambassador of the Netherlands to Slovakia, who has already experienced four presidencies in diplomatic positions. His homeland will preside over the EU for the 13th time in 2016, the same year as Slovakia, for the first time. The Dutch ambassador suggests that the discourse around the presidency should also involve debating “what is really necessary that we do at the European level and what we can do at the national level”.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Van Rijssen about gender equality, the state of the judiciary, support for LGBTI rights in Slovakia and a number of issues linked to the upcoming EU presidencies of Slovakia and his homeland.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The Netherlands and Slovakia will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union consecutively in 2016. How will this impact your mission to Slovakia? Have preparations already started?
Richard van Rijssen (RVR):
Our duties will start earlier than our own presidency: it will start with the presidency of Luxembourg, as the country does not have an embassy here and Luxemburg’s embassy in Vienna will have to handle three presidencies. We will be helping out Luxembourg here in Bratislava. We normally have extra staff during the presidency, especially in smaller missions like this, thus I expect we will expand a bit.

It will be interesting for us because, as we are in the same year with Slovakia, we will share our working plan, and we are already starting to discuss a number of issues that are of common interest. The preparation year is very important, because if we don’t do it right, we will not be able to achieve anything. For instance, if you want to pass legislation in Brussels, you will already have to start preparing now as the process takes so much time.

If you are over-ambitious, it won’t work, because it is impossible for a presidency to push things through. You will have to prepare well, there is nothing as bad as the image that you have not organised properly.

TSS: The Netherlands aims to initiate a process in the EU based on the principle “European where necessary, national where possible”, based on the outcomes of a subsidiarity and proportionality review (Testing European legislation for subsidiarity and proportionality), according to a release of your government. Could you give some more details about this initiative?
The Netherlands has taken the initiative through a letter of our foreign minister to start debating what we call “subsidiarity”: what is really necessary for us to do at the European level, we should do, but what we can do at the national level, we should do at the local level. Put the responsibilities and the accountability where it belongs; that’s the important part for us.

It is not our intention at all to change treaties, but to make clear that you shouldn’t do everything at the central level. There are things that member states are fully capable of doing themselves: you need not regulate everything at Brussels’ level.

The Slovak Ministry for Foreign and European Affairs has already said that it is very much interested in this and thus we will bring attention to it here, in Slovakia. We are now looking at possibilities for organising a seminar in parliament here in Bratislava, to have NGOs, researchers, politicians, discuss this. What we all want is an effective Europe that addresses the problems it should address: the financial crisis, unemployment and migration, for example. At the same time, we should exercise restraint with regard to a number of other things. I’ll just give you one example: there was a proposal over whether or not you could have in a restaurant a flask of olive-oil, which you can close or not. It is not really necessary to regulate that at the European level. The proposal is off the table now.

We see that there is quite a lot of criticism of the EU because it interferes too much with daily life where it should not interfere. I think the vast majority of the population, of all the countries in Europe, would agree that we cannot address the financial problems without doing it together: that’s what we need to do. But there are a number of things we should not want to do at the European level.

The European Parliament can contradict national parliaments, although both are the embodiment of the democratic legitimacy of the voters in Europe. We’ve seen situations, for instance, with regard to the European budget, where the European parliament voted differently from nearly all national parliaments. That is something that we should address. I would certainly not want to go back to the situation where the European Parliament is without teeth. It should have teeth, but there should be a very clear line between European and national responsibilities.

That’s the core of the discussion; and we will need to have that debate more vigorously before the next European elections in May next year. In Slovakia, in the Netherlands and in many other countries, the turnout of these elections is very low, and this is bad for democracy. Many people think it is not affecting their lives. But it does. For democracy’s sake, we should make sure that we have a better turnout.

TSS: In terms of the number of females in managing positions at large firms, the Netherlands is among those countries which have met the EU’s expectations. According to the Female Board Index, currently half of 85 large Dutch companies have at least one female in the management of the company. How has your country achieved such a standing? What is the history behind this development?
We perform in the index quite well, but I must say that there is still criticism in the Netherlands. In Norway, for example, there is a law that demands companies listed at the stock exchange to have on their boards 40 percent women; if not, they can be taken off the stock exchange. That is something we are heading for in Europe. We’ve come a long way, as 50 years ago the Netherlands was a traditional country, where women were hardly participating in the workforce. Criticism is possible because women are underrepresented in higher and top positions. This has to do with a number of things: for example corporate culture in many ways is rather masculine.

There are discussions going on in the Netherlands, for example, on the way women should behave in such roles, with some feminists arguing that females should not impersonate men in their behaviour. However, policy-wise it is important to note that our government has not supported a quota for women. The quota system has its disadvantages too. I am quite sure Slovakia will undergo the change we have gone through in the near future.

TSS: In various rankings assessing the quality of Slovakia’s business environment, foreign investors in Slovakia keep citing problems with law enforcement and the state of the judiciary in the country as major concerns. Your predecessor, for example, attended some court hearings over cases that were described by local media as controversial. Is the judiciary on your list of issues to follow closely in Slovakia and if so, why?
There are a number of court cases here which you would not expect to see in a society where the rule of law is impeccable. Then, there is the low level of trust of the Slovak population in the judiciary and the fact that Slovakia is not able to come up with three credible candidates for nomination to the court in Strasbourg. One of the important things which has always been part of the rule of law discussion is the independence of the judiciary. The independent judiciary needs a number of things, but it certainly does not mean that judges cannot be criticised: it means that there is the need for accountability. It means as well that the judiciary cannot be influenced by political whims of the day; and that the judiciary can correct the government. A real independent judiciary can only exist where there is large trust from the public. That is lacking in Slovakia. Something needs to be done about this, as it has an influence on, for instance, the willingness to invest in this country. I am fairly critical about the judiciary system and the rule of law, but then again if you look where Slovakia was in 1989 and where it is now, one can see progress. So it is important that we (i.e. the diplomatic community) follow the judiciary and that we speak out where we need to do so.

TSS: The Dutch embassy in Bratislava has traditionally supported the march for LGBTI rights. How do you assess the public debate in Slovakia on LGBTI rights given, for example, the verbal attacks received by MFA Miroslav Lajčák and his ministry, which is responsible for drafting the new human rights strategy?
It was very good to see this year at Gay Pride the mayor of Bratislava speak, and it is good that the government supported the event. Sometimes governments have to take a leading role in these cases. What one would not want is bigotry, but at the same time, we should not forget that there are people who have been brought up differently. It is very important that we show not by aggressively teaching others what to do, but lead by example and show that a good, working and functional society gets even better if we live up to our obligations with regard to supporting the human rights of everybody, because human rights are indivisible. Sometimes this feels difficult because tolerance is not a normal state of mind. Yet tolerance in itself is not enough, because the word “tolerate” suggests: ‘I tolerate that, but it does not mean I approve of it’: I am a happily married man for 34 years, but I will stand up for the right of my fellow citizens to love the person that he or she wants to love. I am convinced that it is only a relatively small group that has been sending hate mail to Minister Lajčák and others. It is worrying, but at the same time I am very glad that the government in Slovakia has taken the responsibility of writing down a human rights strategy.

If you look at what had been happening during Gay Pride in Bratislava for a few years, you can already see a huge change. This year again in some countries of the western Balkans Gay Pride events were prohibited. The fact that the mayor of the capital speaks to such a group is in itself an achievement.

When I was the ambassador in Oslo I did not need to go to Gay Pride. It would be wonderful to me if as a foreign ambassador I would not need to support Gay Pride, because it would mean that it has become part of daily Slovak life. And that is what we all should enforce.

TSS: The Netherlands remains one of the biggest investors in Slovakia. What areas of Slovakia’s economy, in your opinion, offer potential for further cooperation or prospects for Dutch investors?
I would list some of Slovakia’s advantages above many of its neighbours: it is a country in two worlds, being part of central as well as eastern Europe. Vienna is only 50 kilometres away and Bratislava is much closer to Vienna than to Košice. Your country can be a bridge, which in the long run is going to be perhaps the biggest advantage for Slovakia. You have the Danube, which is as well a transport route, and I think in transport and logistics there could certainly be opportunities for Slovakia. Cooperation between the Netherlands and Slovakia in this area could be very useful. The second area is the automotive industry, which at present is very much an assembly industry. However, if the country wants to escape vulnerability, then development of the product is needed, which includes design, innovative use of computers, etc. We do not have big car builders in the Netherlands, but we have huge industry which supports car building and the car development industry. This week there was a test with self-driving, self-steering cars in the Netherlands. That is the future. In 20 years we will not be driving our cars, we will sit in our cars and the cars will drive themselves. What you need is to help develop; whether it is Volkswagen, whether it is Kia, whether it is Peugeot, they will have to do research and development here. That is where cooperation between Slovakia and the Netherlands can be very useful.

Then there is the whole services industry, including financial services. We are strong in a number of areas: in financial services, insurance, all sorts of services for the business community.

Slovakia has large potential in agriculture, it being much less densely populated than the Netherlands. My country is perhaps the most densely populated country in the world, but still it is the second biggest exporter of agriculture products in the world. This is a consequence of our high-tech agriculture. I think that making use of modern technology could render agriculture in Slovakia much more effective; you are in the middle of Europe, you could help feeding all the countries around you.

TSS: You started your diplomatic mission in Slovakia earlier this year. What are the major areas you plan to focus on while serving here? What surprised you the most after your arrival in Slovakia, something you did not expect?
I had never visited Slovakia before, but I had visited other countries that were formerly behind the Iron Curtain. What struck me when I came to Slovakia in 2013 is the enormous leap forward the country has made. I was astonished to see how “normal” Slovakia is. At the beginning, one of the things that struck me was that people did not smile a lot and they did not laugh in the streets since, as a Dutchman, we are used to laughing in public. But within a week, both my wife and I found that, behind that somewhat sombre look, Slovak people are warm and welcoming. When you go somewhere you have a kind of culture shock; but you overcome it very easily here in Slovakia, because once you make a small effort towards Slovaks, there really is a warm feeling.

TSS: Has the tourism potential between Slovakia and the Netherlands been fully explored? Do Slovaks and the Dutch know enough about each other?
There is huge potential, for example, in skiing opportunities. Two thirds of the 17 million people in the Netherlands take at least two foreign holidays per year and in February half of the Netherlands is skiing in Austria and France. I think one of the big problems is not the distance, because we travel all over the world. If you are in the middle of a desert, the first person you would encounter is a Dutch person, most likely. In Slovakia it takes time to get here, especially to the east of the country. During my first visit to eastern Slovakia two weeks ago, I was surprised by how beautiful, for instance, the city of Košice is. But the tourists need to get there: something needs to be done about infrastructure. And with its spas, Slovakia could attract the elderly in the Netherlands. The elderly are more active and they want to keep fit. With a slight improvement in infrastructure – and perhaps in some of the hotels – the whole spa industry could be a huge attraction for people from the Netherlands.

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