IN THE Netherlands many judges are on Twitter or on Facebook, commenting on their work to make people understand what their job is, says Dutch Ambassador to Slovakia Richard Van Rijssen, who suggests that if judges in Slovakia started themselves to be transparent about what they do and openly explain judgments, that would help to improve the perception of the judiciary here a great deal.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Ambassador Van Rijssen about the state of the judiciary in Slovakia, the heated debate on same-sex marriages and family protection, perception of the EU and its role, as well as other important aspects of the Dutch presence in Slovakia.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Dutch diplomats have attended some court hearings over cases that were described by local media as controversial, while citing the importance of the rule of law in Slovakia. Foreign investors too keep listing problems with law enforcement as weaknesses of the society. How can societies improve the state of judiciary?
Richard Van Rijssen (RVR): The origin of the problem obviously lies in the fact that in 1993, decisions had to be taken to form an independent judiciary and whatever decisions you make in those circumstances, they can be proven wrong afterwards. One of the big problems influencing the state of the judiciary in Slovakia is that is has been for a very long time dominated by a relatively small group. We recently co-organised a conference on the state of the judiciary and one thing that resonated was that for a long time, fear was predominant within the judiciary. Nevertheless, there is certainly a shift there: we have at least seen attempts by the government to redress the situation; we have witnessed more openness on the part of the judiciary itself and we have seen a change in personnel. I think the most important is higher self-confidence of a number of judges. The confidence in the judiciary is very low, and the only way to change it is when you have self-confident judges.
One very particular point that has been worrying is the large number of court cases of judges against the executive, against the legislative power, against other judges. In a grown-up system, in a ripe system, you don’t need that sort of thing. If you have judges starting court cases against other judges, then there is certainly something wrong within the system.
The most important thing is that a number of organisational changes should take place. In modern days, you should use much more digital means. Court cases take twice as long in Slovakia as in the Netherlands, although you have twice as many judges as the Netherlands and we have three times as many inhabitants. Society demands transparency: transparency in nominations, in drawing up the criteria of who can be a judge and who cannot, and living up to that while making the decisions openly and in public. Then a code of ethics is crucial, but a code without ethical judges does not help. I would argue that a large majority of judges are good judges, but the problem is they do not dare to say what they think. If judges started themselves to be transparent about what they do, and for instance openly explain judgements, that would help a lot.
TSS: The Netherlands legalised same-sex marriage 15 years ago. How does the society reflect on this experience? Are gay marriages still a subject of public debate? How do you view the ongoing public debate on a potential referendum defining the concept of family in Slovakia?
RVR: In the Netherlands the same-sex couples’ marriage is widely accepted and it does not pose any problems. There is a tiny minority that opposes it, mostly on religious grounds, but then the most important thing is that no-one is forced to marry a person of his or her own sex. If people decide they want to live together, that’s up to them. I think the debate in Slovakia on whether it would influence children is on a false note and does not acknowledge facts that are scientifically clear. People should be able to make their decisions in their own life.
In the Dutch view, it’s not up to the state to decide whom you should love, or with whom you should live: that’s up to the persons themselves. To withhold from someone the opportunities that marriage gives – e.g. in heritages, in social or fiscal advantages of being married – because he or she happens to love someone of the same sex, should in itself be something not for discussing. Of course, religion is much more important in Slovakia than it is now in the Netherlands.
We should not forget that 50 years ago, the Netherlands was very much a society defined by religion as well. But we’ve come a long way since then, and we have gone from first tolerance to then acceptance. I think the word tolerance is the wrong word in this respect. You should not “tolerate” people, but you should accept them. I am certainly not someone who says that the church should have different feelings on that. But I think that’s a clear point of view that we had: if people make a choice themselves, we should let them, unless, obviously, they violate strongly the law or harm other people with it. No-one is harmed if two people, who live together anyhow, are married or unmarried.
TSS: A couple days ago, a ruling by a court in Amsterdam declaring that Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a racist caricature and thus it can be banned from public celebrations has been overturned by the Council of State. When did Zwarte Piet become controversial, and how is this conflict viewed in the Netherlands?
RVR: Sometimes I don’t understand the debate myself. It has been a tradition for about 160 years that St Nicolaus was accompanied by a number of helpers who were black. Some people say that was because of sliding through chimneys; others think that is a caricature and call it racist. Whatever position one takes on this, there is a development on the character of Black Pete: he’s gone from being a somewhat clown-like figure, to being, in fact, the guy who runs St Nicolaus, who is an old and senile man. The external features have changed and I think it will change further. Some people ask that it now be forbidden, which to me is not the right way. Some people, even one party in parliament, asked that it should always be black, which is nonsense as well; let it develop. One of the things that we have seen is that both those against and those in favour of Black Pete have ruined a children’s party. That’s not what we should want. I personally believe that it certainly would not be harmful if we had all sorts of Petes, whatever colour they are.
What is uncomfortable about it is that it has become a heated debate, with personal insults. I think that is wrong. What we should try to do is keep our calm and say that this is a discussion about the 5th of December, and the way that the helper of St Nicolaus is portrayed, if we can do that without making others feel uncomfortable.
My government has repeatedly said that they don’t have a view on this, and there is no official policy on it and that was warranted by the highest court of the Netherlands for this type of court case: first, the court in Amsterdam found that it could be seen as racist, and for that reason, the mayor of Amsterdam should not have given the opportunity to have Black Pete coming into town.
Then, the Supreme Court said it is not up to the government to take the decision on that; and I think that’s a very wise thing.
TSS: EU-exit politicians lost to pro-EU parties in the EU vote earlier this year. Is European Union membership widely debated in the Dutch society today? What are currently the EU-related sentiments of the population?
RVR: Politicians opposing the EU often say that Brussels has dictated something. Yet, in 99 percent of cases, the member states are getting together in working groups and coming up with proposals for legislation that is being accepted, so it is our own representatives who do that. It’s already on the wrong foot, because it is very easy for politicians to blame Brussels for something. There are also a number of things that are not understood. Why do we come up with all sorts of regulations? Partly because we want to have a level playing field for all sorts of things, so that a Dutch company can compete with a German company in for example the United Kingdom. That’s where part of the regulations comes from. Competition is good for us because it brings growth. On the other hand, there are a lot of things where we cannot create a level playing field. The EU has become much more diverse than it has ever been. If people say “we want less Europe” that’s the wrong sort of attitude.
There are areas where we need more Europe. On capital flows, we don’t have a unified European policy, which is leading to the present uncertainty on capital markets. My government is not in favour of the European tax system; but more harmonisation in taxation policies would certainly help, because it would leave no companies with the choice to choose a country to have their head offices there for fiscal reasons only. I am saying that as someone living in a country where you have quite a few companies that have inter alia for fiscal reasons their headquarters in the Netherlands.
To say that the euro is not a success does not stand on firm footing, either. If we look at the growth in Slovakia and compare it to its neighbours that are not eurozone members, Slovakia’s growth is bigger. Slovakia has benefited a lot from entering the eurozone. It is much easier for Slovak companies to operate abroad, for example.
All in all, we have to address the big issues in Europe, and some of the small issues. De-regulation should be part of the game and I think this is going to happen with the new Commission and Commissioner Juncker very clearly.
TSS: The Netherlands is opening the world’s first stretch of road made with solar cells for bikes in mid-November. How do you assess the biking culture in Slovakia?
RVR: To go by bike from one part of the city to another in the Netherlands is often much quicker than by car. We are a country about 85 percent of the size of Slovakia, but we have 17 million people, so there are traffic jams everywhere. The other advantage we have is that we are a flat country where it is easier to bike. The only and paradoxical problem we have is that there is much more wind and experience shows that whatever direction you bike in, you are biking against the wind. For us, it has been very natural way of transport within the cities. It’s part of our culture. The problem indeed here, in Slovakia, is that in Bratislava nearly everywhere you go, you have to ride up-hill somewhere. That’s perhaps where Peter Sagan got his legs from.
I think the only thing you can really do to promote biking is by a special bike lane: we have that in the Netherlands. Another big advantage in the Netherlands is that everybody driving a car knows very well that there are bikers on the road, so they take care. When you look in the morning at people from across the river going into Bratislava, if half of them were on bikes, that would lead to a lot of improvement.
TSS: The Netherlands remains one of the biggest investors in Slovakia. Are there any sectors, which have not been fully tapped yet? What areas of Slovakia’s economy in your opinion could be interesting for Dutch investors?
RVR: The small and medium enterprises are investing in Slovakia and alarge part of our investment is SMEs. That certainly is here to stay. I think that this tendency will only be stronger in the future. A number of areas where I think we would see developed in the future is waste management. In the Netherlands, about 10 percent of all waste goes into landfills, in Slovakia, it’s 90 percent. It would certainly be interesting to develop that sector in Slovakia and I think that Dutch companies are interested in this segment.
Slovakia is performing worse than it did 20 years ago in the agricultural sector and part of the reason, I would tend to believe, is the side effects of the past common agricultural policy which does not give enough drive to be a good entrepreneur as a farmer. Another part of it is, according to me, the legislation in Slovakia that makes it very difficult for foreign producers to start producing here, in Slovakia. We had seen Dutch companies being very much interested in producing high-quality – for instance vegetables in Slovakia – because the soil is certainly very good for it. But having learned about the legislation on land ownership, they are not coming. So that’s where a change in the law would help.
There are a number of other potential areas, for example the digital economy, companies that make small electronic devices. We have quite a few of them here in Slovakia; but there could be much more, because there is a level of craftsmanship in Slovakia that we don’t have anymore in the Netherlands. Other areas where I see future investment is in the automotive industry as we have a lot of suppliers: for example board computers.
TSS: Do Slovaks generally know enough about your homeland? Is Slovakia on the radar screen of Dutch tourists?
RVR: I fear that Slovaks do not know any more about Dutch people than we know about Slovaks. Yet, smaller nations are always seen positively by the Netherlands because we consider ourselves a small country when looking at square kilometres. In many other aspects we are even a big country. There is a historical sympathy with Slovaks: I remember very well 1968, the outpouring of sympathy towards the then-Czechoslovak nation after the Prague Spring. This positive feeling remained with my generation. You have been bullied around by bigger nations around you like we have also been in the past; that makes it certain that there is sympathy; however, the number of tourists is increasing. We are known to be Nomads: if you see a vehicle pulling a caravan then it’s a 50-percent chance it is Dutch. Slovakia could very well develop itself as a tourist destination. It certainly has enough beauty to show for it: that’s something that will come. And the first ones who will come are the Germans and the Dutch.
1. Dec 2014 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová