It would be short-sighted not to show solidarity

MIGRATION and refugees will certainly be on the plate of the Dutch and the Slovaks during their 2016 presidencies, but that should not overshadow other important challenges Europe is facing nowadays, says Dutch Ambassador to Slovakia, Richard van Rijssen.

Dutch Ambassador Richard van RijssenDutch Ambassador Richard van Rijssen (Source: Jana Liptáková)

In an interview with The Slovak Spectator, Ambassador Van Rijssen talked about preparation for the presidencies as well as about the economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries, the investment climate in Slovakia, and the Dutch recipe for happiness.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How are you proceeding with preparations for the Dutch EU presidency? What will the role of your embassy be, given that the Netherlands will pass the presidency on to Slovakia?

Richard van Rijssen (RvR): We are in the trio with Slovakia and Malta, so we have seen a lot of delegations from the Netherlands and from Malta coming here, as well as lots of people travelling to the Netherlands and to Malta for meetings. In the trio, the presidencies are prepared together, preparing an agenda for the EU. That was different before the Lisbon Treaty, so that’s new for us as well. I’m impressed by the work done here in Slovakia.

People are preparing very well, including in language training and training how to preside over meetings. We are trying to help with the experience that we have. We’ve had very interesting discussions on nearly all subjects where the presidency has a role to play. We aim at making a much shorter version of the trio programme. These trio programmes have been of a length of up to a hundred pages. Result: No one reads after it is published. We aim at making it into a strategic document, making clear what the priorities are: the priorities that we will do, but also, and this is a bit of our Dutch perspective, what we won’t do, or give less emphasis to.

One of the main lessons of the past is that one should not have too much of a national agenda during one’s presidency. That was true with six Member states, with nine, and then 10, 12, 15, and 25 and now 28. The Lisbon Treaty changed the role of the Presidency: More a facilitator than a driver. We should not forget the changing attitude towards the EU. One of the main lessons of the past is that one should not have too much of a national agenda during one’s presidency. The EU must address the issues that we really need to tackle at the European level: Not more, not less.

We have seen the economic crisis since 2008, we currently see what is happening to Greece, and we see high unemployment, lack of competitiveness. But it does not mean we have to regulate every last detail. That was part of our Dutch agenda, an agenda that is at present shared by the mainstay of the member states. One should be careful with a very ambitious agenda, certainly when reaching your goals does not depend on you, or on you alone. The Netherlands has experience with being over-ambitious: in the nineties when we failed with the Treaty of Amsterdam. We had prepared it, it was our priority, and then it failed as we did not listen carefully enough to our partners.

The good thing about the trio is that we can share our experiences; we pool what we know, what others think and we really can be critical of one another. There are many fields where we are in close agreement, e.g. if you look at fiscal and financial responsibility, the digital agenda and trade policy. On a number of issues we have different points of departure. The important thing is that there is consistency in the programme of the trio: that we are working towards the same goals.

The shared goal is to have a competitive Europe that can operate internationally, that is modern, and that has done its homework in the sense of the reform that has to be done. Reform is important and easier when things go well economically. Reform in times of crisis is much more difficult. You lack the financial means and the political stability. So what you need to do is to reform when things are going well. There are now prospects for better economic times for many European countries, including the Netherlands and Slovakia; this will be a time to restart growth. I’m very happy to see that we agree this is the time to do so.


TSS: What are the plans for cooperation in the area of culture?

RvR: Culture is a goal in itself, but as well an excellent tool. It bridges gaps and fosters mutual understanding. The cooperation between our two nations dates back right to the start of the independence of Slovakia when important Dutch musicians such as Jac van Steen and Jan Kleinbussink worked together with Slovak artists. With our colleagues from the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Culture we are now working on our newest contribution to this tradition of joint musical projects. We would like to kick-off the Presidency year with a concert of contemporary Dutch and Slovak music. One of our best present day composers, Micha Hamel, is preparing a special arrangement for this concert that will feature the fujara, which will be played by a famous Dutch flutist.

Our collaboration will continue throughout the whole Presidency year with many other activities that we plan together such as exhibitions of Dutch and Slovak painters, a virtual street portal created between Bratislava and Amsterdam and – at the start of the Slovak Presidency – a major COBRA exhibition in the Danubiana Museum.

TSS: One of the major issues that the EU is dealing with at the moment is the situation with migrants and refugees. What is the stance of the Netherlands on this?

RvR: The problem is in fact rather complex. First of all, genuine refugees, falling under the Geneva Convention of 1951, need to be treated as such. They have a right to asylum. Secondly, the tragic events in the Mediterranean need to be addressed. People dying in the Mediterranean who are trying to come to Europe is inhumane and politically unacceptable. Real refugees need to be welcomed.

My government said clearly that we were willing to accept quota. The situation in Italy and in a number of Greek islands is just too critical. There are a number of countries outside those two that have received more than the average: Germany, Sweden, and to a somewhat lesser extent the Netherlands. If we need to receive an additional number of refugees, we can do that, but we need to do that together, as 28 countries.

Thirdly, we should certainly stop the traffickers. Trading people across the Mediterranean is just unacceptable. And fourthly, we need to improve the situation in their counties of origin. We may need eventually boots on the ground in Africa but we can only do that with a proper UN mandate, that’s very clear. And then fifthly, if people come to Europe we need to see what they are, who they are. Those fearing prosecution or warfare in their countries have the right under international law to be welcomed and given refuge in our part of the world. Those seeking economic gains, though understandable, should be less welcome in the sense that we have limited capacity for them. And we should have a good vetting process to filter out those that come with bad intentions.

On European cooperation I should add that it would be short-sighted to not show solidarity. We have seen in the past refugees coming from all parts of the world. I would certainly not exclude, although I would certainly not hope so, that in three-four years’ time, or perhaps in months, large numbers of refugees could be coming not from the South but from the East. We may see tens of thousands people coming across the border close to Košice. And then, obviously, if these are real refugees, Slovakia and other countries bordering on Ukraine would rightly ask us to show our solidarity. It is something that we really need to consider.

It is a terribly difficult question. No one wants Brussels to tell us what we have to do, but on the other hand we need to tell one another that we need to do something, and whether it’s coming from Brussels or not is not the main issue. What we should brace for is xenophobia and an anti EU sentiment, which is used politically in the worst sense of the word. We should reject such populist notions.

TSS: Is this going to shape the agenda of the presidencies?

RvR: I certainly hope not, but the reality is that we will have it on our plate. There’s only one good way of dealing with it, that we stand shoulder to shoulder and we help one another in a very difficult time. But we should not let that overshadow many other challenges that exist. The famous answer of Harold Macmillan, prime minister of the UK, on the question what will shape the political future; he said ‘events, my dear boy, events’.

We may have the best of agendas, but in reality we have to prepare for the unknown unknowns, to use Rumsfeld’s term. Being prepared for the presidency means you are ready to deal with the unexpected. Let us be honest to ourselves, two years ago we didn’t know what was going to happen with ISIS, in Ukraine, in Libya. All these things are happening in the outside world but they still determine what we are doing. You will have to take decisions when you need to take them. Things are going to happen we cannot even imagine yet. We have an upcoming referendum in the UK; we do not know what kind of Eurozone we will have in a half years’ time, we do not know if the growth we are now expecting will take place. During the Slovak presidency, the new American president will be elected, we don’t know what influence that will have; we don’t even know the government we will have in Slovakia. So there are always many uncertainties.

As already mentioned, the refugee question will certainly be on the table. We should not forget the number of people that for instance migrated in Europe between 1945 and 1950 after 1956 and after 1968. Of course these were Europeans going to another part of Europe. The only way to reduce the number of refugees is to reduce the warfare in the Middle East, reduce poverty in Africa.

TSS: The Dutch rank among the happiest nations in the world. What is the Dutch recipe for happiness?

RvR: It’s not just the Dutch, it is also our Scandinavian friends that are relatively happy. We have a number of things in common. First of all, we enjoy a larger equality in income than many others. Secondly, in our attitude towards children we let them be children while providing them with good as well as playful education. However, although at individual level, the Dutch belong to the happiest people in the world, we tend to be much less happy as a society. If you ask the Dutch about the outlook for the country, they will be less positive. There is a paradox here. It only shows we have to be careful with this kind of statistic.

At the origin of our personal happiness is a combination of circumstances. We have a country well versed in developing and preparing for the future, we still are well off economically and financially and our socio-economic system is still intact to a large extent. Then there is a socio-cultural reason: a Dutchman is urban in his behaviour. He’s not looking at the small piece of land where his grandfather lived. He is a citizen open to the world. That’s part of our history, part of our making. That makes us self-confident and I think self-confidence makes you happy as you feel you can influence the world. Perhaps we are over-confident, but this feeling exists. The part we are unhappy about is the part where we think we lack control over our future.

TSS: The Netherlands is one the biggest investors in Slovakia. In which sectors have the prospects for Dutch investments been tapped and what other areas of Slovakia’s economy could be interesting for Dutch investors?

RvR: One sector to be watched closely is the digital sector. The Netherlands is strong in both hardware and software. The largest chip maker in the world is a Dutch company, we are a country that has a huge software industry; for instance we are the second largest producer of video games in the world. One will see more and more Dutch small and medium companies working in Slovakia, e.g. in the development of new software. I really see opportunities there, as well as in research and development of hardware.

There are opportunities, as well, in connection to the automotive industry. That industry depends in Slovakia mainly on the assembly of parts made somewhere else. This renders the added value relatively low. Bringing in producers and designers of automotive parts from the Netherlands – and there is certainly interest in the Netherlands – can generate a higher added value in Slovakia.

It is important for the investment and business environment to improve quality and quantity of the services sector. That’s easier said than done. Being part of a competitive market requires solid banking, transparency in the insurance industry, strong legal and consultative support. On the whole, our future is in services. Eight to nine Dutch citizens are employed in the service industry. Whether we like it or not, that will happen in Slovakia as well. You will need to adapt education to this services- geared economy.

Slowly but surely, manufacturing will go to countries that have cheaper labour, so alternatives must be found. The service sector is where we will make a large part of our money in the near future. That is the reason why both Slovakia and the Netherlands will promote the digital market in the EU.

The Netherlands is still the second biggest agricultural exporter in the world. But our exports are mainly high value products. Plant seeds are high-tech! Research and development are the backbone of our agriculture. Joint investment in research and development and in education, opens new perspectives in that and other areas. It will give a boost to investment and to well-paid employment in Slovakia.

A number of other things should happen as well, to improve the investment climate. The low level of trust in the judicial system is certainly affecting the investment climate negatively. If you want to invest in a country and you see a lack of trust in the judiciary, then you think twice before investing.

TSS: Has this improved in your time in Slovakia?

RvR: The process of improvement has started. There’s a good old Dutch saying ‘Trust comes on foot and goes on horse’. It will take quite some time before full confidence is restored in the judiciary in Slovakia. Important measures have been taken. Politically both President and the Government have committed to further steps. The change that is needed is underway, in nomination and education of judges, in speeding up procedures. If a court case takes up to ten years, you will have to bridge that period through external financing. Court procedures should be predictable and transparent. The Dutch organisation “Judges for Judges” is cooperating with Slovakia for a long time. In the short run improvement is required in legal education, notably legal ethics for law students. Other changes where an exchange of view on our experiences may be helpful include using digital means to improve the length of procedure and transparency, as well as the selection of judges and “éducation permanente” within the judiciary.

Overall, the real change in Slovakia is the general acceptance of the fact that the trust in judiciary is too low. Change starts with the recognition of the need for change.

TSS: Slovakia has changed its legislation pertaining to purchase of arable land which now limits purchases of Slovak land by foreign entities. Has this affected Dutch investors?

RvR: It certainly has…. This new law is under scrutiny in Brussels, because according to the EC, it leads to discrimination between EU citizens. I must say, this seems to be a correct objection. I should add that in my view the policy behind this legislation harms competivity. Slovakia in 1991 was a net exporter of agricultural products. It has become a net importer. Farmers are more and more producing to receive subsidies. An entrepreneur looks at business opportunities. If you perceive subsidies up to €260,000 – whether it is a good product or not – you are not looking at producing to add value. Slovakia has some of the most fertile areas. Much if this land is used for second rate produce. Being a farmer’s descendant I really think that is a pity.

The Netherlands is a major exporter of fruits, vegetables and flowers, and the fertile soil in Slovakia opens opportunities to the same position. The current law prevents foreign farmers to come and help improve production and added value: A lost opportunity, in my view.

Farmers need to realise they are in business. Supermarkets are filled with products from abroad, where local production should be abundant. Protection of the farmer should not just aim at those who own a farm, but at those who want to make a living from farming, and whether that is a Slovak, a Dutchman, an Austrian, is not important.

TSS: You previously wrote about the waste industry as an opportunity to make money. What is the lesson that Slovakia, a country in which still a large portion of waste ends at landfills, can learn from the Netherlands here?

RvR: In Slovakia most waste gets buried and is polluting the ground. And what you’re doing is you are burying gold! There are many valuable materials. The Netherlands is currently importing waste from other countries and we are making money out of it. The Netherlands offers another way of thinking. Waste can be used for energy production, for extracting valuable elements, for recycling. Waste management can be a source of income, and also of employment. One needs to collect and separate waste, at relatively small cost. I am convinced companies will be standing in line to make a business of waste management, including Dutch companies. The side effect is that some of the pollution problems that local communities are confronted with just will disappear. At the same time, it could bring economic gains. In the 1970s we were confronted with similar problems. What we have on offer is avoiding our mistakes of the past. It’s not that we are better; we just made those mistakes earlier.

TSS: In the recent referendum Slovakia’s voters did not support the traditionalist approach to family and marriage. The LGBTI community now sees room for introducing some measures that would legislatively strengthen their rights. Do you see any improvement in Slovakia over the past years?

RvR: Yes, in the sense that the referendum was not the success it was intended to be. We discussed the happiness of the Dutch. One of the most important things is: people should be allowed to be happy. If you want to love someone in a non-traditional relationship, you have the same right to be happy as the next person. Everybody should be happy in their own way as long as they don’t infringe on the rights of others. The energy that goes into being accepted is lost to society one way or the other.

We have seen an enormous economic boost in the 1990s, when Dutch women arrived on the labour market. The Netherlands had a very low percentage of women active on the labour market, compared to France and Germany. By pursuing emancipation through feminism, that changed dramatically, and the activity on the labour market led to huge economic growth. If you people are and have to be worried with their place in society, people that have to defend their position, they will not be creative in the society in other ways. Look at all the energy that went into organising the referendum. That energy could have been used to do something more productive: What a benefit to society it would have been.

In Europe, change is underway. You can like it, you can dislike it, everybody can think personally what they want about this, but this is happening. It’s part of our changing pattern in society. In the UK now marriage between same-sex couples is possible. Let’s not forget that Alan Turing on whom the famous film was made, was sentenced for being a homosexual and that was 60 years ago.

Things will change here as well. The 20th century is not coming back. The 21st century is here and we better get used to it. Everybody has the right for himself to say yes or no towards same-sex couples, but we do not have the right to prescribe a life style for others. I was earlier referring to the Dutch being urban and Slovakia being more rural. One of the aspects of that is the certain social conservatism, which in itself is not bad, but it should not lead to denying others the equal right to be happy. The American Bill of Rights formulates it this way: People have the right to pursue their own happiness!

TSS: The Dutch government will scrap student grants and replace them with loans as of the next academic year. In Slovakia, tuition fees were repeatedly discussed. Is there any lesson Slovakia could learn from the Netherlands in this regard?

RvR: If you look at people going to university, after 15 years they will earn double the median income. Studying is investing in your own future. It is not too strange to ask those benefitting to contribute. That is part of our consideration. In the Netherlands you pay roughly €2,000-3,000 per year in fees. The average student costs more than €10, 000, that is what society invests in your talent. That investment will result in higher income. From that perspective, it is not awkward to ask someone to invest financially in him or herself.

Of course, there is opposition against this policy. It is always difficult to find a completely balanced system. The second aim of this policy is increasing the sense the responsibility of the students; they won’t study too long in order not to have a huge debt. We always try to find a system that is justified; it’s always a pendulum between grants and loans. All in all, I think the opposition is slowly fading out. We offer people a choice and we should always make sure that the system offers opportunities to students from low income groups. Social mobility should be secured. The principle in itself, in fact, is aimed at reducing inequality in the longer run.

TSS: In Slovakia tuition fees never made it through.

RvR: If one wants to lower the cost of higher education in Slovakia, I wouldn’t start with the tuition fees. The Netherlands with more than three times as many inhabitants has 14 universities, among which six are in the top 100 in the world. Slovakia has 39 with one in the top 500. Maybe that is something to consider.

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