At the end of any European Council presidency there is a sigh of relief. The adrenaline on which your activities depended decreases to normal levels. Over the course of six months the tension at the start of the presidency has become daily routine. Once the ball is rolling, you just need to give it a bit of direction here and a small correction there. That, so it seems, is the normal pattern.
Of course, for the Dutch presidency moving over to Slovakia things are slightly different. First of all, handing the gavel of the Presidency of the Council of the EU to our trusted trio-partner has meant that a combination of celebrations had to be organised in an amalgam of relief on the Dutch side and anxiety and expectation on the other. One can compare it to a relay race in athletics. The first runner has done his or her best and is glad everything is over. Only one task remains: make sure the baton is handed over properly and within the dedicated area.
The new runner sees the first runner approaching, eagerly waiting the hand-over. The essential thing is to concentrate on two things in parallel. Do not start too early or too late, and receive the baton safely in your hands. For the first runner the tension nonetheless lingers on. Is runner number two staying the course and keeping up the pace? This is, however, tension that is pointless in the sense there is nothing you can do. Your joint effort for a perfect race is no longer your responsibility.
Well, the baton was passed; Slovakia is running – and running well! As is nearly always the case, what was planned as a smooth run is turning into an obstacle race: some foreseen, some unexpected.
For us at the Embassy of the Netherlands, things are back to – almost – normal. We receive many guests, we brief them and we are on stand-by to help our hosts if and when needed. But help does not come without a request. The responsibility rests fairly and squarely with our Slovak friends. Let us not forget that in many cases advice and assistance are just a way to keep influence, not what we seek.
Our aspiration is that Slovakia fulfils its tasks to its own standards and with its own proper goals.
Does it mean that we will now “relax and enjoy”? No, certainly not relax, but we will enjoy ourselves.
The preparation of our subsequent presidencies has deepened our mutual friendship, our knowledge of each other, including our strengths and weaknesses. We have grown to understand one another better.
In Europe, we will continue to have strong ties, stronger than before, because of the joint experience.
Bilaterally, we can profit from this better understanding, from our re-energised friendship. So much to do together! In the field of trade and investment, we have many opportunities where we can work to our mutual advantage.
The workload of the recent months has meant that we could not give enough attention to promoting the cooperation from which we both can profit. But we are back in business. Let us make full use of the synergies between our two countries.
Culture is another field where we can build upon our recent cooperation. The fine arts, classical and modern music, and ballet: there is a world of possibilities. Already, I am personally looking forward to this fall with Isabella van Keulen and Daniel Rowland performing at the Konvergencie festival and later this year to the performance of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Bratislava.
But so much more remains to be done. We should be working towards stronger cooperation between our universities and research institutes. Not only will it bring economic gains (as we all know the future economy will be a knowledge-based economy), but it will bring us increased personal relations between students, teachers and scientists. I can foresee a vertical spiral of individual friendships from which both societies can benefit.
I would certainly hope to promote Dutch men and women visiting Slovakia both for business and pleasure. Slovakia has much on offer that we lack in the Netherlands: open space, fresh air, the mountains, old castles and traditional rural villages. Then again: why not come to the Netherlands with its vibrant city life, seaside, art and modernity. In short, we got to know each other better, but there is more to be discovered.
We both have among the world’s best performing economies, both dependent on foreign trade and openness. We are joining forces in making Europe more competitive and ready for the era of the digital economy. In political life as well I can foresee a closer relationship. Obviously, there are areas where we have different views, but the differences are far from insurmountable. We could and should use our friendship to be honest with one another. Friends can point to possible shortcomings without adversity.
Our different histories, our cultural diversity, and our joint experience are in my view the basis for strong friendship and cooperation – one where we can act as a go-between between larger neighbours. As relatively small – but great! – nations our vocation is to be unifiers. That is the agenda from now on.
By Richard van Rijssen, the Ambassador of the Netherlands to Slovakia
15. Aug 2016 at 5:30 | Richard Van Rijssen