I admire the power they derive from their own culture as the roots of their identity
Interview with Mr Bert van der Lingen, Ambassador of the Netherlands in Lithuania
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: On New Year’s Day, Lithuania became a full member of the euro area. This is a memorable moment for both Lithuania and the euro zone. Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem congratulated Lithuania on joining the euro area. He said:‘’ The lesson I draw from Lithuania’s achievements is the importance of sticking to a plan that works. They confirm that the euro area should continue with the structural reforms needed to create viable economies and sustainable growth.’’ What were/are the biggest achievements and sacrifices on the Lithuanian side that led to this introduction? What are the general feelings, opinions about it in Lithuania?
Lithuanians in general seemed to feel proud of this achievement of becoming the nineteenth member of the euro area. Rightly so, as the country went through a long period of prudent fiscal policies and serious economic reforms. It was good to see that Lithuanians on New Year’s eve went to ATMs to get their first euro banknotes, some holding them up in the air in triumph. It reminded me of the images we saw during the introduction of the euro in Maastricht in 2002.
There is also another reason why the majority of Lithuanians welcomed this development: the euro-adoption could also be seen as a further step into the euro -atlantic integration, which can be seen as a strengthening of Lithuania’s international position, not only economically, but also politically.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: After Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has become the nineteenth member of a currency union. It is said that Lithuania waited on purpose first to check how the process goes in the other two Baltic States before introducing the euro in their own country.
Well, perhaps a look at the history of Lithuania’s accession efforts would provide the answer. Already in June 2004, so a few months after accession to the EU, the Litas took part in ERM II, the ‘antichambre’ of the Eurozone. Originally, Lithuania wanted to join the eurozone as early as 2007. Having fulfilled four of the five accession criteria at the time, the inflation rate was still deemed too high; it was 0.1 percent too high. Lithuania wanted to get into the eurozone as soon as all the convergence criteria were met.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: What are the main implications for Lithuania as a result of joining the euro zone?
The accession to the euro zone will greatly facilitate doing business with partners in the euro zone, operational financial costs will go down for companies. But Lithuania also has become a co-decision maker on European monetary policies, because of its seat on the Board of the ECB.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: Could you tell us more about the trade relations between Lithuania and the Netherlands. What are the main fields of cooperation ? Where are still the challenges, opportunities for both sites?
Our export to Lithuania is about EUR 800m on a yearly basis, mainly concentrating on food and beverages, chemical products, machineries and transport vehicles. I believe there is ample room for improvement. That’s why we as an Embassy are trying to concentrate on a select number of sectors in which we believe we can be successful.
We have -of course- a lot to offer in terms of water management: whether it is protection against water, the preservation of the water quality, the multiple use of waterbodies, but we also have a long traditon in water infrastructure.
Energy efficiency, in particular making use of sustainable energy sources, would also be one of our focusses. The recent diversification of Lithuania’s energy basis through the opening of the LNG-terminal in Klaipėda offers also opportunities for bilateral co-operation with our Lithuanian partners. The Netherlands has a lot to offer when it comes to using LNG at mid- and downstream levels.
Creative Industries is another field which I would call exciting. Both countries have a great potential in this field, also great opportunities to seek co-operation. In the short period that I have been here, several well-known Dutch architects have visited Vilnius, as well as designers. Currently, we are looking at the possibility of fostering links in the gaming sector, another area which in my view has a future: many start-up companies emerging in it.I should also mention transport and logistics as an interesting sector. In Lithuania, the main cities need to look at urban planning and transport solutions, lowering the (particle) emissions in the city centres, providing for mobility plans involving a sustainable transport mix. Some Lithuanian cities were already looking at Dutch experiences and solutions, including the promotion of cycling.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska:Recently Dutch Embassies in the Baltics have united in the Holland Baltic Business Network. What was the reason for such initiative?
In an effort to modernise our diplomacy, the Netherlands Embassies in Talllinn, Riga, and Vilnius merged into a single diplomatic post: three countries, three Ambassadors, with one goal, acting as one team. Our co-operation mainly focusses on economic diplomacy, but we also undertake joint reporting on interesting developments in the region. By pooling our limited resources, we expand our operational flexibility.
We also like to present ourselves in that way to the business community, hence the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/BalticBusiness) and the website (http://www.hollandbalticbusiness.nl) We are even taking it further: there is also a Nordic Baltic Network (NBN), in which our three Baltic and 4 Nordic Embassies work closely together in terms of trade promotion. This co-operation has already led to a concrete positive effect: this year, NBN will get extra manpower for regional business development.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska:You became the Ambassador of the Netherlands in Lithuania in August. What were you first impressions of the country?
I felt at home almost immediately, because of the human scale of the country, the city of Vilnius with its beautiful UNESCO-protected centre. I find people accessible and friendly. Already I’ve had the chance to visit other cities and places of interest in the country: Lithuania is more than only Vilnius.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska:Your professional portfolio concerning Central and Eastern Europe is impressive; just to mention a few: Ambassador in Lithuania, you were the Deputy Head of Mission at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Budapest, Commercial Counsellor at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Warsaw, Senior Advisor Western and Central Europe Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands, Deputy Head of Mission/ Counsellor at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Sofia and again Poland: Second Secretary Royal Netherlands Embassy in Warsaw. What is your impression about CEE and the inhabitants of these countries?
What attracted me to CEE matters (actually, since the beginning of my University years) was the fact that Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe, at least to a large part what now constitutes our EU, already has had a long history of intertwining cultural and commercial contacts. If you read Norman Davies’ “God’s Playground” on the Polish history for example, one cannot be but intrigued by the century old links that exist between us. Though few people in the Netherlands know that. Many still believe for example that our Golden Age in the 17th Century was based on our trade with the East Indies, few recall that in fact it was the ‘moedernegotie’ (Mother of all Trades) with the countries around the Baltic Sea brought us wealth (fur, timber, grain).
Generally speaking, people in CEE countries are much more aware of history than we ‘Westerners’ are. One can say that they have all the reasons for it, having until recently been confronted with rather existential historic developments. I was born in the city of Breda, a city which was liberated by the troops of Polish General Maczek, that’s a historic fact I won’t forget. Lithuania, as well as Poland, were wiped from Europe’s map in 1795 by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, only to reappear after the First World War. After a brief period of regained independence, Lithuania again was deprived of its freedom. Recently, I was impressed by a beautiful documentary film by Jonas Öhman, ‘the Invisible Front’, which tells the tale of the armed resistance against the Soviet occupation which lasted until 1953. This part of history is almost unknown in the Netherlands.
Beata Bruggeman-Sękowska: You admire them for?
The way people handled, survived oppression and got rid of communism. I was posted in Warsaw during the period of change (1988-92), where I met – sometimes in secret – with opposition representatives: witnessed Solidarność demonstrations, witnessed history in the making so to say, it was a once in a lifetime experience.
This resilience, pride and dignity could also be seen in other countries, including in the country of my present posting, Lithuania. I admire the power they derive from their own culture as the roots of their identity.