A greater connectivity between individuals and institutions might help us to understand each other better and it might help us to appreciate that the small differences among us make it interesting in the end.
Interview with H.E Mr. Pieter Langenberg, Ambassador of the Netherlands in Slovenia
Beata Bruggeman-Sekowska: In one of your publications about Slovenia you stated that the Netherlands and Slovenia are rather like-minded and often work together to achieve goals in international affairs. Could you please elaborate on this?
Both Slovenia and my own country the Netherlands are members of the United Nations, its agencies and the Euro Atlantic community. We are members of the EU, Council of Europe, OCSE, and NATO to mention the best known multilateral organizations. It illustrates that both our countries are strongly committed to European and universal Western values, like human rights and the rule of law. For smaller nations it is a logical choice to safeguard national interests through the protection of the rule of law, not wanting to be dependent on military means except in extraordinary circumstances. A good example in EU context is our joint commitment to the principle of transparency, or in UN context our joint initiative towards a multilateral treaty for mutual legal assistance and extradition for domestic prosecution of the most serious international crimes.
The Netherlands strongly advocates corporate social responsibility in its relations with other countries. How would you assess this issue in Slovenia?
Social responsibility is a topic of ongoing debate in Slovenia as well, and a guiding principle within the government and companies already. Of course the level of general awareness can always be improved, on a voluntary or a more legal basis.
The Netherlands is famous for its human rights protection. Your Embassy contributed for example to their annual Ljubljana gay and lesbian movie festival. How does the situation of human rights in this field look like in Slovenia?
The situation is Slovenia in the area of human rights is on a comparable level to most other European countries. It also helps that we assess regularly in the UN Human rights council where we stand. Peer pressure and benchmarking do help to set our standards high. Minority rights are an example, and the Netherlands is always ready to explain how we have safeguarded those in Holland. LGTB rights are a good example of basic human rights, and like for instance the same-sex-marriage, legally well covered in the Netherlands. Slovenia might join this year the European countries where same-sex-marriage is legalized.
The Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a series of debates, entitled: “More Europe, more Slovenia“. As Slovenia is located so close to the western Balkans, the security provided for by EU-membership and the political and economic stability are still widely appreciated. What is the attitude of Slovenians to the European Union?
Generally speaking, I feel personally that we in the Netherlands take many advantages provided for by the European Union for granted, and therefore we focus more on constructive criticism. Slovenia is generally positively minded towards Europe, although question marks are increasing. The candidate member states still see the advantages , like free travel, more clearly. More important, the European Union provides us with a legal framework to settle our disputes and to handle our different national interests, in a reasonable and peaceful manner.
Both the Netherlands and Slovenia share similar foreign policy challenges and threats such as cyber security, demographic changes: life expectancy is rising, in both the Netherlands and Slovenia. What can both countries learn from each other and how?
I feel it is always useful to look for best practices and benchmarks in other European Union member states, as we share the same challenges, although we might have different historical experiences and traditions. It goes from policy reforms, like keeping the costs and the accessibility of the health care system up to manageable standards, to the model how to run best a state owned port authority, like in Koper.
In one of your publications you stated: ‘’Culture is regularly used as a public diplomacy tool. For it is in its cultural activities that a nation’s idea of itself is often best represented. That’s also why Dutch embassies promote cultural exchanges with other countries. A positive association with the country of origin is what we are looking for.’’ Could you elaborate on the status of Dutch-Slovenian cultural cooperation? What are the achievements and what are challenges?
Slovenian- Dutch cultural cooperation normally finds its own channels, based on its own innovative qualities and its commercial merits. A good example was the Dutch dimension in last year’s Ljubljana Design Biennale, BIO 50, with many well-known Dutch designers participating. Also the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra did perform at the closing of the Ljubljana Festival. Although sponsoring from different sources, from institutions and/or companies is still important, it can be compared to the sprinkling of cacao on the cappuccino, it adds a flavour, but it would happen anyway. The embassy fulfills a role as a facilitator, and of a supporter. It has hardly any funding available anymore for the support of cultural events. It focusses more on public diplomacy, explaining specific Dutch policy priorities and principles.
Few people realize that the Netherlands is a major investor in Central and Eastern Europe and in Slovenia. How does economic cooperation between Slovenia and the Netherlands look like? Is it a good match between Slovenian entrepreneurship and Dutch technology and knowhow? What are the main fields of cooperation?
The Netherlands is a small country that punches above its weight in world business. In this regard the Netherlands is known in Slovenia as a very open market that offers plenty of opportunities for strengthening of economic ties, especially in building business partnerships. In all sectors! In Slovenia you can find almost every Dutch product, on the other hand Slovene companies are supplying Dutch companies and some successfully sell their products in the Netherlands. The economic cooperation between two countries intensified and accelerated when Slovenia entered the EU in 2004. The recession slightly slowed down this process, which is now picking up again. For example, Philips electro motors for vacuum cleaners are developed and produced in the Slovene company Domel for many years now. Slovene and Dutch R&D team work hand in hand to develop new competitive products. Another successful and completely different example is in food retail. Lust tomatoes are grown locally in Dutch built glasshouses out of Dutch seeds. In April Heineken successfully made a bid for the majority share in the Slovene brewery Lasko, with which it will strengthen its presence in the region. Also Slovene Adria Caravans are extremely popular in the Netherlands. The Dutch and Slovenes are a good match. Partnerships between the two are usually shaped on a long term basis and, as you can see, are diversified. Main fields of cooperation are in chemical industry, pharmacy, electro industry, agriculture/horticulture, food processing, IT, high-tech materials. Furthermore, we see plenty of opportunities also in the water management, infrastructure development and logistics, energy efficiency, logistics, life sciences and health.
How many Dutch companies are there in Slovenia and in what sectors? How many Dutch citizens live in Slovenia?
According to the Slovene Business Register there are about to 160 Dutch companies having more than 10 percent of the Dutch capital and are thus seen as foreign direct investments. Most are active in the service and trade sectors. A closer look reveals that quite a few of them are originally U.S companies, which set up their businesses in Slovenia out of their European headquarter in the Netherlands. That fact, however, helps to boost the trade between the Netherlands and Slovenia as well. The logistic flows between Slovenia and the Netherlands are very dynamic. On one side the Port of Rotterdam is the gateway to Western Europe, and Slovenia becoming a gateway to central and eastern Europe, transforming itself in a transit country, with supply chain reaching into the Western Balkans.
At our Embassy about to 200 Dutch citizens have registered so far, but we assume that the number could be higher. Dutch citizens are no longer obliged to register at the Netherlands Embassy when living in a foreign country. We issue a regular newsletter, and use our website and social media increasingly, through which we are informing the Dutch community about important developments in the Netherlands and activities of our Embassy.
“As God created the world, the Dutch created Holland” how this can apply to Slovenia and Dutch opportunities?
The water sector is a good answer. Slovenia plans to invest significantly in environmental infrastructure and water management within the EU financial perspective 2014-2020. We are following closely this development to open the door for Dutch water expertise. Opportunities are to be found in flood prevention and urban water management.
Another sector, which is important, is energy efficiency. Emphasis is on smart cities and sustainable buildings, as Slovenia will need to refurbish its stock of public buildings with smart solutions by 2020. This also is valid for private apartment’s areas. As the third sector, I have to mention infrastructure development and logistics. We are now looking for more possibilities to form joint partnerships in these two areas. Also don’t forget the importance of horticulture. The opportunities are especially based on the Rural Development Plan 2014-2020, which is promising for investments in greenhouses and irrigation. To facilitate the cooperation in these sectors, our Embassy takes a pro-active approach. For instance, this autumn we will organize some events related to water in order to promote the Dutch water-sector. At the big agricultural fair ‘AGRA’ Dutch irrigation experts will give a workshop and show Dutch solutions. And we will have an event on transport & logistics, supply chain management, to increase cooperation in this sector.
As a historian, you are of course interested in the tales of the past and as a diplomat even more so when it comes to the recent years. ’’Could you please elaborate on the historic and political relations between Slovenia, which is a new nation, and the Netherlands?
The historic and political relations are diverse, and show that both our countries have been part of the same cultural and political space, from Roman times, Habsburg Empire, Napoleon, 2nd World War and Euro Atlantic integration. The embassy is trying to collect traces of the Netherlands that can be found in Slovenia. The result is published on our website. See http://slovenie.nlambassade.org/you-and-country/nederlandse-sporen-in-slovenie. A nice recent example is to be found in the “Voda” Water exhibition in the Ljubljana City Museum, with references to Holland in the books by Von Valvasor, and maps of polders in Holland from the 17th century.
You said once that in Slovenia you experience dynamic, sometimes unpredictable but always interesting political and economic environment. From this perspective Slovenia makes an interesting posting for a foreign observer and diplomat. In what respect?
As I studied contemporary history and specialized in cold war studies, I am always interested in former socialist and eastern European countries in transition, aiming to become EU-members. It applies to a certain degree also to Slovenia, which is still transforming itself into mainstream Europe while preserving its national identity. The recent debate and adoption of a new Slovenian foreign policy declaration and strategy illustrates it too.
While describing Slovenia you once used the expression: ‘’Small is beautiful. What were your first impressions about the country?
Exactly those words, the nature, the scenery, the green environment, the city of Ljubljana, and least but not least the people. The Slovenian slogan for the Milan Expo is well chosen, in my opinion : “I Feel SLOVEnia. Green. Active. Healthy”.
In the year of 1979-1992 you did various assignments for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs among others in Washington and Budapest. Later you were a head of division of the Department of European Integration. You were a Deputy Head of Mission in Ireland and Head of Department, Permanent Mission of the Netherlands to the European Union in Brussels. In the years 2005-2009 you were a Consul General in Antwerp and in the years 2009-2013 an Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Georgia and Armenia. Since 2013 you have been an Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Slovenia. Soon you will become an Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to Latvia. How would you assess the changes that happened in CEE countries from your international perspective?
When starting my diplomatic career in Budapest in the early eighties, the cold war and the iron curtain were still dividing Europe. Personally I am happy to see that the EU, a fascinating political and economic experiment, is still deepening and widening itself at the same time, creating a common European space, and in due time most probably will include all European candidate countries when they are technically and otherwise ready to become full members. It goes without saying that conditionality is increasingly important. One can take over European legislation and rules, but implementation, is of the essence. Good governance, rule of law, fair business competition, are necessary. However this is not always an easy process as we see in the Western Balkan region.
What achievements during your office are you especially proud of and why?
I am always pleased if the embassy is successful in explaining Dutch policies, and others think it is worthwhile to look at the Dutch way of life and organizing itself as a possible example. It might be the way we are successful as a trading nation, exporter of flowers or food, or another example given, inclusiveness towards minorities like the LGTB community.
I have read that you are learning Slovenian and although the language is not that easy you do not recognize it -as you put it-an ‘’exotic’’one. This is very impressive. Can you recall any hilarious situations while learning, using this language.
The best example is the different way in which we pronounce the “h”. In Slovenian it sounds more like “g”. So the Dutch word meaning “hout [ wood] ” becomes “goud [gold] “ for a Slovene native speaker. Given the natural richdom in forests and wooden products, this becomes a true fact.
What did you learn from CEE countries and what do you admire CEE inhabitants for?
I learnt they appreciate the common denominator what makes us all Europeans, notwithstanding our political differences in the past, which the CEE countries overcame themselves. And, last but not least, the concept of hospitality, which is still very much alive in CEE countries.
I and my company try to promote and intensify the knowledge and contacts about CEE especially in the Netherlands and the knowledge about the Netherlands in the CEE countries. Although the countries are no longer behind the Iron Curtain and are enjoying freedom, so little is still known about CEE and so much can be still achieved together. How would you assess the purpose of my activity?
I recommend everybody who tries to increase people to people contacts, in whatever way. A greater connectivity between individuals and institutions might help us to understand each other better and it might help us to appreciate that the small differences among us make it interesting in the end.
You will become in a couple of weeks an Ambassador of the Netherlands in Latvia? What are your expectations, hopes and dreams?
I hope to arrive with an open mind, being able to promote the Dutch national interests, at the same time being able to connect people in Holland and Latvia, and to contribute to a better mutual understanding
What message would you like to share with us at the end of this interview?
Follow me and my colleagues in the Dutch Foreign Service in the social media, twitter, facebook, and embassy website.
Photos:Embassy of the Netherlands in Ljubliana, Communications-Unlimited.nl
See also: Visit to the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Slovenia:
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