Following exciting parliamentary elections that resulted in a victory for pro-European parties and were welcomed with great relief and encouragement in Brussels and other EU member states, H.E. Dutch Ambassador Hendrik Gerrit Cornelis van den Dool says in this interview for CorD magazine that it is important to discuss publicly all challenges facing the EU. He also insists that this controversy within the EU, which includes calls for reorganisation within the Union and calls to stop the enlargement process, should not be a cause of concern for Serbia and the countries of the region.
Your Excellency, following the victory of the party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte in Dutch parliamentary elections, do you believe his wish for the Netherlands to “stop the domino effect of populism” in the European Union will be realised?
– It is obvious that across Europe we’re seeing traditional parties being challenged by new movements, and the relationship of Member States with the European Union becoming a topic discussed in campaigns. This is understandable, given the changes brought about by globalisation and international political developments that impact on Europe. This includes the migrant crisis that has also affected Serbia. It is good that these topics are being discussed in an open public debate. This is exactly what European values are about: open societies, democratic processes and freedom of expression.
It is too soon to predict the precise direction of the new government, as a coalition will first have to be formed. Regardless of the composition of the new government and the outcome of the elections, stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans will remain crucial for the EU. The Netherlands, as an open economy, will also continue to benefit from improvements in the investment climate in Serbia, which are a result of reforms undertaken in the framework of EU integration.
Media reported that the election results sparked “relief in Brussels”. To what extent can the election results in the Netherlands actually influence the outcomes of the presidential election in France and parliamentary elections in Germany?
– Countries across Europe face similar challenges, and with elections coming up in several countries there is a certain similarity in the public debates and in the solutions offered by various parties. Countries in the European Union are diverse, and the context in France and Germany differ from the situation in the Netherlands, if only because of the different electoral systems. The results of the elections in one country will therefore not necessarily be replicated in another. What is important, however, is that as European Union members we find joint solutions to those common challenges that we face.
The Dutch people have historically been among the first to express reservations about the direction taken by the EU – in a 2005 referendum they rejected a proposal for institutional reform, and in 2016 they rejected Ukraine’s inclusion in the free trade zone. How will PM Rutte now relate to those previously expressed views of citizens regarding essential reforms within the EU, in order to respond to new challenges and the needs of citizens?
– Both in the Netherlands and in Serbia it is important for European integration to make a difference in people’s everyday lives, and to bring tangible benefits. If those benefits do not materialise, or if the integration process loses touch with citizens, it will not work. It is therefore important to take the outcomes of referenda and general elections seriously and to address the real concerns of citizens. The task for the next government is to do precisely that, in close coordination with our European partners.
As an expert on European integration, what do you think of the chances of the countries of the Western Balkans, primarily Serbia and Montenegro, to which you are ambassador, continuing the accession process and one day becoming EU members?
– The European Council reaffirmed its unequivocal support for the European prospects of the Western Balkans. Countries in the region have made progress in their EU-orientated reforms. There are concerns, as reflected in the Commission’s most recent country report, about, for instance, media freedom and the rule of law. We will continue to support reforms, particularly in these areas, which revolve around fundamental European values. It was encouraging to hear the declaration from leaders of the Western Balkan countries at the regional summit reiterating their full commitment to the EU accession perspective. This political will is indispensable for countries to continue on their European path.
Countries in the Western Balkans have different challenges and interests, but a shared interest in regional stability and a shared European perspective. The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is key to the normalisation of relations
Sceptics predict that the EU will collapse before any of the region’s countries reach the threshold for joining. What do you say to that?
– I would dare to disagree. The EU has experienced setbacks and even crises, but each time we have overcome those and have become more resilient in the process. There is no blueprint for this unprecedented integration model. EU countries may have their differences, but the European mechanism allows us to reconcile those differences.
How would you comment on the increasingly frequent warnings of analysts that new tensions threaten the Western Balkans, citing the examples of Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also the crisis in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina?
– Instability in the region is a great concern – for the Western Balkans, but also for us. EU integration has provided a common aspiration for Western Balkan countries, and a model to bridge differences and leave the past behind. From the start, European integration has been motivated by the strong conviction that a repeat of the horrors of WWII can only be avoided by working together. Countries in the Western Balkans have different challenges and interests, but a shared interest in regional stability and a shared European perspective. The dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is key to the normalisation of relations, and the Netherlands encourages both parties to remain constructively engaged and to implement commitments accepted in the framework of the dialogue.
How do you interpret the call of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for U.S. President Donald Trump to be more concerned about the Balkans?
– The United States has been a firm supporter of the European perspective of the Western Balkans. This leads to stability in the region, as well as on the broader European continent, which is also in the interest of the United States. Changes in the administration in Washington will not change this.
Recent weeks have been marked by mounting tension between the Netherlands and Turkey, culminating in a ban on Turkish officials entering the Netherlands and harsh words directed against the Netherlands from Ankara. What kind of dynamics of relations between the two countries should be expected in the coming months?
– The Netherlands and Turkey have had a good relationship for 400 years. We do not wish to jeopardise this relationship. Within this context, we will continue to strive for dialogue and acceptable solutions.
Turkey is a key partner for the EU in terms of overcoming or lessening the impact of the migrant crisis. Do you fear that the coming spring and disagreements between the EU and Turkey could lead to a new wave of refugees heading towards European countries?
– The influx of migrants has affected the EU, Serbia and Turkey alike. It is in the interest of both the EU and its partners to cooperate on this issue. We need to take a comprehensive approach, involving support to countries of origin, destination, and those in between. We can only reap the potential benefits of migration with an approach that involves burden sharing, solidarity, and a long-term perspective. Serbia, in particular, deserves praise for its humanitarian assistance, in line with international agreements.
The Netherlands attaches great importance to media freedom and freedom of expression, and therefore our Embassy will continue monitoring the media landscape in Serbia. Focus on the media situation through Chapter 23 of the acquis remains of utmost importance
Is there room to strengthen economic cooperation between Dutch and Serbian business leaders and, if so, in which areas?
– As Serbia progresses on the EU integration path, it is coming more under the spotlight of Dutch businesses and economic stakeholders. As far as the Dutch are concerned, this is probably more important than Serbia’s position in the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings. The Embassy works continuously on strengthening economic ties between our two countries, and I am pleased to announce BalkanDay, which will take place in The Hague this June.
This event, which will be organised by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Dutch Enterprise Agency, has the aim of jointly promoting the countries of the Western Balkans among our business community. We expect and hope that some local stakeholders, such as the Chamber of Commerce & Industry of Serbia, will take part in this event and help us to additionally highlight the Serbian economy. I am very positive about this event and see it as one of the channels to further improve our economic relations.
On the Embassy’s website, you have announced the start of The Matra Rule of Law Training Programme. Could you tell us something about this two-year programme, which is intended for civil servants and representatives of the judiciary and is supported by the Kingdom of the Netherlands?
– The Matra Rule of Law Training Programme is a two-year (2017 – 2018) programme designed to strengthen institutional capacity in the field of the Rule of Law within governmental organisations in the Western Balkans, Turkey, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. To this end, seven training programmes are offered per year, each introducing the participants to Dutch best practices in a wide range of rule of law themes: Integrity of Civil Servants, Administration of Justice, Public Procurement, Human Rights and Minorities, Decentralisation and Citizen Participation, Freedom of the Media, Public Finance Management, Detention and Alternative Sanctions.
Through interactive sessions combining theory, practical skills and study visits, policy advisors, members of the judiciary and other civil servants working in the government and justice sectors acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to drive reforms in their home countries. In addition, by taking part in the training programme, participants become part of a large transnational network of alumni, lecturers and relevant government departments in the Netherlands and in the target countries. This network offers a platform for learning, exchange and collaboration.
The Matra Rule of Law Training programme is designed and delivered by the Netherlands Helsinki Committee, Leiden Law School, and The Hague Academy for Local Governance, and is financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands.
You began your career as a journalist. And when you arrived in Serbia you noticed a lack of pluralism and different opinions in the media, as well as insufficient levels of independent investigative journalism, growing tabloidisation and media leaks. Do you still have that kind of impression today?
– Unfortunately, the media situation did not improve since my previous statements on this issue and freedom of expression remains a cause of concern. The self-regulatory Press Council has registered an increasing number of violations of the Journalistic Code of Ethics. According to the European Commission’s 2016 Country Report, which offers a relatively positive assessment of Serbia’s overall progress on the EU track, freedom of expression stands out as one of the few areas where no progress has been made.
The Netherlands attaches great importance to media freedom and freedom of expression, and therefore our Embassy will continue monitoring the media landscape in Serbia. Focus on the media situation through Chapter 23 of the acquis remains of utmost importance. We hope that the new Media Strategy will reflect the Chapter 23 Action Plan, which contains the EU’s requirements for free media.