H.E. Henk van den Dool, Ambassador of The Netherlands to Serbia: Strengthening Political and Economic Ties is Mutually Reinforcing

Serbia’s determination to keep up with the EU accession process and the reforms were behind the progress in the mutual billateral relations. Netherland also commends Serbia’s role in securing stability in the region, but it is looking forward for more dynamic progress in the areas of rule of law and media freedom.

In case of Serbian and Dutch overall relations, it seems that political and economic cooperation are feeding each other’s progress. We spoke with H.E. Henk van den Dool, Ambassador of The Netherlands about the Serbia’s path toward European Union, economic reforms which are bringing more Dutch FDI and boosting mutual trade, and the role of cultural similarities and differences in building tighter bonds between two countries. We also spoke about the Dutch contribution to the democratic processes, the rule of law, building capacities of public institutions and civil society which have long been a focus area of the Netherlands’ foreign policy.

Bilateral relations between Serbia and Netherland have improved remarkably in recent years. What were, according to your opinion, the major forces behind that progress?

Serbia’s determination that its future is in Europe and its fulfilling of conditions to open negotiations, including cooperation with the ICTY, have been the major forces behind strengthening our bilateral relations. The reforms Serbia has undertaken on its EU path also go hand in hand with an increased economic presence of the Netherlands. Dutch investors recognize the improvements in the business climate brought about by rule of law reforms, which is one of the political priorities of the Netherlands. As such, strengthening political and economic ties is mutually reinforcing.

How do you asses the progress Serbia made over these years in both political and economic area?

The opening of eight EU negotiation chapters illustrates that Serbia is committed to political and economic reforms and willing to work hard, so progress is undeniable. However, as the European Commission’s country report also points out, important challenges remain in areas such as media freedom and the judiciary. In the area of migration, we commend the role Serbia has played over the last two years in line with international humanitarian commitments. Regionally, Serbia has been a factor of stability over the last few years and we encourage Serbia to show the political leadership to move regional cooperation forward.

When it comes to economic reforms and affairs, the country has moved forward in overall. Some unpopular steps had to be taken for stabilizing the public finances, and there I see the most tangible results which form a solid foundation for economic growth. Next to fiscal reforms, we notice that more attention is being given to laws dealing with renewables and environment, and also to reforming the cadaster and improving procedures for and transparency of construction permitting.

The highest representatives of the two countries recently agreed that there was a room for further expansion of economic cooperation and particularly for the arrival of a greater number of Dutch investors to Serbia. In which fields are investors heading?

The first wave of Dutch FDI was in the early 2000s until the economic crisis. Most of the large investors came in that period. Nowadays we can talk about the second wave of FDI from the Netherlands where Dutch companies bring not only new capital, but state of the art technologies too! What does this mean for Serbia? It means that Serbia is being recognized as a stable market where long-term business plans can be implemented, and where serious Dutch companies want to bring innovation, contribute to sustainability and improve the attitude towards the environment. I expect these new technologies to come over trough new investments in agri-business, IT, processing and energy sectors. Moreover, Dutch investors already belong to the most advanced in corporate social responsibility (CSR) and I’m sure this trend will continue. Our companies such as Ahold-Delhaize, Heineken, KupujemProdajem, 010, Levi9, Affidea, Vahali, Windvision and many others are game changers in local communities where they contribute to better living conditions, provide more chances to youth, improve cultural exchanges and strengthen environmental protection. They make me a very proud Dutch ambassador!

In addition to the growth in FDI, I would also like to point to the growth in our bilateral trade. The trade increase has been steady and healthy over the last years, which in my view reflects that the Serbian economy is getting healthier and more competitive, while Serbian products are becoming more popular in the Netherlands. Larger bilateral trade means that consumers on both sides get to choose more and pay less for the same or even higher quality.

The Netherlands is the 5th biggest donor out of 27 EU member states. To which areas Netherland contributes the most?

Strengthening democratic processes, the rule of law, public institutions and civil society has long been a focus area of the Netherlands’ foreign policy. One of the longest running programs in this area is the Matra program for social transformation, which exists since 1993. Matra started as a program aimed at helping the former Eastern bloc countries to become strong, pluriform societies. The program now focuses on helping to strengthen civil society organizations, democracy and the rule of law in pre-accession countries, the countries of the Eastern Partnership and countries in the Arab region.

Matra makes use of several different instruments in order to achieve the ultimate program goal: to improve the relationship between the government and citizens. The first one is direct support by the Embassy to projects of local organizations in the areas of legislation and justice, public administration, public order and the police, and human rights and minorities. Furthermore, there is support for government-to-government projects promoting knowledge transfer on the rule of law between Dutch government bodies and their counterparts in Serbia. The latest example of a G-2-G project is the SPATIAL project –  Strengthened Professional Access to Information about Land. It is implemented in Serbia by the Serbian Republic Geodetic Authority and the Dutch Cadastre, and is part of a regional program aimed at strengthening public institutions in the Western Balkans in order to provide society with reliable information about land for social and economic wellbeing. Finally, there is the instrument of Rule of Law Trainings for Civil Servants. These are courses in the Netherlands aimed at strengthening public institutions and promoting a pluriform state governed by the rule of law.

Attaching great importance to the respect for human rights, in addition to the mentioned programs, the Netherlands also provides support through our Human Rights Fund for projects that help achieve tangible results set in the human rights strategy of our Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called Justice and Respect for All. In Serbia the focus is on supporting local initiatives of civil society organizations in the areas of equal rights for LGBTI, gender equality, and freedom of expression.

On the International Documentary Film Festival BELDOCS five screened documentaries have a Dutch connection. How much our two mentalities resonate?

When we speak about film an interesting difference is that Dutch authors often go outside of our own country and make films about other cultures. During the BELDOCS festival Dutch films were, for example, about a city in Iran struck by an earthquake or a Russian poet who committed suicide. But also when the films are about our own society, the themes and topics seem to be different than those in Serbian films. Your films are very often charged with recent history and more socially engaged – which is, by the way, completely understandable.

Talking about our mentalities, I see a lot of similarities. Both of us are quite open and direct, and we also seem to share a particular sense of humour. As for the differences, I keep being amazed at your lunch-habits. While I, as a typical Dutchman, would quite often limit myself to having a sandwich behind my desk, many Serbian colleagues routinely go out to enjoy a full meal!

There is a growing interest of Dutch tourists for Serbia. What would you suggest them to see here?

I find the nature in Serbia beautiful and I would recommend tourists to go out of the cities and visit Sumadija, Iron Gate, Kopaonik… In Belgrade I enjoy the very vibrant jazz scene. I could also recommend some of the important art festivals. Apart from all that, the Serbian people are very warm and hospitable – that’s a perfect reason to visit in itself!

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