Dutch and Lithuanian interests deeply intertwined, says ambassador (II)

The Dutch Ambassador Bert Van der Lingen in Vilnius   Photo Ludo Segers

Read part one of the interview here

Ludo Segers: How many Dutch live in Lithuania?

Ambassador Van der Lingen: We estimate that there are about 125; we may not have all, as there is no obligation to register officially with the Embassy. Some of these people are self-employed, some work in the cultural sphere, some are pensioners living here. We do not have any classical expats, working for multinational firms. There may have been initially some experts, but I know (now) of none. Actually, one could maintain that the less expats you see, the more developed an economy is.

Have Dutch companies invested in Lithuania?

Sometimes we see that the Netherlands is the number two investor in Lithuania. That number may be inflated as it also includes companies that are registered for tax reasons in the Netherlands. The actual number is rather modest. Some examples: TNT (employs about 100 people here and) is quite active. Then there is Wavin, a leading water mean manufacturer. They are in existence for 60 years and expanded rapidly throughout Europe, including a production facility in Vilnius that nowadays employs 85 people. The ownership is foreign now, but headquarters and development are still located in Zwolle (NL).

There are a few SME companies in regional towns like Ukmergė and Mariampolė that are Dutch owned. There is a stevedoring company in Klaipėda. There is indeed a (Dutch) presence, and I can see an increased interest from Dutch companies in Lithuania.

The Dutch have a long experience with natural gas, dating back to the 1950s with major gas discoveries, mainly in the north of the country. The gas discoveries gave the Netherlands a tremendous large economic advantage and this gas is still exported to neighbouring countries. Is there any expertise the Dutch can share with Lithuania?

Yes and no, it depends on what is being done with such a gas find. As you know, there is the ‘Dutch disease’ (major revaluation of the currency). With these gas reserves, we were sitting on this massive (gas reserve of) national wealth. Initially, we wanted to share that with the citizens. But most of that wealth is now spent and it is gone. If you see how Norway handles that wealth, with the creation of a sovereign wealth fund, it is a direct consequence of what happened in the Netherlands. We still produce a lot and have quite a bit left of this gas, but various court cases have now capped the output to 27 billion cubic meters (bcm) in a normal winter, a large reduction. This autumn, the Netherlands for the first time became (since the natural gas discoveries) a net importer again.

There are indications that there is a surplus of LNG on the world market in the next 20 to 30 years. There is a negative price pressure. That is also, why we have thought in view of our own diminishing exploitation capacity it to be wise to expand our LNG import capacity. We have built ‘the Gate’ (Gas Access To Europe) in Rotterdam that has a potential capacity of up to 20 bcm on a reclaimed area in the sea, five times the capacity in Klaipėda (still the fifth largest in the world). The Gate in the huge reclaimed area ‘Maasvlakte’ can be a distribution point for the rest of North-Western Europe, including Klaipėda, as the Rotterdam location allows for ships with a 20 meters draught ( very large tankers).

Where is the largest potential for trade and economic activity by Dutch companies in Lithuania?

Always depending on market factors, there are a few areas where we as an Embassy where we believe can help and develop relations. Obviously, we see potential in energy; and to a certain extent water management, transport and logistics and creative industries.

With respect to energy, we feel there is a good chance to develop closer ties with Lithuania in LNG because Lithuania has decided to create a FSRU, the Independence, in Klaipėda. That is an upstream development. After a year of operation, there is a need for more downstream applications, a need for an infrastructure to deliver gas to certain end-users. That is a complicated economic and logistical process and I think there are a number of Dutch companies that have expertise in these areas.

On 24 November, last, we co-organised the first Lithuanian-Netherlands Gas Forum, which was quite successful. There were four themes; one of it was the promotion and development of Klaipėda’s regional hub function. Secondly, to discuss chances for downstream development, thirdly to increase education, in particular vocational training. For example, if you were to use LNG in transport, you need car mechanics and technicians in insulation, people that are knowledgeable about LNG cryogenics. And finally, there is the question of how to organise the LNG market with the market actors here in Lithuania.

I am delighted to see that the Lithuanian stakeholders in the LNG sector have decided to set up a platform, which will be modelled after the National LNG Platform of The Netherlands. This model has already been implemented in Belgium and Germany as well. We think we can create together a network of national platforms where knowledge is shared in a pre-competition phase. This is very good for the development of the LNG sector in Europe.

Lithuania has an extensive gas distribution system, covering most of the country. Where do you see specific further applications?

It is about the technology to further using applications for LNG. Decisions have to be made on opening LNG filling stations across the country, the use of LNG as a fuel for trucks or vessels such as ferries and short sea shipping. The Baltic Sea is under a special environmental regime, which tries to curb the harmful emissions of heavy fuel that is being used now. They emit a lot of sulphur, a lot of NOx and particles. The only alternative at this moment is LNG. It is still a relatively expensive technology, but in the Netherlands we operate already a number of coastal and inland vessels that operate with LNG technology. We also have already hundreds of trucks running on LNG: a practical experience that we like to share.

Is that related to your point about mobility?

We recently had a conference in Kaunas (mid-December 2015) on sustainability and mobility, because the fifteen largest cities in Lithuania have been requested by the Ministry of Transport to draw up Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMP) aimed at limiting the environmental impact of transport on cities, and which at the same time stimulate economic growth. It was good to see an intensive exchange of experiences at that conference. As a result, we have been asked to organise follow up meetings with Dutch city planners. There are already concrete examples of cooperation taking shape. We are looking at how these SUMPs can be combined with the concept of smart cities. How can one make better use of best practices, or, better yet, create best practices? Is it possible to modernise cities whilst respecting the historic character and cultural heritage and values of those cities? We also are looking at how to care for monuments and cultural heritage. How can you incorporate that goal organically in the developmental concept of cities?

Also, how can you make these monuments that have historic value and are part of the heritage to make them more energy efficient heating them and working within budgetary constraints. We ought to be able to do something with that.

Your final point was about creative industries…

Well, that is also somewhat related to city planning. It has to deal with start-up companies. There are Lithuanian start-ups that have been coached by Dutch ‘accelerators’, as we call them. We are looking at start-up centres, incubators, and how they can connect with similar centres in the Netherlands. We are looking at gaming and serious games and plan to do something on that in 2016.

We have Europe’s largest start-up network, combined in the ‘Start-Up Delta’. One of the (organisation’s) key figures is former EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who is very pro-active. We feel that it is possible to do something bilaterally with this topic because it is one the most dynamic sub-sectors here in Lithuania as well. Even companies from Russia and Ukraine are setting up shop here. I have visited a number of these incubators: there is a nice buzz to them!

We also look at design and design projects. Dutch designers and architects are already coming over here, such as famous designer Ineke Hans. We also try linking up design institutes. This is also one of our functions (as an Embassy). We cannot sit on the chair of the entrepreneur, but we can look at where we can be a facilitator. We can have (easier) contacts with government organisations, where business may have more trouble doing that. Our added value is to connect our companies, either established or start-ups, with government institutes or Lithuanian enterprises.

It is a simple thing. In order to see what we can do, we need a clear narrative for our activities. We did that with LNG (market platform), we did that with the SUMPs and we will do that hopefully this year with the insulation and energy efficiency of existing housing stock. We need that narrative to identify our added value and then take action with the stakeholders. We can scout the field with players in Lithuania and in the Netherlands. With LNG, it took about a year to get them together to create synergy.

Do you have particular wishes or ideas that you like to share with readers of the Lithuanian Tribune?

I am one of the relatively few Dutch diplomats who has spent decades studying Central and Eastern European affairs. Already in my student years, I went to Hungary in 1980-1981. During my first posting in Warsaw, I had a close-up experience with the transitions between 1988 and 1992. You literally felt the historic importance of the events in those days.

We need to understand that there is an on-going search for security within these countries and there is a need to keep on working together in a multilateral setting. That certainly goes for NATO. If we would not be able to respect article 5, NATO would not be credible anymore, and if we do not have NATO then we do not have a safety umbrella either. In 1940, the Netherlands have seen what that meant. We have to be part of a bigger organisation to ensure our security.

Meanwhile we see the Russians deploying non-military means in their hybrid-war against Europe. Is Russia better than Europe in waging that type of war?

We should be more conscious about our own strengths and capabilities. We can be more vocal about our own success stories, and become even more resistant against disinformation. The Dutch government is supporting initiatives to create independent media organisations, which will broadcast and print in Russian.

I think the strength of Europe lies in having multiple layers of cooperation. We have to be better at acknowledging the positive results of that European cooperation. For example, one of the most interesting facts is that so many students go now abroad to study with the Erasmus programmes. It was rare to study abroad, let alone a ‘communist’ country. Now it has turned almost 180 degrees. At the risk of overstating it, it is almost exceptional, not to study abroad. It is one of the unsung success stories of the EU.

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