On January 1st, the Netherlands has taken over the Presidency of the Council of the EU for half a year, and it is a good time to take stock. We meet the Dutch Ambassador Bert Van der Lingen in his office in Vilnius.
The Dutch share their Embassy with Denmark in what the Ambassador aptly describes as the efficient, contemporary way of diplomacy. Initially, the Dutch serviced their diplomatic ties with Lithuania from the Embassy in Stockholm and Riga. In 2001, the first Dutch ambassador was appointed to Lithuania. Ambassador Van der Lingen has been in Lithuania since August 2014.
The Ambassador has an intimate knowledge of Central and Eastern Europe. He is a staunch supporter of the EU and applauds the many positive changes it has brought to this continent.
Ambassador Van der Lingen has clearly also a good eye for detail as he is wearing the blue Lithuanian EU Presidency tie and a pin with the Lithuanian and Dutch flag. His office reflects that Dutch modesty with portraits of the Dutch king and queen, photographed by the world-renowned Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra dominating the wall near his desk.
Ludo Segers: When did the Netherlands establish diplomatic relations with Lithuania?
Ambassador Van der Lingen: The Netherlands established diplomatic relations with the (then) inter-war government in Kaunas in the early 1920s. We had a Dutch consulate there. Then after 1991, following the EU declaration, recognising Lithuania as an independent state, the Dutch government (formally) recognised Lithuania. This year we hope to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment our diplomatic ties. It will be good to look back at that historic fact. Our relations have deepened and I am happy to see that Lithuania has made a huge progress during that time.
What is the importance of Lithuania to the Dutch in the political arena?
For us, Lithuania is an EU member state, a NATO member state and as such a partner in policy debate and policy decisions. A few years ago, we discussed the possible closing of a number of smaller posts in Europe, including the Baltic States, in order to comply with the austerity measures imposed on the Ministry. We decided against it, as we felt it is important to have representation on the ground in every European capital.
I am glad that we actually concluded that we could maintain a diplomatic representation in the Baltic States by implementing a form of modern diplomacy in which we are working closely together with our colleagues in Riga and Tallinn.
How about the security issues in this part of the world?
Our cooperation in the sphere of Security Policy is quite close. After the NATO Summit in Wales, General Middendorp, the Dutch Chief of Defence of the Armed Forces visited Lithuania and confirmed that in our view, the security of Lithuania is connected with our own security.
Together with the Germans and the Norwegians, we made troops available to the Immediate Response Force as the interim Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in anticipation of the implementation of the Readiness Action Plan. There will be Dutch military staff working in the newly established NATO Force Integration Units also here in Vilnius.
We are preparing for our third tour of the Baltic Air Policing operation in 2017 with Dutch F-16 fighter jets patrolling the Baltic skies. There will be the regular fleet visits with joint exercises with the Lithuanian Navy in the framework of the Standing Naval Mine Counter Measures Group 1. Later this year, we hope to welcome the first batch of light military vehicles coming from the Netherlands here in Lithuania.
The Dutch are a candidate for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. How is that progressing?
We are a good candidate (laughs) and things are going well. We do have the support from many states already; for which we are very grateful.
We present ourselves as a country where a large part of the international judicial and legal proceedings takes place. We call The Hague the Legal Capital of the World, which is true if you look at all the institutions that are there (International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, and Europol). Our long-standing contribution to multilateralism is another strong point, as is our international outlook. We are confident that we stand a good chance in the coming elections this summer.
Lithuania is winding up its two-year period as a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council at the end of 2015. Is there anything that the Dutch can learn from the Lithuanian experience, particularly vis-à-vis Russia and the situation with Ukraine?
Lithuania has dealt admirably with its responsibility as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. For us, it has been important to see how Lithuania dealt with the themes that were tabled at the UN Security Council in the past two years.
The Netherlands has taken over the Presidency of the EU from Luxembourg since 1 January 2016. What are some of the priorities of this 6 months term of the Dutch Presidency?
Bert Koenders, our Foreign Minister, spelled out the priorities during a recent briefing in Amsterdam for Dutch ambassadors in EU countries. He stated that the Netherlands is not going to use the Presidency to ride ‘national hobby-horses’.
Our last Presidency dates to 2004. That was before the Lisbon Treaty and the role of the Presidency is totally different now. We plan to work with the EU Commission’s working programme as a point of departure.
Our priorities are to follow the strategic agenda for the EU in times of change, the creation of jobs through innovative growth, and trying to better connect with civil society and with the citizens.
Of course, there are a number of difficult issues at stake. We will have to deal with the migration issue as that is one of the pressing themes for Europe as a whole. Then there is also the matter of the referendum in the UK on its membership of the EU.
On communicating Europe: there is one thing that I would like to do, and that is to connect with Lithuanian citizens on European issues. During visits to towns and cities, I would like to include visits to schools or universities and have discussions on issues students may have on their minds. European cooperation has to be more than just attending conferences in Brussels. We need to get out there, explaining the issues, the dilemmas that we all face.
Something like a Town Hall meeting?
Yes indeed, something where anything can be discussed. We should not be afraid talking about issues and engaging in a public debate. I have faith in that and I am looking forward to those encounters. One can get a lot of feedback this way, positive or negative. But it is about how we as government representatives deal with the themes at hand. If you cannot do that, you have a problem.
In dealing with these EU priorities, there is a connection between the demands of the UK government, the free movement of labour, and the migration issue. All these issues are also on the mind of most EU citizens. Are all these issues going to be addressed in trying to prevent a Brexit?
(Hesitating for a moment) Regarding the Brexit discussion: I cannot look into a crystal ball. It all started with a speech by Prime Minister Cameron a few years ago, where everybody thought it was a very anti-European speech. If you look closely at that speech, you must conclude that it was not an anti-European speech at all. It was about his (Cameron’s) view on how to make Europe work better. My personal view is that it was a constructive effort, trying to improve the inner workings of the EU and that is a debate we should not try to evade. We (all) struggle with the same kind of problems. The EU is a never-ending construction project. If we talk about the ideas of an ever-closer Union, we have a sort of a semantic debate about the closer Union as such. Originally, it was formulated as an ever-closer Union of the people(s), which is far better. In the end, it is about people, which we should never forget. If we (start) talking in these terms, we will have a much better debate, I think.
Schengen is part of what you describe as a closer Union of the citizens and the ease of movement across borders. There are also a number of EU policies and programmes to facilitate the closer integration of border regions. Schengen is being questioned, not just as part of the migrant issue, but also in light of the recent terrorism issues. Is Schengen in danger?
No, I do not think so. But we need to shore up our organisation in light of the developments. The reason why we have a discussion on increased internal border checks is because of the issues with permeable external borders. We also should have a 100% registration of all (those) that enter from outside the Schengen area, as it should be, so that we can maintain the core of the Schengen agreement, ensuring free movement within the Schengen area.
The story of Sugihara is very well known and celebrated in Lithuania and the world. In the movie about his life, there is also a minor role about the Dutch diplomat, Mr. Jan Zwartendijk, working at the same time as Sugihara as the Dutch Consul in Kaunas. Every Japanese I have met seems to know about Sugihara. Do Dutch people know about Mr. Zwartendijk?
No, they don’t, regrettably.
And what do you attribute that to? Why is it that he has gotten so little attention?
First and foremost, Mr. Zwartendijk did not want to boast about what he had done, saving almost 2,500 people. He was the originator of the so-called Curaçao visas. Officially, he was not authorised to issue them, but his superior, Riga-based Ambassador De Decker, condoned this and even suggested that he bend the rules. As a result, a large number of people were able to escape the Holocaust. Mr. Sugihara was then able to issue transit visas based on Mr. Zwartendijk’s visa, although Mr. Zwartendijk never met Mr. Sugihara in person.
Both men made a choice for a humanitarian response, at great personal risks. This Embassy, together with the Dutch and Lithuanian Ministries of Foreign Affairs, the city of Kaunas, the Jewish community as well as with the Israeli Embassy are now working on erecting a monument for Mr. Zwartendijk in Kaunas. This project will also involve Philips, as Mr. Zwartendijk was also the representative of Philips in Kaunas at that time. We want this monument to be a commemoration of hope, and a celebration of the fact that so many people were saved, rather than being executed. It is a good news story.
I was able to meet in September 2015 with two survivors. For me, that was an emotional experience. These two persons had lived through this ordeal and were able to have families.
Note: The island of Curaçao, during WWII, a Dutch colony, located in the Caribbean has now status as a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Where did most Jewish refugees go after leaving Lithuania?
Many went to Australia and the USA and set up a new life. Later some went to Israel, but initially, a great number also settled in the Jewish neighbourhood of Shanghai. I am very happy that the daughter and youngest son of Mr. Zwartendijk will come to Lithuania this spring.
Is that when you will unveil this monument?
That will take some time, we plan to have that unveiled by the end of next year, latest 2017. It is close to becoming reality and it is high time this happens. There is already a commemorative plaque here in Vilnius and there is also a plaque at the former Dutch Consulate in Kaunas. There was little public attention for Mr. Zwartendijk’s deeds: no ‘Zwartendijk house’ or street, because Mr. Zwartendijk simple felt that this (his actions) is “simply what a decent guy should do”, period.
I have the feeling that issuing these visas for life is an important historic event in Lithuania. The fact that a Dutch and a Japanese diplomat were involved is fantastic, but it is also a matter of how we present things. Do you present that as something of national importance or as a universal issue honouring human rights, honouring your civilisation? We like to look at it in that way. I am grateful that the Lithuanian government, in particular the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, also sees a need for that (honouring these values).