Netherlands Ambassador Karel van Kesteren: Bulgaria's Interests Are Our Interests
Exclusive interview of His Excellency Karel van Kesteren, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Bulgaria, for the Dutch Survey ("International Survey: Bulgaria-Netherlands") of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency)
How would you describe briefly the major characteristics of the relations between the Netherlands and Bulgaria? How have diplomatic contacts between Bulgaria and the Netherlands changed since the GERB party came to power in the summer of 2009?
Bulgaria and the Netherlands are, first of all, partners within the European Union. Within the EU we work together in many areas, to promote our common objectives and ideals, for example in the area of justice.
Although we have always kept good relations with Bulgarian governments, we are happy to note that the current GERB government is energetically undertaking ambitious – and necessary! – reforms in a variety of areas. I am confident that those reforms will improve the lives of Bulgarians and will broaden the scope of Bulgarian – Dutch relations, also with regard to investment and trade.
How do you assess the economic reforms that Bulgaria’s new center-right government of the GERB party is implementing? What will be their impact on the business climate?
We assess the economic policy of the Bulgarian government positively. The planned reforms regarding reduction of the administrative burden are needed to further improve the business climate and to attract foreign investments.
I also applaud the steps by the government to combat corruption and fraud. This is important in terms of budget revenues and the ability of the state to finance key services, but I also want to emphasize the clear link between reforms of the judiciary and the business climate: if the rule of law is not secured, businesses, local as well as foreign, are not guaranteed there rights, for example when it comes to enforcing payments, and as I have also seen in other countries, that has a negative effect on economic development.
A group of EU member states, including the Netherlands, have been pressing Brussels for more sanctions against Bulgaria as well as neighboring Romania, which also joined in 2007, including the activation of safeguard clauses. Why have Dutch officials and politicians been some of the harshest critics of Bulgaria?
The Netherlands is a country with a tradition of openness to the world and of strong engagement with the European Union. This is logical, taking into account the open and international orientation of our country and our economy. What happens in the world, especially within the EU, therefore concerns us. Our countries pursue a common goal in the EU and we all work together to resolve common problems.
Part of that process is to have an open and frank dialogue as EU partners. It is not a question of sanctions – the Netherlands government has not pressed for sanctions; what it has done is openly discuss the question of how best to ensure that we can all reap the benefits of our union in terms of prosperity and security.
Your problems are our problems and the interests of people in the Netherlands coincide with the interests of Bulgarians, who as all Europeans are entitled to a well functioning justice system, efficient public services and a good business climate. That’s why the Netherlands has not been looking on idly, but has invested millions of euros in Bulgaria’s reforms and continues to do so to this day.
Do you view Bulgaria’s Schengen Area accession as linked to reforms? What specifically does Bulgaria need to focus on in its reform efforts in this respect?
The Dutch government has made it clear that reforms in the field of justice and home affairs need to be effected, as agreed with Bulgaria when it joined the EU and reconfirmed by the current government as one of their most important priorities. Positive and concrete results in this field will benefit the entire EU. There is no formal link between these reforms and the Schengen accession process, which is a process with its own set of criteria and technical prerequisites.
But you will agree with me that there is a de-facto link: lack of progress in the reform of the justice system and/or the fight against corruption and organized crime would in practice make Schengen-entry more difficult, since abolishing border controls can only take place if there is sufficient confidence on both sides in the external border controls and the effectiveness of the fight against cross-border crime and corruption. If we are to have no borders between us, we need to be sure that no one is above the law in any of our countries.
In the period 1996-2008, the Netherlands was the second largest foreign investor surpassing countries such as Germany, UK, and USA. Why do you think Bulgaria has attracted such a significant amount of Dutch investment? In which sectors from Bulgaria's economy do Dutch companies show most interest?
When looking at such figures, one should bear in mind that many international companies have their European headquarters in the Netherlands. Their investments in Bulgaria therefore count as Dutch investments, somewhat inflating my country’s statistics.
That is not to say, however, that home-grown Dutch companies are not an important source of investment in Bulgaria. On the wave of Bulgaria’s impressive economic growth over the years and its financial stability, Dutch companies have found in Bulgaria a land of opportunities, both in terms of production for abroad and as a local market for their products.
Overall, Bulgaria’s economy is in rapid development, providing not only for investment opportunities, but also for Bulgarian demand for Dutch technologies that can offer cost-effective solutions. We see this in the field of agriculture, water and waste management, transport, logistics, chemicals, machines and energy efficiency. I am confident that if the government is successful in its reforms, Dutch investments will further increase.
Has the interest of Dutch SMEs in the Bulgarian market grown substantially after the country's accession to the European Union in 2007?
Small and Medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the Dutch economy. At this moment, some 300 Dutch companies are present in Bulgaria and apart from the big ones like Shell, ING, Heineken, TNT and Unilever, these include many small and medium sized enterprises, many of them united in the Bulgarian-Dutch Business Club.
Their number in Bulgaria has certainly increased since Bulgaria’s accession to the EU, but I think there is potential for much more trade and investment. As I just mentioned, successful further reforms regarding the business climate will certainly help realize this potential.
I myself see it as one of my most important tasks to promote further trade and investments, i.a. by providing information to Dutch firms and by bringing them into contact with Bulgarian partners.
How does the difference in the culture and the mentality affect the way Dutch companies do business in Bulgaria?
There are of course important cultural differences between the Bulgarians and the Dutch. The Dutch are for instance known to be very direct and to the point, whereas some Bulgarians might find the Dutch approach undiplomatic, preferring to invest a little more in getting to know and trust each other.
However, the Dutch could never have gained their worldwide reputation for being good businessmen, if they would not have shown great adaptability and reliability.
Bulgarians have an impressive ability to keep looking for solutions for apparently insurmountable technical problems and a great flexibility in changing designs when the market developments so require. When I talk to Dutch and Bulgarian businessmen, invariably both sides are happy with each other and are learning from each other’s strong sides.
How would you evaluate the progress in Bulgaria’s social and agricultural landscape as a result of the collaboration between the two countries via the MATRA Program projects? For example, what has been the impact of the Center for trainings, researches, analyses, consultations and education that was established as a part of the project “TRACE - new wave of thinking about social transformation”, funded by the Dutch Foreign Ministry under the MATRA Program?
Since the beginning of the 1990s, the Netherlands has financed assistance programs of all kinds up to the tune of EUR 100 M. The MATRA program has been instrumental in this respect. MATRA stands for the Dutch word “MAatschappelijke TRAnsformatie”, which means social transformation.
The program was established in 1994 in the wake of the demise of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. Its stated goal: to assist in the transition to democracy based on the rule of law by supporting activities that stimulate the process of change both within governmental institutions and civil society.
As a matter of fact, the MATRA program has given Bulgarians the opportunity to tap into Dutch experience and to receive valuable assistance in complicated matters related to the EU accession process. But it has also given the Netherlands the opportunity to get to know Bulgaria as it emerged from behind the iron curtain.
I think it is safe to say that there is almost no sector which has not been affected by some form of MATRA (or one of its sister programs for the economic and agricultural sectors) assistance, and in its own modest way the MATRA program has contributed to the durable establishment of democracy in Bulgaria, as well as the country’s accession to the European Union.
Even after accession, MATRA assistance is ongoing in fields of special concern such as justice and home affairs and social inclusion. The TRACE project is a good example of how the Netherlands and Bulgaria continue to cooperate and to exchange good practices by using Dutch knowledge and consolidating Bulgarian expertise in a sustainable way in order to provide support to the government plans for reforms regarding child welfare.
The Netherlands is among the world leaders as far as environment protection is concerned. What are the main mechanisms implemented? Can we say that the Dutch people are environmentally friendly in their daily life? How has this been achieved? What could be done in Bulgaria to generate similar attitude?
You have to look at the Netherlands more closely to understand our concern with the environment. The Netherlands has an area one third the size of Bulgaria, but with more than twice the amount of people. We simply don’t have the space to tolerate pollution.
That may all help to explain why we have been one of the first countries to realize that continuously improving waste treatment mechanisms and environmental technologies are not a luxury, but a sheer necessity. Of course, our situation, with many people on a small territory, has also made us aware of the importance and beauty of nature and biodiversity as something worth protecting and cherishing.
I think that is the essence. Bulgarians should realize that it is in their own interest to keep the environment clean and to cherish the natural beauty of your country, not because the EU or the Netherlands say you should, but because it is in your own and your children’s interest.
I am proud therefore that the Netherlands and Bulgaria have a long history of cooperation in the field of nature protection regarding biodiversity, Natura 2000 and organic farming. But the Dutch experience in the field of waste treatment could also be of use to you.
In the Netherlands, only 5% of the nearly 60 million tons of waste generated annually in the Netherlands is land filled. The rest is recycled or processed in an environmentally clean manner. Dutch companies would gladly share their know-how, just as the Netherlands and Bulgaria have had and still have fruitful cooperation in the field of emission’s reduction.
Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende was mentioned among the major bidders for the EU President position. Why was he suitable for the job, and why do you think he was not chosen by the EU leaders?
Prime Minister Balkenende was never a candidate, in spite of many news reports and speculations suggesting otherwise. European leaders, including Mr. Balkenende, opted for Mr. Van Rompuy, in whom we have full confidence.
In 2005, the Dutch voters were the first to reject the EU Constitutional Treaty, followed by the French. What are the attitudes of the government and people of the Netherlands towards the development of the EU under the Lisbon Treaty, which actually contains many of the features of the Constitutional Treaty but in a milder form? Are the Dutch apprehensive of “too much Europe”?
There have been many speculations about why the Dutch citizens rejected the Constitutional Treaty. More important in my view is that all sociological surveys show that a clear majority of the Dutch population is positive about the EU and thinks that many issues and global challenges can be more effectively tackled on a European level.
Having said that, there seems to be a broad agreement – among citizens and political parties – that the EU should deal with the issues in which it has an added value and that other issues should be left to the member states.
We are therefore happy to see that the Lisbon Treaty contains increased possibilities for citizens and national parliaments to act when they think the EU is tackling an issue in the wrong way.
Does Bulgaria have untapped potential? In what way?
I think Bulgaria has untapped potential in three areas:
First of all, your natural beauty, cultural heritage and great food and wine are still relatively unknown in the Netherlands. Although beach- and snow- tourism has grown considerably in recent years, I think Bulgaria as a destination for nature and cultural holidays can be developed much further.
Second, Bulgarian expertise regarding the region can be more effectively used on EU level. Partly, this is already happening. Since Bulgaria’s accession in 2007, we see an increasing pro-active Bulgarian position in EU forums.
Thirdly, as I mentioned above, the Bulgarian economy has not developed its productive sectors yet to its full potential. If the reforms continue, I see very good possibilities in the agricultural sector – including organic agriculture – as well as in the manufacturing sector, e.g. for machinery production.
What was the most important tip about Bulgaria that your predecessor gave you?
My predecessor told me that he once used his bike to go to a meeting regarding traffic problems in the city hall, as it was the only way to arrive in time. This practical example helped to stimulate the discussion about creative solutions to the city’s traffic problems. For me, this story is symbolic for the role of an ambassador: we try to find small and concrete examples in our countries where we can contribute to practical solutions.