Lithuania is an important partner for us; bilateral relations are excellent Exclusive interview with Dutch Ambassador, H.E. Kornelis Spaans

The Netherlands, as the name indicates, is low-lying territory, with one-quarter of the country at or below sea level. Many areas are protected from flooding by dykes and sea walls. A seafaring nation, much of its land has been reclaimed from the sea.

Industrial activity in the Netherlands predominantly consists of food processing, chemicals, petroleum refining as well as electrical and electronic machinery. It has a dynamic agricultural sector and is well known for its plants and cut flowers. The port of Rotterdam is the busiest in Europe, serving a vast hinterland which stretches into Germany and central Europe.

The Netherlands has a history of great painters. The 17th century was the age of the Dutch Masters, such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Jan Steen. The 19th and 20th centuries were no less remarkable for their high-calibre artists like Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondriaan.

It is one of the world’s most densely populated nations. As in many European countries, over-65s make up an increasing percentage of that population, leading to greater demands on the welfare system. After two decades of strong growth and low unemployment, the economy ran into more troubled waters as global trade, in which the Netherlands is a major player, slowed in the early years of the new millennium.

In this context, the Lithuania Tribune sat down with Dutch Ambassador to Lithuania, His Excellency, Kornelis Spaans, for a cordial and enlightening chat about current topics affecting our countries.

The Lithuania Tribune (LT): What is the current state of bilateral relationship between Lithuania and the Kingdom of the Netherlands?

His Excellency, Kornelis Spaans, Dutch Ambassador (DA): Bilateral relations are excellent. We have a lot of trade. Last year we had 2.4 billions Euros worth of trading together, going both directions, of course. And we have a lot of exchange that is that citizens of Lithuania visit the Netherlands and citizens from the Netherlands visit Lithuania – so it’s a free flow of people moving back and forth.

We have [of course as partners of European Union and NATO] highly intensive context not just through the embassies but really directly between the officials, between ministers, between institutions. These are some examples of things that are going on. So for us, Lithuania really is an important partner. Of course, the size of population is not the largest in European Union, but we share a lot of values, we share a lot of views and we both have an open development.

LT: Lithuania recently bought Dutch military equipment. Can you give some details about this. Like, there was a long negotiation about this or it just…

DA: We have a lot of useful service equipment, that really suits the purpose of the armed forces here in Lithuania. It really is a matter of what does one party need, what can the other party supply and basically, it’s a good deal. As the price is reasonable for Lithuania it’s a good example of cooperation between the two armed forces.

LT: In 1588, the Netherlands was one of the first Republics in the world, today your country is the world’s largest exporter of flowers. A seafaring nation, magnificent living standards and you provide about 0.7 of its GDP to the development cooperation. Everybody knows brands like Heineken, Shell, Philips, Unilever and your country is one of the top 10 financial canters in the world. Despite having smaller geographical area than Lithuania your country is the 16th economy in the world, what is the secret of your economic success?

DA: The secret of economic success (smiles)… I think it has to do a lot with our history. As you say, the geographical size of the Netherlands has never been very large. It used to be a bit larger in the Middle Ages, but that’s long time ago. It’s never been large, but we are of course close to the sea, we’ve always had to compete with some very influential and powerful neighbors. We really had to work very hard for our money. Part of our success is that we have developed [by "we" I mean our ancestors and that's really close to 1000 years ago already] the so-called Baltic trade.

Buying wood here off the Baltic coast, shipping salt – buying/selling things, this was done in those days at a fairly large scale. I mean, these days this could fit into a few hundred super-carriers. But for the development of the economy it was very important. What was also extremely important for us is a commitment to freedom. Readiness to invent, to develop things, what we would call Research and Development (R&D) today, awareness to accept, to be open to ideas. And the Netherlands has always been the country where other Europeans used to go when in their countries there would be, wars, civil war or if the regime of the countries was oppressive. So many talented people from all over Europe [and that's already in the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th century], they would seek freedom in the Netherlands.

Many of them went to Holland, which is the western part of the Netherlands and many of these people were very creative, they had skills. And even if they had lost their money through war they could still bring a lot of professionalism. So we’ve had this influence, particularly from what is today Belgium, also from France, from Portugal, Germany, England. So you have a whole mix of ingredients and individuality, liberty, creativity, entrepreneurship. But also, a high level of tolerance for those who would come in, the newcomers that would come in…as long as they would contribute to society. I mean, that’s always has been part of the deal. The work ethics – and that’s really been ingrained in the Dutch character.

LT: The Netherlands and Lithuania were hit by financial crisis. Lithuania probably much more than Netherlands. What forms of economic cooperation can help them recover? Mutual cooperation?

DA: Of course, Lithuania benefits from substantial European Union funds and Lithuania is quite methodical in its approach, in its careful planning, in everything. I think it has helped. When the crisis hit, Lithuania took really drastic measures, that hurt, I mean really hurt. But we can see that over the last few years the economy is growing again and not only exports are growing, through not only international trade, but also through domestic consumption.

I think in the economic field in battling the crisis, what we share is the feeling, the principle that you have to really make the first efforts, you have to make on your own. I mean it’s up to you – you’re facing the crisis. So the first thing is, get organized and try to deal with the crisis. And of course, you can ask your friends for help, but you have to rely on yourself – this is really the basic principle. I think this is the approach that we very much share, so this is an important common value between the two nations.

LT: In your opinion, what is the recipe to do successful business in Lithuania?

DA: First of all, it sounds obvious, but it’s really important. First of all, you have to know what you want as an entrepreneur. OK, this is Lithuania, this is the Lithuanian market, what do I want? Do I want to sell a particular product? Do I want to achieve in the next few years a certain market share?

It’s most logical question that you really have to ask first. Fortunately, many Lithuanians speak English or another Western European language, because as you will understand, the number of Dutch entrepreneurs who speak Lithuanian is very limited (smiles). Also entrepreneurs can benefit from the fact that this is a member of the EU so a lot of regulations and legal issues are comparable to what we have in the Netherlands.

LT: Are they comparable?

DA: Yes, if it’s derived from EU regulations. Companies approach us, the embassy, and we can help them identify suitable contacts. Commercial decisions are always up to the companies, but we can help them with the initial network and it’s up to them to use it. We also give them some indication, if they don’t have it already of which areas particularly interesting for their products. I mean, if they are looking for high population density areas, for instance come to Vilnius or Kaunas. And we can also, depending on what they want to trade – sell or buy, we can guide them towards potential suppliers, potential customers or associations.

So we are very pleased that we have this 2.4 billion Euros in 2011…we’ll have to wait for the actual figures for this year, but so far the figures are promising. Then there is about 1 billion Euros in Dutch investments in Lithuania, so it signifies that Dutch investors have the confidence to invest here. What is one very particularly attractive feature of Lithuania is that it’s European Union Member State, but it’s both very close to Russia and there is a huge treasure of knowledge about Russia and the Russian market. And fortunately there are still many people who speak Russian.

It’s very important that you’re in a position to communicate with such an important neighbor. The embassy supports particularly small and medium sized Dutch enterprises. Some companies with not so much experience where such a large market as the Russian market is concerned could initially set up business here and get to know how the Russian market works. The Russian market for us is also extremely interesting, but you need to build up sufficient knowledge and we think this could be done here.

Another interesting area is the port of Klaipeda and its connection with the hinterland. And we are very pleased that there is top Dutch dredging firm working to deepen the channel of the Klaipeda port. So it’s also a sign of really using top knowledge.

LT: About the Dutch Investment. As you mentioned before – it never decreased, it never stopped even during the crisis – it just continues to grow.

DA: There is healthy level of Dutch investment in Lithuania. Of course, during the crisis everybody became cautious and this affected the investment level. The current level is close to 1 billion Euros.

LT: Since October 23rd, through the national Lithuanian channel LRT, we can now enjoy some Dutch films in Lithuania. Any more of this type media cooperation in the future?

DA: Yes. On the 1st of November there will be another Dutch film on LRT 2. And another one the 7th. We like to show as many Dutch films as possible, of course there is certain limit because we have to pay copyrights and everything. We inform the public about this on our Facebook page ‘Embassy of the Netherlands in Lithuania’. There is definite interest among viewers. It’s always a pleasure to show a Dutch movie. We recently had movie made by Dutch film-maker called “Peace vs. Justice” and we presented this in the framework of the Human Rights Film Festival. The theatre was packed.

LT: Any other type of cultural cooperation for the remainder of 2012?

DA: For the remainder of 2012 we have done exhibits of paintings, jazz performances. Soon there will be a poetry reading of Dutch language poems organized by the Region of Flanders, Belgium. This is going to be very interesting: it is the work of a Belgian Dutch speaking poet. The Flemish region will be organizing this but we support this as well. Next year we want to do something about the circle next the Embassy which happens to be called “Olandu ziedas” Holland Circle. The inner circle now of this roundabout has recently been re-landscaped – there are some autumn flowers, but they are not visible, because there’s snow, but in spring we hope we have lots and lots of Dutch tulips. Let’s hope it will be a pleasant spring. It’s also very good when Lithuanians show their creativity in the Netherlands.

LT: Just going a little bit deeper in the cultural sphere – what is the current image…if you can tell us some details…what is the current image that Dutch society has of Lithuania? Like Eastern European country, Nordic.. it’s kind of a bit subjective, but..?

DA: Yes, that’s always As far as Lithuania is concerned, the vast majority of the Dutch go on holiday to neighboring countries like Germany, France and Spain, Italy. Those are top destinations. There is a fair size of number of Dutch tourists who come here each year. They are particularly attracted by this large space. I mean something that you have – we don’t have in the Netherlands – space. Space, woods, lakes, peace – I mean the Netherlands it’s one really big town.

LT: Yes, Dutch population density is the highest in the world….

DA: Yes, the highest or second highest…You always see building around you. So when I drive from here to Siauliai or even between Kaunas or Klaipeda it is quite spacious. Quite a lot of people come here for brief weekend to enjoy, particularly the Old Town of Vilnius. I had not been to Lithuania before I became ambassador here, so for me it was a very pleasant surprise to get to know the Old Town, to see something that is really… a jewel.

This old town managed to survive the Soviet time and it’s just a pleasure to walk through these narrow streets. I had a bit of misfortune shortly after I arrived a year ago and I landed in a wheelchair for a couple of weeks: getting around such a beautiful old town in a wheelchair is a little bit complicated. But there are so incredibly many historical buildings and especially small courtyards and many of them might need some renovation, but still even the old ones in poor shape, they absolutely fascinate me.

Lithuania Tribune (LT): Coming back to the Netherlands, as you said, the Netherlands is a very liberal nation, fostering tolerance, respect for the rule of law, cultural diversity, religious freedom, it’s a country where the Dutch youth can purchase alcoholic beverages when they’re 16 years of age….

His Excellency, Kornelis Spaans, Dutch Ambassador (DA): That’s interesting. We’ve just had elections and we expect our new government to raise it to raise it to 18 years. So, not allowed to sell alcohol to those below 18.

LT: Given this background, how is it possible that extremely conservative far-right politicians such as Geert Wilders, Ayaan Hirsi Ali obtained such a large support from society, some years ago, after all before this elections, Wilders’ party was the third largest in the Netherlands…

DA: It still is. Well, I think there are many explanations that can be given. First of all, we should not forget that these are free and democratic elections. I think there’s a concern among a number of people about the changes taking place in society. That is a phenomenon we’ve seen in other countries as well. However, it is absolutely part of our democratic process that people speak their minds peacefully and in a democratic way.

LT: It’s part of the democratic debate…

DA: It’s part of the democratic debate, it’s part an expression of concerns that a number of people have. . This is all done in a peaceful and democratic way.

LT: Because some people may get the wrong idea this big headlines from Geert Wilders…that it’s becoming kind of an intolerant society.

DA: I think the Netherlands is certainly not becoming an intolerant society. We expect from everyone who joins our society to share respect for our democratic values. Freedom of religion for those who do have a religion and freedom for those who do not. Freedom of expression, I think these are really the core values that we defend and certainly will defend. And we would expect everyone who comes to our country to accept that this is the way we have organised our society. It’s also an expression of a sometimes fairly vigorous debate. It’s done within our democratic framework.