Dear members of the Swedish Chamber in the Netherlands and the Dutch Chamber in Sweden,
Swedes and Dutch are made for each other. That was the title for the webinar early June, organized by the Chambers of both countries. A very appropriate title, which also reflects the title of the book that was published during our 400 years of friendship. Sweden and the Netherlands decided to exchange resident ambassadors in 1614, so my Swedish counterpart Annika and I are honoured to be part of a very long list of ambassadors for our countries.
In the past 5 years, I have had the privilege and pleasure to work with Håkan Emsgård, with Per Holmström and since 2 years with Annika Markovic. Annika being the first female Swedish ambassador to the Netherlands and I was the first female Dutch ambassador to Sweden. Now that both Chambers are also chaired by 2 women, Kerstin Gerlagh in Amsterdam and Els Berkers in Stockholm, I feel that things have really changed. For the good!
My departure from Sweden is imminent, so it is the right time to share my reflections with you, members of both chambers. You have all done your bit to shape this bilateral relationship and I hope you will keep contributing. I have three words or labels to describe our relationship: like-mindedness, partnership and inspiration. These words more or less cover the past 400+ years, but I am convinced they will keep their relevance in the many years to come.
Allow me to explain those three words, to start with like-mindedness. We share the same values, whether it’s folkhemmet or poldermodel, we are both appreciative of openness, transparency. Journalists can write what they like, and we are all at ease with criticizing our governments or CEO’s. We don’t like to flaunt our wealth, but prefer a more egalitarian society. Whether you call it ‘lagom’ or ‘doe maar gewoon dat is al gek genoeg’, to me it’s the same sort of modesty as a virtue. We feel that sharing is key, which is why we are both great advocates of the Sustainable Development Goals and why we feel that helping other countries is the right thing to do. To Dutch and Swedes, a deal is a deal, and rules are there to obey. Especially international rules, as enshrined in international laws and treaties. Maybe it is a socio-cultural mentality, or maybe it is simply because our economies and societies depend on a level playing field. We don’t feel very comfortable with powerplay, although our economic situations do give us some leverage. At the same time, we would like to spend our money wisely. You don’t spend what you don’t have, and you try to keep your financial house in order. All of the above have created a strong fabric of likemindedness that will last for a long time.
Regarding partnership, there have always been successful ways of cooperating. Whether in business (Akzo-Nobel, Nuon/Vattenfall) or in military missions (mixed crew during the operation Atalanta on board of the Dutch ship Johan de Witt, helping each other in Mali), Sweden and the Netherlands find it easy to cooperate. Not because we áre the same, but because we share the same values and then take a slightly different approach in getting things done. We both believe in hard work, and cherish a market economy. Our societies are built on slightly different economic foundations (services/logistics vs industry/mining), but have the same goals: international markets, export driven companies, importance of innovation, digitization and the need for a more sustainable and green transition. Working together on those issues is a necessity, but certainly also a pleasure.
Inspiration has been the consequence of our differences. Swedes tend to be a bit more careful and mindful of the group opinion. The Dutch can be somewhat more boisterous and tend to speak out without checking or consulting. Both characteristics have their disadvantages and advantages, but mixing them together results very often in inspirational projects or partnerships. The Dutch can learn from the way Swedes take pride in preparing. The Swedes can learn from the Dutch that provocation is not always a bad thing but could trigger something useful.
So, with that as an introduction, I have looked at the various levels where Sweden and the Netherlands have cooperated in the past 5 years. Where are we on the same page, and will we keep it that way in the years to come? Where did we differ and are we going to solve those differences? Let’s take 5 levels to inventorize: within the UN, within the EU, on security, on the economy and within society.
Within the UN, we have intensified. Our shared year within the UN Security Council in 2018 laid the foundation for countless G2G contacts. We have pushed and pulled together, and this has resulted in a stronger group of the so-called Elected Ten. Hopefully with long-term results. With our common push for the SDG’s and for the climate emergency, we managed to get more international attention. Sweden has put extra emphasis on the importance of women (no sustainable peace agreements feasible if women were not included at the negotiation table), the Netherlands has put extra emphasis on justice (accountability, peaceful settlement of disputes). Combining forces helped in agenda-setting and I am convinced that both countries will keep pushing together where we can in the years ahead. We differ with our approach to development cooperation. We share the same goals, but where Sweden has an independent agency (SIDA) that has projects in many countries around the globe, the Netherlands has merged development cooperation with foreign trade and has focused on fewer countries as partner countries. However, we both are strong supporters of UN organizations and one of the few that give core-funding rather than seeking out specific programs.
On the EU, I observe a significant intensification as well. Of course, the Brexit was a (unwelcome) trigger. But Sweden and the Netherlands have grown as fierce supporters for a strong internal market, with the 4 freedoms as its pillar. Our push for an innovative and greener budget for the next 7 years, a budget that represents the fact that we have now 27 countries instead of 28, has resulted in the group of so-called ‘frugal 4’. Not something that we wanted to create, because both Sweden and the Netherlands depend on as many partnerships and coalitions as possible. But on the budget, we are on exactly the same page. Also, rule of law (or better formulated, the importance of upholding rule of law) has emerged as an issue where we stand strongly together. When I arrived in Sweden in August 2015, it was the start of the Luxemburg EU presidency. I had to take care of that, because Luxemburg does not have an embassy in Stockholm. After that, it was the Dutch who took the EU presidency and my team and I have tried to give maximum visibility to our priorities here in Sweden. Where Sweden and the Netherlands differ, is on the currency. We would be very pleased if Sweden would join the Banking Union and ultimately the Euro, but as an ambassador I have had very limited leverage on these issues 🙁 However, it is good to realize that – unlike Denmark – Sweden does not have an opt-out. So at some point, the SEK will have to be SEKrified. I am convinced though that we can work together to create the circumstances within the EU in such a way that joining the common currency will become an economically attractive proposition for Sweden.
On security I can be short. I already pointed out to the numerous missions we have done together, not to mention the joint exercises we have done in these past 5 years. Sweden’s political choice for non-military alignment is different from the Dutch firm commitment to NATO. However, Sweden has developed into one of the most active NATO-partners, which offers a good platform for future bilateral cooperation as well. The follow-up of the first Swedish-Dutch Defence, Security and Aeronautics Innovation Day that Annika organized last year, was meant to be hosted by me on the 14th of May this year. Much to my regret, the covid-19 came in between. I hope my successor will soon be able to go ahead with what we had prepared.
Economically, we have grown in the past 5 years. In partnership with the Rijksdienst voor Ondernemend Nederland, we have created a position for a Business Development Officer in Göteborg who works closely with the economic clusters at the Dutch Embassies in the Nordic Baltic Region. This position followed after a successful evaluation of the Regional Business Developer, stationed at Copenhagen, who has consistently informed business sectors in the Netherlands on opportunities in this region. I have seen the interest for the stable Swedish market grow in the Netherlands, and I note an increased presence particularly in the construction sector, the infrastructure market and the health sector. Also, there is a growing interest in Sweden for the Dutch expertise on circular economy. My colleagues at the embassy have worked hard and I am proud of the results that were achieved. Very often, we were able to work together with the Dutch chamber in the many events and seminars we have organized. However, there is still room for growth in trade volumes. Also, it is my wish to get more Swedish companies interested in the circular model – if possible in partnerships with Dutch companies. I want to mention one exciting initiative: we are going to open a Dutch Innovation House in the embassy. It aims to facilitate innovative solutions for challenges in the area of climate change, health care, mobility, food security and energy. We want to bring people together from the business sector, students, academics and literally offer them facilities to work on common projects and seminars. To be continued!
Last but not least, our societies. I have witnessed an increase in the number of visits from the Netherlands to Sweden and vice versa. Whether they were commercial missions, NGO’s, governance sector, scientists or simply tourists; there is a growing interest and mutual curiosity. And still so much more to discover, and learn from each other!
A relationship based on likemindedness, partnership and inspiration is easy and pleasant. But like in a good marriage, you cannot take its success for granted. We have to keep working together to maintain, to grow, and take it to the next level. It should be more than just an ad hoc cooperation, but how should we make this relationship more strategic without being seen as a closed club or without a formalized alliance? That is a challenge, and a few suggestions were made during the webinar that are worth exploring (promote certain business sectors, organize thematic meetings for SME’s, set up a CEO network in the respective residences, formulate common goals etc). I will challenge the members of both Chambers to work something out. But the heart of the matter is: our common values are more and more under pressure. So Sweden and the Netherlands must join forces, and must do so smartly in order to shape developments and preserve what we cherish.
I am grateful for the past 5 years, it was wonderful being a temporary Swede. I will carry a part of Sweden with me to my next destination Canada. I am proud of what both embassies have done to give more meaning and depth to the bilateral relationship: by bringing people together, by providing information, by organizing network events and where possible we have done that jointly. I have been blessed with such lovely colleagues at the Swedish embassy in The Hague, and with the board members of both Chambers. Without that fruitful cooperation, which is not a given, I would not have been able to achieve anything. And of course, an Ambassador is literally nowhere without a team. I can honestly say that I have been very very lucky with my team in Stockholm.
Let me end by wishing Annika, Els en Kerstin all the best in their endeavours and to express the hope that my successor Bengt van Loosdrecht will be welcomed in the way that I was welcomed. But of course he will, since Swedes and Dutch were made for each other and are made for each other. Together you will lay the foundation for the beginning of the next 400 years, good luck to you all!