Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, at the Czech Ambassadors Conference
Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen,
I’m honoured to be here today. Thank you for your kind invitation, Mr. Petriček.
2019 is a remarkable year, both for your country and for the relations between our two nations. For the Czech Republic, of course, since 2019 marks the 30-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution which brought down communism and restored open democracy. And for the ties between our two nations, since it was in 1919, exactly one hundred years ago, that we established diplomatic relations.
So I am delighted to be back in the Czech Republic in this special year. The land of 2000 castles and home of Bohemians. The country that has given the world esteemed writers and composers like Kafka, Dvorak, and Janáček. And the country of the Pilsner beer that is so helpful in digesting them.
I’ve also been told that defenestration used to be part of the diplomatic toolbox: in 1618, Czech officials ended a tense meeting with representatives of the Holy Roman Emperor by throwing them out of a window in Prague Castle.
Fortunately, diplomatic conventions have changed since then.
The defenestrated representatives survived the fall by landing on a dunghill, but the incident did start the 30-year war. And it was this war that first connected our two states. Both our lands rose up in revolt to the Habsburg monarchy, and the Dutch Republic supported the Bohemian uprising financially and with manpower. Unfortunately we experienced a different outcome. Where the Netherlands gained its formal independence from the Habsburgs in 1648, the Czech people would have to wait until 1918 for this to happen. But that adversity did tie our two nations somewhat closer together. When people fled Bohemia after the uprising ended, many of them found a home in the Dutch Republic.
The most famous among them was Jan Amos Komenský, or Comenius, who lived and worked in Amsterdam for a large part of his life. After his death he was buried in the Dutch town of Naarden. The grave and museum located there are still visited by thousands of people from both our countries. In the Netherlands, his ideas on philosophy and didactics were influential, and many schools are still named after him. I understand that here in Prague, both President Masaryk and President Havel started their first speeches as president with the words of Comenius: “Tvá vláda, lide, se k tobĕ navrátila!” [O volk, uw regering is naar jullie teruggekeerd –uitspraak: tvaa vlaada, liede, cee ke tobjee navraatila]
In many of his works, Comenius stressed the importance of tolerance, co-operation between nations, and respect for the individual. It was a shared respect for these values which brought together Charta 77 spokesman Jan Patočka and my predecessor Max van der Stoel, when he visited Prague in 1977.
Today we are still guided and inspired by this appeal to humanism and humanity. I believe that these are some of the most essential values on which the European Union was built. Values without which freedom and democracy would be impossible. Values, in short, which continue to unite us.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Over the last decades we have become strong partners in NATO and the EU. We have greatly expanded our economic ties as well. The Dutch exports to the Czech Republic are larger than our exports to India, Brazil and South Africa combined. These are sound foundations for expanding an already constructive partnership.
And there are plenty of areas in which we could explore working more closely together.
We both believe in the strength of free trade and economic opportunities. When I visited Prague last March I went for a run through the city center and saw for myself just how vibrant and alive the city is. Full of people working, relaxing, and vacationing. I saw tourists taking selfies of the ancient Charles Bridge with their phones and tablets. It really brings into focus the importance of connecting the old Europe with the new world of technology. Of innovation.
The knowledge economy is a field where we can achieve more together. Our interests converge here, because continuous technological innovation is crucial for economic growth and job creation – in both our countries. In your innovation strategy, the Czech Republic calls itself ‘the country of the future’. We would like to join you in that future. We have previously discussed the importance of close bilateral and European co-operation on innovation, and I am optimistic about our shared ambitions in this area. In May of this year we have held a bilateral high level meeting to exchange successful innovation strategies. The Czech Government Research, Development and Innovation Council and their Dutch counterparts are already taking steps to work closer together and share best practices.
Although we do not share a currency, we both believe in the importance of a reliable and stable financial and monetary system. We agree that the European Stability Mechanism needs to be reformed, and we both prefer sensible policies on budgets, expenditure, and taxation over ambitious designs for deeper fiscal integration.
We both believe that the EU should focus on areas where it has added value, and brings concrete results for the citizens of its member states. The connected challenges of migration, security, and climate change are such areas. Where it comes to EU external policy, securing external borders and safeguarding European interests and values abroad a common and coordinated European policy is stronger and more effective than 27 separate approaches.
This cannot be done by a Europe which is divided. The importance of effective external policy therefore means that we also need to pay attention to the state of our union. To the functioning of our shared institutions. Transparency, the rule of law and respect for the rules and regulations which bind us together are necessary preconditions for successful external policy.
Finally we both share an acute awareness of the risks and opportunities emanating from cyberspace. We both believe that international law is applicable in cyberspace and that it should be upheld there. This shared conviction makes us effective partners on this issue in both the UN and the OSCE. Furthermore, we are already cooperating closely and intensively on some of the most sensitive issues in the cyber domain – especially where they touch the areas of innovation and the economy. I am thinking in particular of telecommunications and 5G, where the Czech Republic and the Netherlands have taken the lead in implementing a common EU approach to 5G security as co-chairs of the ‘Workstream on 5G’ in the Cooperation Group.
I am glad that we can work together on issues so central to tomorrow’s economy. It is my firm hope that we can continue to build coalitions on these already strong foundations.
Nonetheless, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands do not, and will not, agree in every area. That is not a problem, it is a sign of a mature relationship. But it is of great importance that in such cases we continue to speak to each other. To create mutual understanding, to better understand each other’s position. Because in our bilateral and European relations, the aim should always be to find solutions eventually. Solutions that help us and the Union move forward.
Ladies and gentlemen,
There is one more thing which I have, until now, left unspoken. It is the final, and to my mind the saddest reason why 2019 is likely a remarkable year. What many have long thought to be unimaginable now seems to be a reality: For the first time in the history of the European project, a member state is leaving the Union.
If the UK leaves in October, we will lose a major economic power, a considerable military force, and a respected diplomatic power. Above all, however, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic will lose a like-minded partner that shares many of our views on major issues like free trade and sensible financial policies.
This means we will have to redouble our efforts to champion these causes. We must reaffirm existing agreements, and stick to them. We need to do these things, because if we don’t, then we risk losing the support of the people who pay for the EU: its citizens.
I strongly believe that losing faith in the EU would be a bad course, but it is possible that citizens will lose faith. They will do so if we cannot show why the EU is important. If we cannot demonstrate the good it does for its citizens. We cannot take Europe, and the work of the EU for granted. I am part of the generation that grew up on stories of the war. Stories that were still fresh in our parents’ minds. For my generation European integration meant that there were new and exciting products in the stores. It meant travel without borders stops. It meant security in a continent with a long history of conflict. I imagine that for many of you, it means the same thing.
Europe still stands for freedom and opportunity, but this is no longer evident for everyone. If we don’t succeed in retelling the European story in such a way that it resonates with today’s citizens, it might be a realistic possibility that people will turn their back on Europe.
That is why I am glad that the European Council has outlined a new strategic agenda for the next five years. An agenda which includes four main priorities on which I believe our two countries will find much to agree with. The importance of protecting citizens and freedoms. Developing strong and vibrant economies. Building a climate-neutral, fair and social Europe. And promoting European interests and values on the global stage. There are numerous opportunities for joint initiatives on innovation here. Areas where our diplomatic services could operate in unison.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For a century, our two nations have enjoyed diplomatic relations. Over the last thirty years these have grown stronger and warmer through our joint membership of NATO and the EU. We consider you a democracy with a long history, a reliable and constructive partner in the Visegrád group, and a friend in post-Brexit Europe.
We are both middle powers in a world that is increasingly becoming an arena for great powers. A world in which climate change, migration and the growing disparity between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ are becoming serious challenges to the liberal international order. Jaroslav Hašek wrote in “the good soldier Svejk” [ˈʃvɛjk] that “somewhere from the dim ages of history the truth dawned upon Europe that the morrow would obliterate the plans of today.” That is of course always a possibility, but one which we should strive to keep locked away on the pages of Hašek’s satirical novels.
Fortunately, we often manage to punch far above our weight, but in this new world, even middle powers cannot realize effective solutions alone. We need to stick together and continue to strengthen international cooperation. We must continue to stand for a united Europe. A Europe that brings prosperity and security to its citizens. A Europe that stands firm for its values and interests on the global stage. Because that is the Europe our parents built, and that is the Europe I hope our children will inherit. Let’s not throw that out of the window.