Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok on the occasion of the Utrecht Conference on 11 December 2019
Ladies and gentlemen, let me first thank my opposite number minister Czaputowicz...
… for making time to be here, despite the recent Polish elections and his reappointment as foreign minister.
And for bringing so many colleagues with him. Including colleagues from the Dutch embassy.
It nicely illustrates what the Utrecht Conference stands for: the idea that, together, we can go further. Both metaphorically and literally!
And of course I’d also like to welcome all 40 colleagues from the various Dutch ministries – including my own.
I’m delighted that this conference was able to go ahead after all, in this special year, as we celebrate one hundred years of diplomatic relations.
Because we always achieve a lot of practical progress on these occasions.
Take last year’s Utrecht Conference, which resulted in a document of no fewer than eight pages. Containing a great many conclusions and agreements.
For instance about the single market. Strong external borders. And European unity.
I hope that today, too, will produce equally good results. And an equally productive dialogue.
After all, this is the occasion when our countries come together to discuss our mutual cooperation, and where possible coordinate our shared standpoints.
Whether it’s on social affairs, security and defence or the single market. Or issues that transcend the EU.
Because these are all matters we’ll be discussing today.
And the great thing is…
…everyone in the EU always wonders how it’s possible that Poland and the Netherlands are so well-informed about each other’s positions.
And how we’ve managed to maintain our close ties, despite the differences of opinion we also have. And not become alienated from each other.
That is all thanks to our bilateral dialogue. A dialogue that we’re actively engaging in again today.
Because here, we share information. We talk to each other in confidence. And we can express our concerns.
Like Dutch concerns about equal rights and developments that affect democracy and the rule of law.
And how it is troubling that the independent judiciary – and hallmarks of democracy like dialogue and dissent – are coming under pressure in the EU.
Not simply because this trend impacts the fundamental values on which our Union was founded…
… But also because it’s a threat to our practical cooperation.
In areas like the single market, say, or judicial cooperation.
Together, we really are stronger. That’s a message the Netherlands is keen to spread.
Because there’s so much that unites us. Too much to sacrifice…
Poland and the Netherlands have enjoyed close ties for centuries now.
Take our mutual trade in the Baltic sea, which goes back to the Middle Ages.
And our diplomatic contacts go back to the days of Polish kings and the Dutch Republic in the late 16th century. An era of pivotal importance in the history of both our nation states.
After Poland’s sovereignty was restored in 1918 it renewed diplomatic relations with the Netherlands.
During the Communist era, the Netherlands sent relief supplies to Poland. And we provided technical support in the run-up to Poland’s accession to the EU.
But if I think about what binds us most…
… then I have to think of the Second World War, and how that terrible period came to an end.
Because my country owes its liberty in part to Polish courage, resolve and heroism.
Because the Poles played a major role in liberating my country.
So it’s hardly surprising that, for 75 years now, many Dutch communities have held those Polish soldiers in the highest esteem.
Take the people of Terneuzen and Breda. But also those of the small town of Driel, where Polish soldiers played an important part in the Battle of Arnhem.
Driel has a special Polish monument, located in the ‘Polish Square’. Its pedestal contains an urn – filled with Polish soil – symbolising the Polish people.
Driel’s local football club still honours the Polish liberators. It’s club colours are red and white, and the club flag features a parachute at its centre.
That’s how grateful people still are.
And that long-standing bond between our two countries, and our two peoples, also reflects other kinds of closeness.
And by that I don’t so much mean the Polish manager of a terrific supermarket in the Netherlands, that sells all kinds of Polish delicacies to the locals.
And who once said to a journalist:
‘Your Dutch quark is terrible, your bread’s far too fluffy and I’m sorry to say this, but you don’t know the first thing about sausages.’
No, it isn’t culinary closeness I have in mind – welcome though it is! :)
I’m thinking more of closeness in sport. And religion, even.
For instance, in Tilburg, in the south of the Netherlands, there’s a weekly church service in Polish. At a church whose congregation had dwindled almost to nothing before the arrival of the Polish churchgoers.
Also in Tilburg, a group of Polish men saved a local football club by joining up en masse, renovating the canteen and forming a new team: the White Eagles.
And they won a lot of matches. Which soon made them popular in the local community.
So popular, in fact, that some of the locals started getting tattoos of this Polish football team!
These might seem like minor examples, but to me they perfectly illustrate the closeness between our two countries.
And that closeness is what we should aspire to here. As public servants. As politicians.
Even if our opinions differ in some areas.
Even if we don’t always take the same approach.
It’s in all our interests to forge a stable and secure Europe, where people live peacefully alongside each other.
So I hope that everyone will bear that in mind during this Utrecht Conference.
Because the fact that we’re here today is proof that there’s more that unites us than divides us.