Clingendael Conference: Thirty years of Dutch support for societal transformation in Eastern Europe - Matra

Speech by Hanke Bruins Slot, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, at the 30th anniversary MATRA Conference, The Hague, 6 November 2023.

Good afternoon, everyone,

Director of the Clingendael Academy, Ron Ton

Your Excellencies,

It’s a pleasure to be here today!

Last week, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the entry into force of the Maastricht Treaty.

A treaty laying the foundations for the European Union as we know it today.

Today, we’re reflecting on 30 years of Matra, an acronym for maatschappelijke transformatie, societal transformation.

The letters can also be used to spell part of the beginning of the city I just mentioned, Maastricht.

And you might think: that can’t be a coincidence!

Because Matra can serve as a beginning.

It has become an effective gateway to the EU.

Just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Matra was launched to assist civil society with the transformation in Eastern and Central Europe.

Thirty years on, Matra is one of the longest-running bilateral programmes in our ministry.

And we’re very proud of that!

It’s a programme that has proven durable, due to its flexibility and thanks to the adaptability and tireless efforts of our partners.

Even in times of war and conflict, and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Matra continued.   

And while the programme has reached maturity, I believe it also has a bright future ahead

Indeed, in several ways, Matra holds the key to the future.

First, because it can help enhance security, stability and democracy on our continent: shared EU values that the Netherlands is committed to…

These are values we can’t take for granted, as Russia’s war in Ukraine is showing us every day.  

MATRA: a truly ground-breaking way to allocate funds

Second, Matra takes the concept of partnership to the next level.

I strongly believe that such next-level partnerships are the 21st century’s best vehicle to progress. 

Let me explain.

When Matra began, it was a truly ground-breaking way to allocate funds.

It wasn’t just aimed at achieving progress in the recipient countries.

It also aimed to empower local civil society to actually drive that progress themselves.

Including press agencies, newspapers, political parties and unions.

And although the programme has evolved, empowering civil society is still an important element.

For example in North Macedonia, where the Netherlands is supporting the Investigative Reporting Lab.

Their award-winning article ‘Impure Blood’ exposed corruption and organised crime in the private healthcare sector during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It led to investigations by the health authorities and the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

And it’s a great example of how critical journalism is increasingly stepping up when the judiciary proves unwilling or unable to tackle corruption.

Over the years, Matra has also helped governments on the path towards democracy and the rule of law.

For instance in Kosovo, where the authorities have adopted a ‘Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct for Prosecutors’, based on the Dutch model.

This sharing of expertise between governments is quite unique in Europe.

And so is the longstanding collaboration between parties in the Netherlands and Matra countries that has truly supported the party systems in young democracies. The Matra programme now primarily assists countries that aspire to join the EU.   

And I’m pleased to see ambassadors from former and current Matra countries here today.

We can learn a lot from your experiences.

A stable, secure and democratic Europe

We strongly believe that enlargement can only be a success if we make it a success, together.

And for this, member states must be engaged.

Indeed, it’s in the interest of both the EU and the Netherlands to help aspiring member states to prepare.

Because the more robust their democracies become, the stronger Europe will ultimately stand.

And the better we can ensure a stable, secure and democratic Europe.

Matra is one of our tools that can help reinforce this idea.

By contributing to reforms on crucial topics such as the rule of law.

What makes Matra so powerful is that it includes all relevant stakeholders.

And by doing so, it fosters networks and partnerships.

And that brings me to the second point I want to address today:

I’m firmly convinced that the key to solving the problems we face in 2023 is robust partnerships,

through which we help each other,

and through which we continue to seek common ground.

Matra contributes significantly to this.

Because the programme is more than just funding.

It fosters strong connections.

Between countries.

Between organisations.

And ultimately also between people.

For instance, when students from all the Western Balkan countries are developing their take on the ‘Ideal Media Scenario for the Western Balkans by 2040’  - one of the Matra projects - they’re working and learning at the same time.


And the same goes for the 150 students from Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo participating in the ‘University Law Competition’.

While gaining practical knowledge in various fields of law, they’re also learning about each other.

In the same vein, it also fosters unity in the Netherlands.

By training aspiring politicians in Matra-countries, Dutch political parties set aside their differences, and work together closely.  

By working together, they are demonstrating the value of democracy.

It’s a great example of ‘practice what you preach'.

But perhaps the best example is the compelling documentary ‘First Time Kosovo/Serbia’, depicting ordinary people from Kosovo and Serbia on their first visit to each other’s country.

And showing how people – despite societal grievances – can develop friendships and overcome prejudice.

And this too, is one of Matra’s great strengths.

Because ultimately, true partnership is about connections between individuals, and the trust and mutual understanding necessary to make those connections last.

And it’s this understanding, and these partnerships,

on all levels,

that can help consolidate a stable, safe and democratic future for Europe.

For this reason, I’m looking forward to many more Matra anniversaries!

And to future cooperation with all partner countries and partner organisations.

Let me take this opportunity to thank you, to everyone for being great partners.

And great friends.

I wish you a productive conference!

Thank you.