Short speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte at a lunch with President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez of the Republic of Panama

President Varela, ladies and gentlemen,

Mr President, I am delighted to welcome you here today for several reasons.
It isn't only the friendly ties between our countries or the growing importance of our economic relations.
I have more personal reasons, too.
Let me explain.
You will recall the Cumbre de las Américas in April 2015.
You were kind enough to invite the Kingdom of the Netherlands, as we are neighbours in the Caribbean.
That meeting included the historic handshake between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama, and by chance I was standing close by.
There I was, in the photo that went around the world - watching the two leaders with a big smile on my face.
And so some people assumed I was personally responsible for this diplomatic breakthrough.
Let me assure you: that is far from true.
But I made quite an impression across the political spectrum.
So thank you, once again, for the invitation!
I can't promise we'll make history today.

But I believe that you and all Panamanians recently celebrated another historic moment when Panama qualified for the World Cup.
So let me offer my congratulations and wish you every success. Unfortunately, we did not qualify.
What a shame that the red, white and blue of the Netherlands and Panama won't be flying together over the World Cup stadiums next year.
So all the better that we should meet today.
Because the Netherlands and Panama are 'socios evidentes': natural partners.
For one thing, our countries are both gateways to enormous continents, and we are close partners in that regard.
In 2015, I saw for myself how Dutch companies are closely involved in mega projects around the Panama Canal, one of the biggest hydraulic engineering feats in world history.

As I'm sure you know, the Netherlands has a long tradition of water management, so that is also a bond between us.
It's a bond that is highlighted by all the Dutch companies that have chosen Panama as a base of operations and have invested in your country.
Global players like Philips, Unilever and Boskalis have regional headquarters there.
But more and more small and medium-sized companies are also finding success in Panama.
And that's no surprise: Panama is one of the fastest-growing and most stable economies in Latin America.
 It's yet another similarity between us, because the Netherlands is one of the strongest and healthiest economies in Europe.
We all hope this visit will promote even more and even stronger cooperation.
There is a lot we can learn from each other.
And there are many areas where we can help each other.
The central themes of this lunch dominate the agenda in both our countries: agri-logistics, flood defences, water scarcity, and innovation in healthcare.

These topics may be very different, but they are all important for our countries' futures.
Mr President, the Dutch have a saying that 'a close neighbour is better than a distant friend'.
But in you and the people of Panama, we have both.
You are a close neighbour to the Caribbean part of our Kingdom.
And you are a distant friend.
But only in terms of the physical distance between us, I'm happy to say.
Not the quality of our friendship.
So let me propose a toast to our friendship, and to our cooperation.
To Panama, to your visit, and to our common future.