Speech Verhagen at opening Utrecht conference

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here tonight, at the opening of the 18th Utrecht conference, which brings together Poland and the Netherlands.

I would like to thank Minister Sikorski for his kind words and his warm welcome. As you said, Minister, it is indeed very special for two EU member states to meet on such a regular basis to discuss the European agenda. Our two countries’ meetings go back to 1999 – we started prior to Poland’s accession to the EU – and we will be celebrating ten years of Utrecht conferences next year. It will be our turn to host the meeting in 2009, and we will certainly mark this milestone.

The Utrecht conference is a good illustration of the importance of bilateral diplomacy in a larger Union. It is a model of practical cooperation that has greatly facilitated communication between the Polish and Dutch governments; not only between our respective foreign ministries, but between other ministries as well. These conferences have improved our understanding of each other’s viewpoints and they have made it easier to find common ground within the EU. During the negotiations on the Lisbon Treaty, Poland and the Netherlands worked together on issues of mutual strategic interest. Also, in 2007, our two countries organised a conference on European development cooperation for new member states. These are examples of down-to-earth, practical cooperation that I hope we can build on in the years ahead, now that a new Polish government is firmly in place.

The Utrecht conference is a valuable instrument – so valuable in fact, that we are trying to extend its reach. Not only should officials meet regularly, but we envisage a broader exchange, between Polish and Dutch citizens. In that respect, I am happy to announce that from 15 to 17 May, the first “Young Utrecht conference” will take place in The Hague. Students from twenty-two Polish and seven Dutch schools have been learning about each other’s countries and European integration. They have been in touch by e-mail and will now have the chance to get to know each other in person. Three weeks from now, fifty Polish students will visit the Netherlands to discuss EU-related issues with their Dutch counterparts. I hope that this pilot project will result in a regular exchange, like our own Utrecht conference.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Poland and the Netherlands know each other well. We are close trading partners, and the Netherlands is now the largest foreign investor in Poland. Polish citizens have entered the Dutch labour market, filling vacancies in sectors such as agriculture and horticulture, transport and construction. Many more Poles move to the Netherlands than vice versa, although there are some exceptions: a Dutch football coach, Leo Beenhakker, is preparing the Polish national team for the European Championship! Poles are making a big contribution to our economic growth. The Dutch government feels strongly that Polish employees should be treated the same as Dutch workers in terms of pay and conditions. Less than a month ago, our Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, visited Poland together with Minister for European Affairs Frans Timmermans. And only last week, on 16 April, the Polish Minister Jolanta Fedak visited The Hague to discuss precisely these issues. We welcome cooperation of this kind – it fits into a long tradition of exchanges between our two countries.

And more recently, our cooperation has extended far beyond our own borders. In Afghanistan, Poland and the Netherlands both contribute to NATO’s ISAF operation. Poland is even considering heading a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Eastern Afghanistan. Minister Sikorski, I do not know whether this has anything to do with the fact that, in a previous life, you used to travel throug h Afghanistan as a news correspondent, but I can assure you that the Netherla nds applauds your efforts. And in yet another previous life, you used to work at the American Enterprise Institute and you headed the New Atlantic Initiative. The Netherlands is also a strong believer in the need for America and Europe to work together to be a decisive force for good in the world. In Poland we find a similar advocate of transatlantic cooperation.

It is interesting to see how our respective countries can learn from each other’s backgrounds and experiences. Poland’s history has been formed in part by its proximity to Europe’s biggest neighbour, Russia. Understandably, the question of EU-Russian relations arouses strong feelings in Poland. As for the Netherlands, after the Second World War my country had to overcome deep feelings of hatred and suspicion towards former occupying power Germany. European integration definitely helped us to cast off this emotional burden. Cooperation between foes-turned-allies has brought us unprecedented stability and economic growth. Fifty years of European integration has taught us that, in a partnership, giving can be as beneficial as taking…I believe we should pursue the same course vis-à-vis Russia. By cooperating, we will lay the foundations for a stable and friendly relationship. I am convinced that the modernisation of the Russian economy will lead to further development of the rule of law. The EU should stand united and aim for a sustainable and broad partnership with Russia, which is in our best interests. To me, this means that we should engage Russia and cooperate where possible, and be critical where necessary. Russia should be held to its international commitments, in the Council of Europe for example. We have strong economic ties, but the Netherlands does not shy away from bringing up human rights in talks with the Russians, and neither should the EU. It is important that, as a community of values, the EU strengthens its external human rights policies.

Tomorrow, the working groups will be discussing various issues including human rights and the European Neighbourhood Policy. I trust that Poland and the Netherlands will continue to work together closely in these areas!

Before I finish, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to our Polish hosts for organising the 18th Utrecht conference and wish you all a very productive meeting.

Thank you.