Utrecht Conference Speech

Speech by the Minister for European Affairs and International Cooperation, Ben Knapen, at the 21st Utrecht Conference, The Hague.

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to welcome you to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, here in The Hague. The first Utrecht Conference took place twelve years ago, at the instigation of Bronisław Geremek and Jozias van Aartsen. Over the years this event, involving hundreds of participants from both our countries, has proven to be extremely useful for exchanging views and experiences on EU matters. I am delighted to honour this tradition, since I cherish our close and longstanding relationship with Poland.

I have some special memories of Poland of my own. I first went there in 1973, as part of a student exchange programme between the Catholic University of Nijmegen and the only indepedent Catholic university in the entire Soviet bloc: the University of Lublin.

I will never forget crossing the Iron Curtain in a LOT propellor plane, and the atmosphere in Lublin.

It was only eight years later when I returned to Poland as a young journalist in December 1981. When the then premier Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law, I tried to enter the country in an empty train departing from East Berlin going to Leningrad. I was hiding in a luggage rack, but I got caught and spent my first and – so far – only night in prison. It was freezing cold that night, so a young Polish guard brought me some charcoal to heat a fire. And then we discussed for hours, primarily about soccer.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Ofcourse, things have changed since then – for the better. The fact that Poland is gearing up for its first-ever EU Presidency is ample proof of that.

Today, discussions in five different groups will also focus on the plans and ambitions of the Polish Presidency. And of course, Under-Secretary of State Grażyna Bernatowicz and Secretary-General Ed Kronenburg will be talking about the upcoming Presidency in their meeting as well.

Please allow me to share some of the Netherlands’ priorities with you. Today, the European Commission will announce its budget for the next year. I know from personal experience last year that negotiations on the budget can be – and often are – tough. Next year’s budget is extra important in the light of the impending Multiannual Financial Framework, to be discussed in one of the groups today. Financial issues are a top priority for the Dutch government, as I am sure they are for Poland as well.

Another of our priorities is the EU’s external policy. This is of great importance for peace and stability in the regions bordering Europe. In the Arab region, the EU has proven a relevant factor. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. With the Lisbon Treaty, a lot has changed for external relations. The rotating EU Presidency and the External Action Service, for example, have a whole new role to play. Some elements of this role need to be fleshed out in further detail. But I am confident that together with Catherine Ashton the Polish Presidency will find practical solutions for that.

Strict but fair enlargement of the EU is another major objective for us. I feel – and the Eurobarometer proves me right – that my countrymen are quite in favour of enlargement. And rightly so. Almost no other country in the EU has such an open economy. And therefore, almost no other country in the EU has so much to gain from free trade and the expansion of the internal market.

But enlargement of the EU is not only about economics. It is also about the rule of law. I oppose second-rate enlargement. This is a delicate process with strict rules, rules we agreed upon in December 2006. Ignoring them is simply bad politics. So to be quite frank, we do feel uncomforable with the idea of Romania and Bulgaria entering the Schengen area now.

One of the groups today will focus on asylum and immigration policy. Yesterday, my colleague at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment held a bilateral expert meeting on Dutch proposals calling for strict but fair policy in this area. Yes, our government has plans to reduce the negative effects of labour migration within the EU. But these plans also include measures to increase opportunities for intra-EU migrants to fit in, where-ever they decide to live and work.

Many other member states face similar problems. There are concerns about the pressure that the arrival of large numbers of immigrants with poor economic prospects puts on host societies. And there are concerns about the integration of newcomers. These issues require a European approach. In the coming years, the Netherlands will push to amend certain EU directives. We feel that in some areas the current EU legal framework does not fully satisfy the needs of intra-EU migration in the future.

Of course, the Netherlands is only one of several partners in the EU policymaking process. We need the support of other member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament. So I invite you to take note of each of our proposals and especially of the motivation behind them.

The Polish writer, the late Ryszard Kapuściński, once wrote that other cultures are like mirrors we need in to understand ourselves better. I hope this 21st Utrecht Conference will help us all to look again in the mirror and to learn how to understand ourselves better.

Thank you.