Speech by minister Blok at Utrecht-conference

Speech by Minister of Foreign Affairs Stef Blok at the 2018 Utrecht Conference in Poland. The text is only available in English.

Ladies and gentlemen, Foreign Minister Czaputowicz.

I’ve been looking forward to this conference. Poland and the Netherlands share a past, present and future.

In the 17th century, both our countries were pioneers. Poland was renowned for its religious freedom; Mennonites fled to Poland to escape persecution. And the Netherlands was also known as a haven, for Jews and Protestants fleeing oppression. These progressive values were in evidence later, as well: French writers like Montesquieu and Voltaire had their books printed in Amsterdam. And Poland was the first country in continental Europe to draft a written constitution.

Reformist parliamentarians approved the text, which included the separation of powers. At the time it was the most enlightened constitution in Europe.

It’s now been 19 years since we started the Utrecht Conference, at Poland’s invitation. Back then the world looked very different. The EU had only 15 member states. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Donald Trump was still a property developer. And I myself had entered parliament.

From the very start, the conference was an effective forum. At first, its aim was to offer Poland some modest help with its democratic and economic transition process and in its EU accession negotiations. Later, it provided a platform for discussing specific aspects of EU integration. And in fact that is still the case today, as we meet for the 28th time. After all, there is more than enough to discuss, and plenty we can still learn from each other.

The forum’s success is demonstrated by the fact that Poland now uses this model in its relations with other countries too, such as Georgia, Serbia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It won’t have escaped anyone’s notice: the European agenda is currently is the midst of a process of reorientation. At a time when we are often – all too often – concerned with what divides our Union, it seems extremely valuable to me to concentrate on the things that unite us.

There is no shortage of examples. A trade-oriented mentality. A freedom-loving spirit. Great Poles enjoy widespread renown in the Netherlands. I am honoured to be in the country of Chopin, Adam Mickiewicz, Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Karol Wojtyła, also known as Pope John Paul the Second. The Polish people are rightly proud of these great names, even if foreigners like me struggle to pronounce them.

There are plenty of common interests that unite us. And the Utrecht Conference is an outstanding instrument to help us work together more closely in these areas.

Because we share so many things:

A history of trade and comradeship, for example. Our ties really blossomed in the time of the Hanseatic League. Later, the Dutch and the Poles fought side-by-side in the Napoleonic armies. In 1813, five thousand Polish soldiers fought under Dutch general Herman Daendels to defend Modlin Fortress, north of Warsaw. We saw the same fraternal spirit more recently, too, during the Second World War. The Netherlands will always be grateful to Poland for the role your soldiers played in liberating our country, especially Arnhem and Breda, from the terror of Nazi occupation. And we will never forget that – while the Netherlands enjoyed post-war prosperity, freedom and progress – Poland suffered yet more decades of oppression, this time under communism and the Soviet Union. That is why Poland’s re-emergence as a truly independent state had a big impact in the Netherlands, too. And why, in time, we welcomed the advent of our Utrecht Conference.

Today our ties are many and varied. A large number of Polish nationals live and work in the Netherlands. Our mutual trade-and-investment figures are impressive.

Every day we are building a common future: a safe, peaceful and prosperous Europe. Within that Europe, Poland is a leading player – and an important Dutch partner – in every conceivable respect. It is a great nation in every respect too: the size of its population, its geographic area, and the character of its history. What’s more, Poland’s importance in the EU coalition will only increase after the regrettable departure of a partner we all value greatly: the United Kingdom.

Together, we are part of the EU. Our EU. There are countless European issues on which we agree:

The importance of the single market, for example. Europe is, and will remain, the biggest market in the world, with the most producers and the most consumers. Since the founding of the European Economic Community, a great deal of work has gone into building this common market. And there’s still plenty more to be done to achieve its completion. Take the Digital Single Market.

Then there’s the importance of speaking with one voice on external affairs.

After all, wherever you look – whether it’s to the east, west or south – the trends are unpredictable and the future uncertain. To me it’s clear: Europe must speak with one voice, or it will have no voice at all.

There’s also the matter of Europe’s institutional shape. I think the Netherlands and Poland agree on this too: national parliaments must preserve and protect their power and influence. We don’t want a European superstate, but we do want to hold on to our common values. When it comes to developments in Europe, I think we need to seek an intelligent balance between the EU and the nation state. The social contract needs to be restored. There is so much work to be done. We can only improve Europe if we show patience. If we talk to each other on the basis of what unites us. And if we take small steps forwards (and sometimes a few steps back as well). But one thing is certain: fear-mongering will never be the answer. We need to do better at showing the public that the EU is a success.

That it adds clear value in the areas of trade, prosperity and transnational challenges. Challenges like migration, the energy transition and climate change. We need to keep working to demonstrate the EU’s value to our citizens.

Another thing our countries share is a grave concern about climate change. We are delighted that Katowice is hosting this year’s COP. There, too, we will have to work jointly, within a broad framework, to take the next big step forward. After all, the climate problem won’t simply take care of itself. In signing the Paris Agreement, we all accepted binding obligations to the world and to future generations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

To sum up, we are friends with a shared past, present and future. And true friends can speak frankly to each other.

In preparing for today, I asked my staff to look up the speech given last year, by my predecessor. And the speech from the year before that, given by his predecessor. I read them through and saw that, on one point, little has changed. And that is unfortunate. Precisely because we have so much in common in so many other areas.

I would like to express here today my concerns about certain developments in our Europe. This month, The Atlantic is devoting an entire issue to the theme of global democracy and asking the question, ‘Is Democracy Dying?’. Now, I don’t think it’s quite as serious as that, but the situation is worrisome. We, European governments, committed ourselves in our treaties to apply and stick to democratic principles. The functioning of a democratic state cannot be only based on the will of the majority. Democracy is also – and above all – about including and accommodating minorities and those who think differently.

In other words: the rule of law must not become rule by law.

With this in mind, I am disturbed by the increasing polarisation and divisions within Europe. All the member states have committed to the EU’s values. Those values are not there only for the good times. In tougher times, too, we have to preserve and protect them. Especially in tougher times. And friends must be able to talk about such things.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Poland and the Netherlands are two important European countries. We each have a rich history, a shared present and a common future. We agree on many things. And there’s also room for differences of opinion in a mature friendship and a diverse Union. Good things can arise when opinions collide. I truly hope that in the years ahead we will continue exchanging viewpoints. I hope we both feel that cooperation is not merely desirable but essential. That it produces tangible results and adds value. As far as I’m concerned, the Utrecht Conference is clear proof of that.

Thank you.