Saying that the Netherlands punches above its weight would be a cliche, but it would also be an understatement. Through history, the Dutch with approximately one sixth the landmass of Romania yet a similar population, have travelled the world mostly trading and mostly profiting handsomely in the process. The Netherlands today is one of the most civilised, prosperous and progressive nations on earth. OZB Magazine visited Her Excellency Stella Ronner-Grubačić, the Netherlands’ Ambassador to Romania and the Republic of Moldova, at her lovely residence in an attempt to glean some insight into why her country is so successful, what are the things it can bring to Romania and to find out what this elegant and dynamic lady feels about her host country, Romania.
By Douglas Williams
We start by exploring what she sees as some of the key elements behind the Netherlands’ successes. Just why are the Dutch so darned successful? “Well, if you want, we can go back to the 16th century”,” she says. “When we started reclaiming land from the sea. Maybe that shaped our mentality; up to today, about a third of the country is below sea-level, so our country has been formed by steady, systematic work. We have a very pragmatic approach to problems; we go about things according to plan, in an organized way. The second reason is closely related to all this: it’s the so-called ‘Polder model’. This is basically a consensus based decision making that is very important to us. You see it in all segments of Dutch society, but particularly in economic and social fields. We need to have consensus before we move forward, always. In our view, this is important to make sure that all stakeholders are on board, that everybody feels committed to what has been decided. Finally, and this is also connected to the previous factor, we often prefer to work with long term goals, long term ideas. When big changes are considered in society, for instance in education or health care, there is always a concern for sustainability – as well as future generations.”
Contrary to expectations, the ambassador experienced a relatively smooth transition when she arrived in Romania. She believes it has to do with the fact that she had already spent a large part of her diplomatic career in this part of Europe. She arrived from the Foreign Ministry in The Hague, where she was Director of Communication, but had previously worked in both Serbia and Croatia. “The only surprise”, she says, “was the scale of the Dutch operations across this country.” But it was a pleasant one. She points out that several icons of the Dutch private sector are represented in Romania, giants such as Philips, Heineken, ING, FrieslandCampina, as well as many others, representing various Dutch industrial sectors, but also transport and logistics, the maritime sector or IT. This is a factor which keeps the Ambassador busy, just the way she likes things. Other things she likes? “I like very much the relatively laid-back lifestyle here, there is a Latin influence that is noticeable and I feel comfortable with that. And, let’s not forget: I do love the climate of course, harsh winters and long hot summers.”
What can Romania learn from the Netherlands? “I never like much to speak in these terms, but, as I said, in the Netherlands we make plans very carefully and we generally stick to them, but the other side of that coin is what we can learn from Romania, namely: Romanians are great at improvising, and we could certainly be better at that.”
With former territories stretching from the Caribbean and South American, through parts of Africa and right across to East Asia, the Dutch are, historically, one of the world’s great seafaring people and the sea and all things marine are close to the Dutch Ambassador’s heart. “The Black Sea has a very special attraction to me, it’s deep, more than 2 kilometres in some places, and in some places it is mysteriously ‘anoxic’, practically dead, but this great depth also explains the fantastic power of the waves at times.” The ambassador is equally a fan of the Danube Delta and is constantly thrilled to be living in a nation blessed with such an abundance of flora and fauna. Her Easter holiday will be spent, in part, bear watching.
As the Netherlands is one of the founding members of the EU, it’s no surprise to find that the Dutch Ambassador is a fan. She ‘grew up with the EU’, studied it closely and wrote about it as a student through the 80s. “At the conclusion of my diplomatic schooling, the Berlin wall came down, the USSR collapsed and a whole lot of big, international developments happened. My first posting was to Belgrade in 1993, one of the darkest years of the Yugoslav war. It taught me that we should not take anything for granted, not our well-being, our luxury, but also not peace, and perhaps that is something that is felt here in this part of Europe more acutely than where I come from. My whole diplomatic career, 25 years, has been in Europe, both within the EU and on its periphery. It has made me aware that there’s still so much to do. In addition, in my view, Brexit has been a wake up call to the rest of the EU member states and I believe it has galvanised the EU. We need to make repairs and renovations every once in a while, the EU is like a house, it needs to be made ready for the future. We must ensure Brexit is as smooth as possible while making sure the remaining countries are ready for the next phase.
“Let’s be very clear on one thing though, from the Dutch perspective, Brexit is a bad thing. It’s bad for the UK, it’s bad for the Netherlands and it’s bad for the EU. We Dutch risk suffering twice in financial terms – the UK is one of our most important trading partners so we have a lot to lose and also, a chunk of the EU budget is disappearing. So, in our view, the EU needs to be realigned to a smaller budget. This also means, we need to modernise the budget by setting different priorities, such as migration or innovation. We also need to improve our internal market when it comes to digital services. In addition, we see a need for improved cooperation in areas like the banking and the monetary union. In short, the EU must be able to deal with future challenges that are likely to arise.”
From the efficiency of its agriculture, with the Netherlands being the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural goods, to the famous preponderance of bicycles in Amsterdam, Holland is a beacon of low carbon, eco living. “In the Netherlands we are ‘greening’ our cities and this is a topic on which we are actively engaging with our Romanian counterparts. We share our experiences to transfer technologies to help make Romanian cities more live-able. Studies show that 10% more green in a city encourages children to play outside 15% more. We can combine our knowledge about growing certain species of trees and plants, and our understanding of urban planning to help Romania. Very recently 10 Romanian mayors visited various Dutch cities, looking at ‘Smart Cities’. They were asked to pick up one element that they can apply to their cities and that is ongoing. I am looking forward to the follow-up to this! I have also had constructive meetings with Bucharest Mayor Gabriela Firea to discuss how this city can be made more cycle friendly.” It’s worth noting that the Dutch and Romanian capitals share something in common – both cities are pancake flat and great for cycling.
Having reached the pinnacle of the diplomatic world, Her Excellency has become something of a spokesperson for gender equality and this isn’t a role she intends to shy away from any time soon. “The system is still very difficult, very imbalanced,” she says. “Research has shown that we are still 170 years away from full parity, which is ridiculous when you consider this is 2018. Even in the Dutch foreign service not even 30% of the ambassadorial or higher positions in the Ministry are occupied by women. In my view, one of the key factors is that women, by necessity, don’t have linear careers – they produce and often rear the future generations – and this needs to be understood, accepted and built into recruitment practices. A woman’s career has to be more erratic than a man’s, and until men are going to understand and accept this – and understand that this does not mean a woman is less ambitious – we still have a long way to go.”
For those visiting the Netherlands what is the one thing you would recommend?
Amsterdam of course!
Seriously! On a lovely spring day like this, you take an early morning flight to Amsterdam with KLM that takes you in to Schiphol airport around 09.00. You head to the Rijksmuseum immediately which means you get to be among the early visitors, which is good!
After the museum, you take a coffee in one of the cafes in this part of Amsterdam, the chique and elegant residential part of town, Amsterdam-Zuid. When you finish coffee, it is time for shopping! The designer shops on the PC Hooftstraat are not to be missed. Loaded with shopping bags, it is time for lunch at the Seafood bar. Enjoy fresh Dutch shrimps or a raw herring or a seafood platter if you are really up to it! After that, it is time to look at Amsterdam from the waterfront, so take a canal cruise or hop on the Canal bus. If you opt for the latter, you may want to hop off at the Anne Frank house, to get a real glimpse of what life must have been like for a Jewish girl in hiding during WWII. After all these adventures, it is time for a drink, accompanied with “bitterballen” on any one of the terraces alongside Amsterdam’s canals. Just let the afternoon go by, watching the Dutch doing the same. If you are still capable and in the mood, have a bike-ride before dinner, cycle through Vondelpark and admire the locals strolling, relaxing, or doing sports in the park. If you have managed to do all of this, you will have certainly earned yourself a lovely dinner and a nice evening out: go for it in any one of the thousands of restaurants and clubs that make up Amsterdam’s dazzling nightlife!