The ambassador - Czech Republic
See the curriculum vitae of ambassador Huisinga on rijksoverheid.nl (in Dutch)
Meet the ambassador
‘Though relations between the Netherlands and the Czech Republic are close, there’s a lot of unused potential,’ says Daan Huisinga, the Dutch ambassador in Prague. ‘The two countries can really bolster each other – in areas like smart industry, the circular economy and the energy transition.’
What’s it like to be the ambassador to the Czech Republic?
‘It’s a great privilege. I didn’t think I’d get the job, because the Czech Republic is high on many of my colleagues’ list of preferences. That’s because the country is at the geographical heart of Europe, and – partly due to that – has an extremely turbulent history. And it’s still catching up, politically and economically. This means that the Czech Republic has great potential as a partner for the Netherlands. What’s more, it’s a pleasant, well-organised country to live in, with great natural beauty, a rich cultural heritage and magnificent Prague as its cultural centre.’
Why did you want to become the ambassador to the Czech Republic?
‘In the years before the Czech Republic acceded to the European Union – in 2004 – I was a member of the Dutch delegation overseeing the bloc’s enlargement. I saw from close quarters how this country managed to meet all the requirements for accession, including introducing highly complex EU legislation. That was nothing less than a small miracle, achieved thanks to a smoothly functioning civil service. Now, twenty years later, I wanted to renew my commitment to promoting our relations with the Czech Republic, and witness first hand how successful this EU enlargement has been.’
Describe the bilateral relations between the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
‘Relations between our two countries are close and fairly intensive. But there’s also a lot of unused potential. We’re still strangers in many ways. Few Dutch people realise that Prague lies west – not east – of Vienna. Prague is only 710 kilometres from Amsterdam, as the crow flies. But our two countries focus mainly on the bigger country that lies between us: Germany. Nonetheless, Dutch politicians and the Dutch government could seek closer ties to identify and exploit shared opportunities. For instance, there hasn’t been a single state visit to the Czech Republic since the country was established 30 years ago, although Queen Beatrix did pay a short official visit to Prague in 1994. And the last time a Czech president visited the Netherlands was in 2008. At the same time, Dutch businesses have found their way to the Czech Republic. As an export market, it is second only to Poland among the 10 countries that became member states of the European Union in 2004.’
'And many young Czechs study in the Netherlands. We now welcome a large group of alumni to our annual reception, and their number is still growing. And the agreement our network operator Gasunie and its Czech counterpart CEZ reached shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on supplying liquified natural gas (LNG) through our terminal in Eemshaven has also boosted our relations. In one go, Czech dependence on Russian gas was reduced by more than a third.’
What are the similarities between our two countries?
‘We share the same sense of humour – understated social satire and jokes that poke fun at petty-mindedness. Like many Dutch people, Czechs love hiking and cycling. And they share our passion for ice-skating. Like the Dutch, the Czechs don’t like too much outward show; they understand our very Dutch aversion to people who think too highly of themselves. In the 17th century, the whole country had to convert to Catholicism, but they never abandoned the Protestant tradition of frugality and modesty. We also share the same views on political and economic issues. We are both pro-Atlantic, with a focus on the United States, and advocates of free trade and open markets. And we are focused on an efficient government that uses its financial resources prudently.’
And what are the differences?
‘The Czech Republic has experienced a totally different history to the Netherlands. The country and its people have been almost permanently occupied by or subjected to a foreign power: four hundred years under the Habsburgs, seven years as part of the German Third Reich and forty years as a satellite state of Moscow. National socialism and communism in particular have left deep and traumatic scars. The country is therefore mistrustful of outside influence. The Czech Republic would prefer to occupy a neutral position, like Switzerland. That’s really very different to the Netherlands, where European integration, for example, has never been much of an issue. The trauma caused by decades of Soviet occupation is difficult for us to understand. But we need to be aware of this if we are to maintain close relations with the Czech Republic. I would say that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, western European countries have started to understand the countries of central and eastern Europe better. We can now see that Czechs are quite right to be concerned when it comes to Russia.’
Are both countries working together to support Ukraine?
‘Absolutely. Together with the United States, the Netherlands procured 90 Soviet tanks through the Czech Republic. These tanks have been modernised by a Czech company, and have now been delivered to Ukraine. Similarly, we procured 100 anti-aircraft guns, which have now also been delivered to Ukraine. Since the Russian invasion, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have been working closely together on security and on sanctions policy. The Czech Republic seconded 15 experts to the 60-member forensic and investigation team that left the Netherlands for Ukraine at the end of April. The team is working under the auspices of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate war crimes.’
In what other areas are we working together?
‘As like-minded countries we work together on issues such as human rights, security policy and trade – within the European Union, and also in other organisations like NATO, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the UN. We try to do some of the groundwork here in Prague, and the embassy can also play a role in ongoing harmonisation. There are also thematic partnerships that form the basis for local initiatives. The Media Freedom Coalition is a good example. With 51 member countries, including the Czech Republic, the Coalition is committed to press freedom, democracy and human rights worldwide.’
‘We also work bilaterally on a number of specific topics. The circular economy is a prominent example. The Czech circularity expertise centre is based on the Dutch Circular Hotspot and Czech alumni of Wageningen University played a role in setting it up. We have also set a joint Smart Industry Agenda with the Czech Republic. As part of this, the province of Brabant and the Czech region of South Moravia are working on a joint ecosystem for the digitalisation of industry. And, last but not least, we’re working together to bring about the energy transition. For example, we’re exploring scope for the Czech Republic to move towards importing hydrogen through Eemshaven, and to develop the necessary infrastructure in this regard.’
Do the Czech Republic and the Netherlands share cultural ties?
‘Yes, apart from the hundreds of thousands of Dutch people that visit Prague and other parts of the Czech Republic each year, the Czechs in particular show a keen interest in our culture. For example, there are three universities that offer Dutch Studies among their programmes. Many works of Dutch literature have now been translated into Czech as a result. Dutch architecture is also highly regarded in the Czech Republic. Architect Winy Maas is a visiting professor here in Prague and BenthemCrouwel are building the new central station and part of the surrounding district in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city.’
‘Of course, we have the Comenius Museum in the Netherlands, devoted to the life and work of the Czech philosopher, theologist and educationalist, Amos Comenius (1592-1670). And after the Prague Spring in 1968, many Czech nationals sought refuge in the Netherlands – some of whom, like columnist and TV presenter Martin Šimek and dancer Jiří Kylián became household names - so that the Netherlands became more aware of Czech culture and history. Some Czech animated series like Pat & Mat and Mole are also very popular in the Netherlands.’
What are your favourite places in the Czech Republic?
‘I have so many favourite places. There are very few places that aren’t worthwhile. The best thing about this country is the space. If you like hiking or cycling, there are many wonderful trails you can follow in the forests and mountains. The infrastructure for outdoor activities is fantastic. And there are towns and villages dripping with history. I’ve still got lots to discover. That’s why I try to spend as many holidays as possible with my family here in the Czech Republic.’
What has struck you most about the Czech Republic in the past two years?
‘The Czechs’ determination to never again experience communism or dictatorship. That is deeply felt, particularly so during the annual commemoration of the Velvet Revolution of November 1989 and, recently, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the weeks immediately after the invasion Prague was steaming with indignation, not in the last place because of the parallels with what happened to Czechoslovakia in 1938 and again in 1968.’
Image: ©Pavel Matela
Monument Max van der Stoel Park
'What also strikes me is the gratitude still felt for the role played by Dutch foreign minister Max van der Stoel in exposing the communist dictatorship. In 1977, in the margins of an official visit, he met with Jan Patočka, spokesman of Charter 77, the movement launched by dissidents like Václav Havel. In doing so, he legitimised the movement, and gave them the opportunity to get their message across to a wider public. Other foreign delegations also started visiting dissidents. But the dissidents paid a price. After his meeting with Max van der Stoel, Jan Patočka was interrogated by the police despite his failing health. He died ten days later. After the Velvet Revolution, a park was named after Van der Stoel as a token of gratitude to him, and a memorial was added in 2017. Both the park and the memorial are located on Patočka street. Thanks to this diplomatic master move, the two men are linked to each other forever. Figuratively, and in a more literal sense too..’