Croatia, poised between Europe and the Balkans

Dutch people mainly think of Croatia as a popular holiday destination. The country feels ­– and indeed is ­– more European than Balkan, says the Dutch ambassador Henk Voskamp.  

Image: ©Zagreb
Henk Voskamp, the Dutch Ambassador in Croatia.

What struck you about Croatia when you arrived in 2018?

‘That there are more similarities between the Netherlands and Croatia than you might think. The issues you read about in the papers, for instance, include healthcare funding, demographic ageing and the affordability of pensions. Challenges that the Netherlands also faces.

Yet the framing of such issues is different. Demographic shrinkage is seen as a big social problem here. In this country ­– much more than in the Netherlands, with its focus on individuality ­– emphasis is on families as the bedrock of social cohesion. Families are also the driving force behind the sizeable informal economy. A tradition harking back to when the country was part of Yugoslavia, and families had to work together to meet daily needs.

Croatia also has a truly Mediterranean culture, with pavement cafés, a culture of hospitality and a gastronomic tradition. I lived for a time in Italy, and see many parallels with the way of life here.’

Your previous postings included an ambassadorship in Kosovo, a Balkan country. Why did you want to work in Croatia?

‘In many respects, Kosovo is a truly Balkan country, whereas Croatia is poised between the European Union and the Western Balkans. The country looks to the West, towards Europe. I find its position at a cultural crossroads interesting, especially because of its history.

Croatia sees itself as a modern, Western European country, and yet the significance of geography and history can’t be denied. It’s apparent in all kinds of ways: Croatia is for example strongly in favour of Bosnia-Herzegovina joining the EU, because of the big Croatian minority in that country.

Croatia’s response to the war in Ukraine also shows the impact of its own recent history. In the early 1990s, it was partly occupied by Serbian paramilitary groups during the Yugoslav Wars. Croatian cities were blasted to bits. So there’s huge solidarity with Ukrainians and what they are now suffering at the hands of Russia.’

Croatia and the Netherlands are not natural partners within the EU, but there are opportunities for collaborating more closely in certain areas.

In what areas are the Netherlands and Croatia working together?

‘One of the embassy’s most important tasks is to maintain contacts with Croatian ministers and politicians, to get a sense of the issues at play in Croatian society and politics, as well as to identify potential for collaboration between our two countries. Croatia and the Netherlands are not natural partners within the EU, but there are opportunities for collaborating more closely in certain areas.

We seek to work together in the fields of climate and circular economy, for instance. Croatia has a long coastline and a sunny climate, but not many solar panels or wind turbines. Nevertheless, interest in sustainability and the circular economy is growing. And that means opportunities for Dutch businesses. Which is where our embassy comes in ­– we can help them make the right contacts here.

We also play a matchmaking role between municipalities. Split, for example, wants to become a technological hub, so we’re hooking it up with contacts in the municipality of Eindhoven.

Like the Netherlands, Croatia has a rich maritime history, also in shipbuilding. Its engineers work with Dutch firms to create designs. And ICT is another area of collaboration. There’s a shortage of ICT professionals in the Netherlands, whereas there are plenty in Croatia. So many Dutch businesses like to team up with Croatian ICT professionals.

An important part of our work as an Embassy is our assistance to Dutch travellers. Every year, a staggering half million Dutch tourists visit Croatia. Some only have a driving licence with them as ID. But until recently Croatia wasn’t a Schengen country, which meant you had to show your passport at the Croatian border. That has kept us busy in the past, especially in summer!

Lastly, our work includes small-scale cultural projects. We support and mediate between people and organisations active in the cultural arena, from the Concertgebouw Orchestra to individual artists. Two years ago there was a devastating earthquake here. A Croatian woman living in Almere set up an exhibition in the town of her birth, in the stricken region, featuring photos by Dutch artists. And artists from Amsterdam painted murals there – similar to graffiti art, a phenomenon that’s almost unknown in Croatia. We’re happy to support such initiatives by providing a small grant.’

'When I will leave I will miss the hospitality, in people’s homes, but also in shops and restaurants. I feel welcome everywhere I go.’

What’s it like being an ambassador in Croatia?

‘I’m really enjoying it! Dutch people have a positive image of Croatia. It’s perceived as a developed country that functions well. Croatia is a partner to the Netherlands in both the EU and NATO. There are differences of nuance in our various stances, but no real major diplomatic issues.

Most of all, I enjoy my public diplomacy duties. I’m regularly invited to give guest lectures about the Netherlands and the EU at universities and institutions of higher professional education. I’m shortly due to give a lecture to Dutch students about the Netherlands’ colonial past in Indonesia and the way it continues to affect our society.’

You’ll be leaving Croatia in the summer of 2023. What will you miss?

‘The delicious white wines and excellent olive oil produced in Istria. The beautiful landscape, like the mountains and the coast, from Istria in the north to Dalmatia in the south. And lovely old cities, like Split, Dubrovnik , Zadar and Sibenik. But above all the hospitality, in people’s homes, but also in shops and restaurants. I feel welcome everywhere I go.’