Blog post | 13-01-2023 | BZ people all over the world
The Dutch mainly know Croatia as a popular holiday destination. The country, which introduced the euro on 1 January and became a Schengen country, is and feels more European than a Balkan country, says Dutch ambassador Henk Voskamp.
What did you notice about Croatia when you arrived in 2018?
‘That there are more similarities between the Netherlands and Croatia than you might expect. In the newspapers, for example, it was about the financing of the health care system, ageing, the affordability of pensions. Challenges that also play a role in the Netherlands.’
“At the same time, the interpretation of such problems is different. Demographic decline is seen here as a major social problem. The emphasis here, much more than in the more individualized Netherlands, is on the family as the bearer of social cohesion. The family is also the basis of a large informal economy, which people in the days of the old Yugoslavia partly relied on for their daily necessities.’
“Croatia really has a Mediterranean culture, with terraces, a hospitable culture and gastronomy. I also lived in Italy and the similarities to life here are great. In the northern region of Istria, children can choose Italian as a second language at school. In several cities, such as Dubrovnik, there are clear traces of an Italian presence.’
Previously, you were ambassador to Kosovo, a country in the Balkans. Why did you want to go to Croatia?
“Kosovo is in many ways a real Balkan country. Croatia is located at the intersection of the European Union and the Western Balkans. The gaze is directed towards the West, towards Europe. I find that interface interesting, especially given the historical experience of this country.’
“Croatia sees itself as a modern Western European country, and at the same time, the importance of its geography and history cannot be denied. This can be seen in all sorts of ways: Croatia, for example, is strongly in favor of Bosnia-Herzegovina being admitted to the EU, because of the large Croatian minority in that country.’
“Even when it comes to the war in Ukraine, Croatia’s reactions reflect the country’s own recent past. In the early 1990s, Croatia was partially occupied by Serbian paramilitary groups during the Yugoslav Civil War. Croatian cities were shot to pieces. The solidarity with the Ukrainians and with what is now being done to them by Russia is great.’
“Croatia has a long coastline and a sunny climate, but solar panels are few and far between, as are wind turbines. Interest in sustainability and circular economy is increasing. There are opportunities for Dutch companies there.’
What subjects do the Netherlands and Croatia cooperate on?
‘It is an important task for the embassy to maintain contacts with Croatian ministries and politicians, to understand what is going on in Croatian society and politics and to find starting points for cooperation between our countries. Croatia and the Netherlands are not natural partners within the EU, but there are opportunities to work more closely together on certain issues.’
‘We are, for example, looking for cooperation within the climate and circular economy. Croatia has a long coastline and a sunny climate, but solar panels are still few and far between, as are wind turbines. However, interest in sustainability and circular economy is increasing. So there are opportunities for Dutch companies there. Our embassy is then the party that helps entrepreneurs make the right contacts here.’
‘We also do this between municipalities, for example: Split would like to develop into a kind of ‘brainport’, so that we establish the right contacts with the municipality of Eindhoven. Croatia is part of our constituency in the World Bank and the IMF. In this regard, our Ministry of Finance has had good cooperation with its Croatian counterpart for many years. Croatia will adopt the euro on 1 January. ‘
“Like the Netherlands, Croatia has a long maritime tradition, also in shipbuilding. Their engineers work with Dutch companies to create designs. Another ‘niche’ is IT. Because there are many IT people here, which are few in the Netherlands, many Dutch companies like to work with Croatian IT experts.’
And the help for Dutch travelers?
“It is an important topic for us as an embassy. Around half a million Dutch tourists come here every year. Some only have a driver’s license, but until recently Croatia was not a so-called Schengen country, so you just had to be able to show identification here at the border with Slovenia or elsewhere. We are especially busy with that in the summer.’
‘Finally, there are also small-scale cultural projects. We support and mediate everything from the Concertgebouw Orchestra to individual artists. Two years ago there was an earthquake here with a lot of damage. A Croatian woman in Almere has organized a photo exhibition of Dutch artists in her hometown in the affected region. And Amsterdam artists made murals there, a kind of graffiti, an almost unknown phenomenon in Croatia. With a small contribution from our side, we are happy to support these kinds of initiatives.’
What is it like to be an ambassador in Croatia?
‘I really like this. The Dutch have a positive image in Croatia. We are considered a developed country that has its affairs in order. Croatia is our country’s partner in both the EU and NATO, although there are subtle differences in views. There are no real diplomatic issues.’
Above all, I enjoy my public diplomatic duties. I regularly give guest lectures about the Netherlands and the EU at universities and colleges by invitation. Soon I will be giving a lesson to Dutch studies students about the Netherlands’ colonial past in Indonesia and about the way our colonial past still affects our society.’
You are leaving Croatia in the summer of 2023. What will you miss?
‘The delicious white wine and the excellent olive oil from Istria. The beautiful nature, such as the mountains and the coast from Istria in the north to Dalmatia in the south. And beautiful old cities, such as Split, Dubrovnik, Zadar or Sibenik. But especially the hospitality here, in people’s homes, but also in shops or restaurants. I feel welcome here everywhere.’