Dutch ambassador Cornelis Jan Bansema thinks Belgium the Netherlands and Luxembourg should take pride and nurture the Benelux union.
Photo: Matic Zorman
In an exclusive interview, the new head of mission at the Dutch embassy says the Benelux is a motor of ideas. He also talks about the EU budget, the migration pact and the attraction of Dutch universities.
When we meet less than two weeks after his presenting credentials to Grand Duke Henri, Dutch ambassador to Luxembourg Cornelis Jan Bansema has clearly settled into his new role. For one, after a five-year stint as his country’s chief diplomat in Finland, Bansema is glad to be in a country where he can immediately understand the media and what is being communicated by the government through his knowledge of German, French and English.
The 58-year-old, who studied Dutch law in Groningen and European law in Bruges, joined the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs in 1987 and has been posted all around the world during his career. Before his sojourn in Helsinki, Bansema enjoyed a stint as deputy chief of mission in Delhi and has also worked in Teheran, Bratislava and Bonn and Berlin--he was in Germany when the capital moved.
“The Benelux is the motor of ideas for the European Union”
But language is not the only reason Bansema is looking forward to his new role in the grand duchy. Our conversation reveals he is a keen champion of the Benelux. Indeed, the day before we meet, a joint declaration on a number of subjects had been made by the three government leaders, including new Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo attending his first Benelux summit in that role. “I think that proves that the Benelux is the motor of ideas for the European Union, in fact we outdate the European Union.” Bansema points out that the Benelux Union, founded in 1944 by the governments in exile in London, is the only such grouping actually named in the treaty of the EU. “There are lots of similar groupings, like the Nordic and the Visegrád Group…so we should be quite we should be proud of it. And we should nurture it very much.”
The ambassador has plenty of experience in the very practical ways in which formal ties between the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg work in the field. For instance, when there is no Luxembourg embassy, Belgians and Dutch diplomats will take on the role of representing the grand duchy’s point of view. “There is a very old agreement saying that the Netherlands takes care of the political work, and the Belgians of the economic.” Indeed, during his first year in Helsinki, when Luxembourg held the EU presidency, Bansema hosted heads of mission lunches with the Finnish president, prime minister and foreign minister. And the cooperation continues in his new post. “It’s a tradition that in the run up to European councils, my Belgian colleague [Thomas Lambert], who’s also just arrived, and I will go to the prime minister's office to discuss positions and compare notes. So, we're very close. It makes sense.”
Frugal position has been constant
The Dutch and the Luxembourgers do not always see eye-to-eye, and that came to the fore during the drawn-out negotiations over multiannual financial framework--the seven-year EU budget that was finally agreed upon in July. The Dutch were among the so-called “frugal four” along with Austria, Denmark, Sweden. “I think that in general we are always very cautious on how to spend our money, you can only spend your money once,” says Bansema now over the Dutch position. “I’ve done European work for the last 30 years, so that has been a constant position. Our partners know it. And I think well, the end result was a good compromise.”
Of course, the European Parliament still has to formally approve the budget and is in talks with the Commission. And the policy framework needs to be in place, which will include implementation of the Green Deal presented by Dutch vice-president of the Commission Frans Timmermans and money allocated to the Covid-19 pandemic recovery plan. “It was agreed to the European Council that there will be a sort of peer review. So, a country will present its plan and then other countries may respond and scrutinise them. I think that will consume most of the last months of the year and the first months of next year.”
More specifically on the Green Deal, the Netherlands is one of the countries pushing for the 55% CO2 reduction target by 2030, though that has been trumped by the European Parliament’s call to increase the target to 60%. “Of course, the European Parliament would not be the European Parliament if it didn’t want to be more ambitious,” says the ambassador.
“Green hydrogen could be a brilliant solution for the CO2 problem”
One big issue Bansema sees taking priority over the next few years will be to make hydrogen cheaper. “Green hydrogen could be a brilliant solution for the CO2 problem, but it’s still very expensive. So, I hope that the funds that Timmermans has will be used for research and development to lower production costs, because I’ve heard figures that for a big truck the cost [of hydrogen fuel] might be four times that of petrol. And that will not be enough incentive for big lorry companies to change to hydrogen alone.”
Also high on the agenda is the European Commission’s migration package. Bansema says that the Dutch position is not fully crystallised yet. “It was a huge package of nine legislative proposals,” he explains. However, he does agree that “all member states should take up responsibility. It is not an issue for country A or B, but we should find a European solution where everyone should contribute.”
Quality of innovation in education
Dutch universities have been attracting an increasing number of English-speaking students over the past ten years, even more so as the spectre of higher tuition fees in the UK for non-British students looms. “For sure it is has become very easy for foreigners to do a complete BA or MA in English. And the Netherlands is also a popular as a destination for Erasmus students.” Bansema hopes that Europe as a whole will continue to improve cooperation between education and industry. “I think the quality of innovation, both in universities and in industry and in joint projects, incubators, has become better.”
He says that EU members have to look at the global talent pool and that its universities should also be open for great minds from beyond Europe. He cites an example from his time in Finland when he spoke to the CEO of a top of the bill, gaming company. “He had 40 nationalities working for the company, and he said, well, probably the whole talent pool for me is not Finland, it’s not Europe, it is the world. And I think that's that applies also for the big tech companies.”