Holland and Austria – Same but different

In an interview, H.E. Albert Gierveld, Ambassador of the Netherlands spoke about climate change, the agricultural sector of his country, the ties with Austria and the challenges the Covid-19 virus is creating.

You are accredited here in Austria since September 2019, not only on the bilateral but also on the multilateral level. What are your challenges of serving in both positions? 

After the Corona crisis hit, we had to improvise a lot. We went to home office mode and luckily, we had the infrastructure in place to do so. As head of mission, it was very important to me to maintain good communication with my staff. At the same time had to inform our capital about what was going on in Austria. For Dutch citizens who were still stuck in Austria, we had to increase our consular work to help them leave the country. We had several large groups, sometimes more than 140 people, who wanted to go back to the Netherlands.

On the multilateral front, it was more difficult because the Vienna International Centre was closed. But of course, we stayed in touch with the UN-organizations in Vienna. We wanted to hear what they were doing in response to Corona. The Netherlands positively replied to the request of DG Rafael Grossi of the IAEA and made additional money available to order Corona test kits for the member countries that needed them. We are in touch with all UN-organisations and we try to find out how they are handling the situation. As permanent mission it is difficult to do our work, but for the IAEA it is even more challenging to fulfil their tasks, for example sending inspectors.

You have been Deputy Director General Agriculture and Director European, International and Agro-Economic policy of the Netherlands. How important is the agricultural sector for the Netherlands?

Agriculture is very important for the Netherlands, even though we don’t have many farmers anymore. Only about 60.000 of them are left, but they are very productive. We have an important food producing industry. Holland is not only successful in flowers, bulbs and trees, but also in dairy and animal husbandry. The Netherlands is home for important seed producers. From a small pocket of seeds, you can grow a lot of food. One kilo of tomato seed is more valuable than one kilo of gold! Dutch farmers and producers excel at optimizing production processes. Horticulture in greenhouses has completely closed production cycles. Remaining substances are rechannelled via feedback loops. If you have tomato production in an open field you will need about fifty litres of water for a kilo of tomatoes. In a Dutch greenhouse, you would only need four litres for a kilo. Our agriculture is very innovative, also due to research at Wageningen University. This applies to plants and seeds, but also to animal husbandry or aquaculture. The USA is by far the biggest exporter of agricultural produce in the world, but the Netherlands comes second in that ranking. This fits in with the long maritime and trading traditions of the country. We are very open for agricultural imports from all other countries. A lot of fruit commerce, for example, is going through Holland and its ports.

Climate change is one of the most discussed topic these days. A court in the Netherlands ruled that the government has to intensify its efforts to fight against this change. Which measures do you think could be taken in this regard?

We take climate change very seriously. Perhaps also because we have a special interest in stopping climate change as the Netherlands is next to the sea. We need dykes and dunes to protect our shores. We will manage that water, but it is a huge concern. Water levels are rising already due to climate change. We don’t see droughts like in Spain or Algeria, but we notice climate change in different ways like more scattered weather patterns. The Netherlands is taking measures to reduce CO2-emissions, like closing coal fired energy plants and working with our industries to innovate. We put a lot of emphasis, like Austria, on hydrogen as a means for our steel works. VOEST Alpine does the same. Insulation for buildings and more efficient heating systems are also set in place. The introduction of electric cars is encouraged by fiscal measures, making these cars more attractive than old fashioned diesel engines. All these measures contribute to the goals that we have agreed upon at the Paris climate agreement. They are quite similar to what the Austrian government is doing in this field. We also need the right accompanying European policies and regulations. The Dutch EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans has proposed a Green Deal for Europe. Over the next years new European measures have to be taken. That framework will help national governments, also in Vienna and The Hague, to comply to what we have committed to. Austria, the Netherlands and a number of other EU Member States are frontrunners in that area. The Corona-crisis should not derail our efforts in the field of climate change. This is a strategic change for our economy and society as a whole.

The ties between Austria and the Netherlands are historically strong, in which areas can both countries learn and profit from each other?

You can look at it from various angles. We have excellent bilateral ties with each other. When I was in Salzburg, people in the tourist business said that the Dutch are among the most beloved guests. The Dutch visitors are looking for quality and are willing to pay for it. They value the qualities of Austria highly. By the way, after the corona crisis, I would love to see more visitors from Austria in the Netherlands. There is a lot to see in Holland. We have a beautiful shore with broad beaches and you can spend an amazing summer holiday there. There are also many cultural sights. I recommend you go and see the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam or the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. Or you could enjoy the Koninklijk Concertgebouw Orkest playing Mahler or Brahms.

When it comes to foreign visitors in Austria, the Dutch are, after the Germans, the second largest group of foreigners coming to this country. We love skiing in the winter sport areas in Tyrol, Salzburgerland or Vorarlberg, or visit the lake areas of Carinthia in the summer. Under normal circumstances, there are direct flights from the Netherlands to various Austrian airports.

Within a European context, the Netherlands and Austria are working closely together on many files. The countries have similar views about the future of the Euro and about restructuring our economies. We are both exporting countries, so we are for open economies.  Likewise, we often have similar views on enhanced environmental requirements for goods. So, in Brussels we often defend very similar positions.

Last but not least the Netherlands and Austria are important trading partners. We have a broad range of products that are being imported/exported to one another. Grüner Veltliner is a big success in Holland! In terms of goods, we sell more to you than you sell to us. In terms of services, especially in tourism, we consume more here than the other way around. Our balance of payments is more or less equal and the volume of trade and services has also grown over the last years.

It is an honour and pleasure for me to work as representative of the Netherlands to Austria, we have been welcomed warmly and my wife and I really enjoy it here. The Dutch residence – the former house of Richard Strauss – is a beautiful building and we love to receive Austrian and international guests for working lunches or social occasions.

Photo: SOCIETY/Pobaschnig