January 18, 2018
Sunday, April 27, 2014

The first year of a new “Maximized” monarchy

Dutch Ambassador Hein de Vries discussing the first year of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Màxima in the official portrait behind him.
By Michael Soltys / Senior Editor
Dutch envoy also sizes up bilateral relations in royal birthday interview

It is not only the date of the Dutch royal birthday which has changed (for the first time in several decades it has moved from April 30 to today, the actual birth date of King Willem-Alexander) — the new monarch and his Argentine-born Queen Máxima are the unifying figures for a far more complex country, says Dutch Ambassador Hein de Vries.

While Willem-Alexander is the first king since 1890 (Holland had only queens throughout the 20th century), Máxima has already been formally named to be regent should the need arise — no mean achievement for a foreign-born consort in an increasingly nationalistic country, De Vries stresses, but she is the most popular member of the royal family.

So how has the royal couple’s first year been since they were crowned last April 30, the Herald asks? The royal-watchers all seem happy, replies De Vries.

At home they have performed numerous symbolic but important functions in their role as “guarantors” of the unity of a highly multicultural country, one nation with many people — opening cultural festivals and exhibitions, heading charities for the handicapped, etc.

Their travels abroad feature a trade mission to Germany but have not dodged some of the world’s trouble-spots. In February they went to the Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, (where the Netherlands swept 24 medals, including 23 of the 27 skating medals), attending many events and celebrating the Dutch commitment even if the royal family lost a member to winter sports in the past year, Prince Friso who died last August 18 months after a skiing accident. There they met with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Previously (and before the disturbances there started last February), they included Venezuela in a tour of the Dutch West Indies on the grounds that if Venezuela is a neighbour of Curacao, it is a neighbour of the Netherlands.

Black Sea issues were also an unsought intruder into March’s nuclear security summit in The Hague — a G7 meeting could be assembled among the 50 heads of state present to tackle the Crimean emergency (including United States President Barack Obama). This summit was the biggest event ever held in The Hague, said De Vries, but the subject was important enough to justify it — nuclear security is not only about military threats.

Finally on the royal front, De Vries pointed out that the traditional institution of monarchy is less so in the Netherlands — while the House of Orange dates back to the 16th century, the Kingdom of the Netherlands is less than two-centuries-old because the country was born as the Dutch Republic out of its independence wars.

The Herald then asked about the upcoming European elections. These are clearly important, the envoy replied. The economic problems since 2008, especially unemployment, have led to a loss of confidence in mainstream politics, creating a fertile breeding-ground for populism — any politician against Europe and immigration thus has a strong platform quite effortlessly. But while there is an intense media focus on the rightwing populist Geert Wilders, it should not be assumed that everything is going his way despite his success in the February municipal elections, says De Vries. Firstly, Wilders has performed unevenly in opinion polls since a “less European ... and less Moroccans” speech — this suggests that even the Dutch anti-immigrant right disapproves of racism. And secondly, a progressive, strongly pro-European party (D66) also performed well in February, winning in most big cities such as Amsterdam, The Hague and Utrecht.

Meanwhile none of these parties actually governs the Netherlands but a “lib-lab” coalition (the liberal VVD and the social democrat PvdA) under Mark Rutte which, lacking an overall majority, teams up with other parties according to the issues. Rutte has done in his homework in balancing the budget and keeping unemployment at bay. In order to come out of recession, the Netherlands stakes its future on being an open economy and a trading nation, still enjoying the presence of its big multinationals all around the world. Basically, Holland has to keep trading to survive, just as in the 17th century.

Before turning to the envoy’s core job of bilateral relations, one question of huge importance still remained — Group B in the Brazil World Cup. De Vries does not consider his country’s group at all easy — Spain are the defending champions, fast-improving Chile is dangerous and the Australians are physically tough. Moreover, he fears that the current Dutch side is not as strong as the 2010 World Cup finalists while the loss of Roma’s Kevin Strootman to injury leaves a hole in the defence.

De Vries is proud of his Embassy’s work over the last year. This is not just about the relations between the two countries — thus there is natural empathy between Buenos Aires and Amsterdam as two free-spirited cultural centres (City Culture Minister Hernán Lombardi is a touchstone for Holland here) with plenty happening between the two cities — and not just about trade since cultural co-operation (which ultimately leads to cultural exchange) is also dynamic.

Political relations are good, especially in areas like drugs, gender violence, reproductive health and multilateral issues in general where the Netherlands appreciates Argentina’s current seat on the United Nations Security Council. Next week there will be a round of political consultations also including Uruguay.

Trade is looking up with the first commercial mission in six years due to arrive this November in a regional swing also including Chile and Paraguay. Representing some 20 companies, its main interests will be agribusiness and energy (where Argentina has abundant present and future resources respectively), water management (a favourite area of the new monarch) and logistics.

Investment worries De Vries more than trade. While Argentina has been more pragmatic in recent months, there is a need for clear rules over a very long time frame if the country is to emerge from isolation — foreign investors are still waiting for the ban on the repatriation of dividends to be lifted although while they are waiting, they are re-investing here. Thus the country has a great energy future but needs to create trust over a 20-25-year period to draw the necessary investment. Here De Vries stresses the traditional Dutch motto: “A man is his word.”

Apart from the first year of Willem-Alexander and Máxima, 2014 also marks a couple of important milestones — the centenary of Shell and the 95th anniversary of the Argentine-Dutch Chamber of Commerce. For this year’s festivities there were two related themes: health and sports. Health running from the Dutch invention of the microscope late in the 16th century to eighth in producing medical patents and sports in relation to global tournaments both past and future — Sochi, the World Cup for both men’s and women’s hockey to be hosted in Holland late next month and, of course, Brazil’s soccer jamboree.

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