Clearly interviews: Dutch Ambassador, Simon Smits

Paul MacKenzie-Cummins and Kara Buffrey from Clearly PR & Marketing Communications recently interviewed the Dutch Ambassador to the UK. Ambassador Smits was about to address the annual Cardiff Business Club ambassadorial luncheon and we were granted a unique opportunuty to speak with him beforehand to get his thoughts on the spate of recent elections in Europe and of course, Brexit.

Here’s what he had to say.

Much of the talk about Brexit has been focused on London and notably the financial services sector. But what impact do you think it will have on the rest of Europe and the UK’s relationship with its soon-to-be-former EU partners?

To be frank, my government thinks it is a lose-lose situation, with a wider impact than just major cities and financial services. This is about damage control. Things are going to change. We don’t know in which direction, or even when. There is still a lot of uncertainty about it and while we regret the decision, we must also respect it at the same time.

It was a democratic decision and as my Prime Minister said, “I hate it from every angle but I can’t argue with democracy.” So, if this is the will of the people, then so be it. The Netherlands regrets seeing one of the big partners leave this ‘club’.

The EU27 would like to have a partnership with the UK that is as close as possible – not only on trade and economic cooperation, but also on justice, home affairs, foreign, security and defence policy.

Do you think that the UK will need to work a harder to convince the EU that it still wants to trade with the remaining member states after it has left?

I think that everyone needs to work harder. We have to make the new relationship – whatever it will look like – work. There is a lot of talk about ‘free’ and ‘frictionless’ trade. But frictionless trade can also mean motionless trade – if nothing is happening, moving, then you have no friction and you have no trade either; cooperation pays and creates added value for all.

There are those who say the likes of The Netherlands are set to benefit from Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, with the likes of the Medicines Agency being relocated to Amsterdam along with 800 qualified officials. But my response is sorry – this is a thin silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud. Brexit is going to change the way we all do business.

The UK is a key contributor to the economy of the EU, and some commentators suggest that the post-Brexit era will mean it has a weaker hand – both politically and commercially. What are your thoughts?

It is hard to speculate, so I won’t. The EU provides by far the best and most efficient platform there is for international trade, for promoting a rules-based economy, for adhering to international law.

The EU is not just an economic or political contributor – it is a whole set of intricate rules not just for a single market or customs union, but also for the creation of joint and shared values. This makes us stronger as a collective and as individual member states.

For instance, after Brexit there was a poll in The Netherlands. People were saying that that a Nexit will follow soon. No such thing happened. If anything, general public opinion suggested that we may not like everything about the EU, but if nothing like it existed today we would have to invent something like it tomorrow. Where you sit is where you stand.

This year so far, we have seen elections in Germany, Italy and Russia with a further half dozen or so still to come. You recently said: “Everywhere in Europe you see critical voices being raised and these voices should be taken extremely seriously.” What do you mean by this?

We see the rise of parties across Europe that are very critical of the EU without necessarily providing an alternative. Of course, any criticism or challenge to the importance of the EU should be taken seriously.

There is the task to explain and really show the benefits of the EU, its history and the significance it has had and continues to have on people’s daily lives. If you don’t know your history, you have very little sense of where you are going and that is a risk.

The Welsh economy has continued to grow and attract inward investment from overseas – Dutch company Backbase being one such example. How can Wales encourage greater trade and investment once the UK leaves the EU?   

I sincerely hope so. Without exception, all the Dutch businesses that I speak with are very positive about Wales, the facilities, the support they receive from the Welsh Government. As Ambassador, I have the privilege of seeing the close entrepreneurial ties between our two countries.

In the case of Backbase, the rise of tech clusters and the availability of talent in Wales have been important factors for the selection of Cardiff as the location for its research and development function. Generally, I would say that the plans set out by the Welsh Government in the Cardiff economic plan to boost digital and physical infrastructure are promising.

There is still uncertainty over Brexit and this is never good for investment or business, so hopefully there will be an agreement soon on transition. Until then, companies may be holding back on investment but luckily you still have three flights from Cardiff on KLM!