You are from Amsterdam, and now; you are working at Istanbul. Are you missing Amsterdam?
Yes and No, as I really like being in Istanbul. Of course, Amsterdam is a beautiful city like Istanbul. Amsterdam is a very compact city. In one hour you can walk from central station to the outside of the old city. You can bike; then you can be everywhere in the center in twenty minutes. Well, this is different in Istanbul, as you cannot bike here often it is dangerous; Istanbul is a very very big city, the size of almost 15% of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is in this respect is an easier city, everything is close, museums, bars, canals, streets… In Istanbul it can take you easily one or two hours to get somewhere. Here, you have Maltepe, Büyükcekmece etc. Istanbul, in short, is very big city…
As a Consulate General, how do you feel to work in Istanbul?
I like the city, country, and people but is not always easy to work here; this is chiefly related to the size of the city. I find it very helpful to be part of number of the groups. Networking is always important, also in Istanbul. I noticed that and I focus on business people as they play an important rule in Turkey. The present situation is not that easy. I work here less with politicians and journalists than in other countries. Here I focus more on business people, academics and ngo representatives.
I read one of your interviews; you like pide and gozleme then you love Turkish breakfast is that true?
This is very true, I like pide very much. Gozleme, fish and Turkish breakfast are very good. I think food is among the great things in Turkey, cuisine is very rich, and you have a lot of choice. I am not such a meat eater, but I like fish and tavuk şiş. Turkish foods are often fresh and organic.
Don’t you missing Hagelslag?
Not at all. Hagelslag, my sons like them but I don’t like. Actually hagelslag is not healthy, cheap sugar and taste.
Your first meeting with Turkey was 33 years ago. Your first mission was Baghdad, you saw Turkey while you were going there. From first times which you were starting to know Turkey to nowadays, what has changed in your mind about Turkey?
I went by car, stayed three nights at Istanbul, stayed four nights in Alanya then Adana, Mosul finally Baghdad.
I remember same distance Amsterdam to Istanbul & Istanbul to Mosul. Galata Bridge and the men all the same. Sultanahmet still the same. I think what has not changed at all is the hospitality of the people. I am remembering the day we were driving from Istanbul to Alanya; we stopped on the road and somebody come to me, went away and came back to bring sugar, cookies, tea… Hospitality is still here in Turkey, unchanged.
What has changed in thirty years? Turkey has modernized, became a modern economy with its Western institutions, became more democratic country… The 80’s were not an easy time. That has improved. Turkey has become more international, especially Western part of Turkey. However, the essence of countries doesn’t change quickly. And the essence of Turkey is that it remains a beautiful and very friendly country, with emotional and hospitable people. And yes, it is a big country, 20 times the Netherlands.
I visited many cities of Turkey; Kars, Trabzon, Izmir, Mersin and many more. Cappadocia, Pamukkale, my wife and I have been there. I like very much South coast between Olympos and Fethiye, that is for my of all the beautiful places in Turkey the most beautiful region.
Sir, your previous mission was in Hong Kong and now Istanbul. Your purpose is economic diplomacy. Could you share us your experience about economic diplomacy?
You have to understand the macro trends. What can Holland offer to Turkey? What can Turkey offer to Holland? You know your own country, you know what we can do together with Turkey. For our economic work it is important that our economic organizations in Holland work well together . Fortunately they do; we are part of this network. Also in Turkey, we work together closely with DEİK, Dutch Business Association, İTO, TÜSİAD and MÜSİAD and others.It is an international world, it is a connected world and networking is crucial.
Economic diplomacy at the moment. The international reputation of Turkey is not positive , but we have to overcome this as Turkey is an important country. We have a lot of mutual interests and we should take care of them, even in spite of the more difficult environment. That is our main challenge at the moment. We continue establishing friendship, promote institutions working together. Both sides need peoples we know both countries, people like you who studied in Holland. Some one like you is also a kind of ambassador for Turkey, for the Netherlands. It is like me: I am a Dutch diplomat, explaining my own country, but often I am also explaining Turkey in the Netherlands.
You are in Istanbul as an economic diplomacy ambassador. Your aim is to increase trade relation and investments between Turkey and Netherlands. What can you say about economic relation among those countries?
Firstly, economic diplomacy is not my only task here. The Consulate General in Istanbul has a really big consular section, we have 50.000 visas per year Turkish people going to Holland as a student, traveler etc. We also have received many Syrian refugees; now in the framework of family reunification more are coming. We do many social projects, human rights projects, as part of for preparation for Turkey for European Union. We give a lot of political input to our Embassy in Ankara since many things are happening in Istanbul.
You asked me now about economic future.Ithink basically three things, one is there are many indications on the short term, probably this year an economic recession will take place in Turkey; you see a weakening lira, you got many small companies going bankrupt, foreign direct investment going down, unemployment going up, if you put all this together, that’s clear there will be an economic contraction in other words , economy will not grow for a certain period.
The long term challenge for Turkey is to become high tech country. In this context rule of law is as important as education. I know that Turkey will work very hard to make this possible.
Coming back to the economic recession. Fortunately Turkey has many correcting mechanisms, Turkey is a strong country, people are flexible, people are young. There are very strong sectors, there is a strong export sector. Turkish government still has the capacity to spend extra money for public projects or to do social transfers to the lesser off. An extremely important sector is the banking sector. In Turkey, this sector is strong. European banks need to fulfil the %8 Basel requirement, but Turkey’s banks keep a %16 cash strong commitment.
After terrorist attack in Istanbul, you shared tweet with your children at Istiklal Street. This affected us positively. Could you share us your opinion about this case?
I really believe in the power and importance of social media. Amongst others you can show more people what diplomats are doing. I alos like to inform Turkish people about Holland and inform them whatwe are standing for. An important part of being a diplomat is connecting to Turkish people and social media is an excellent tool for this.
I have many hats. On one side I am Robert, a father and a husband and on the other hand I am a diplomat, working to represent my country. I might be a foreigner, but I am also part of this country.My Turkish unfortunately still is not good enough. People can feel my love for Turkey, because of my travels, long walks in Istanbul, share this all on twitter. Also when times are difficult I support; to be honest I had not expected that my tweets sometimes have such an impact; it also reflects the difficult situation and the need for international support.
My sons were here during the terror attack in March, in the evening we had to eat something because we felt hungry. Then we went for shopping and I wanted to share this with the Turkish followers, that in spite of the terror attack, Istiklal was open again for the general public and that I, as foreigner and father thought it was possible to walk again, also with my sons.. I want to show Turkish people ‘’hayat devam ediyor’’ (life is going on) that’s very important. We are not going to let terror dictate our life, take away our freedoms. We should never let this happen. I shared this tweet with the photo of my sons ; people see, I am diplomat and I don’t afraid, I am safe, I can walk. I did not expect such an impact by the way.
We are observing to rising ‘’far right’’ flow at the Europe. What is your comment about these things?
The Netherlands, atlhough a small country, has become over the centuries a strong player: at present it is also one of the richest countries in the world, our children are the happiest in the world (says Unicef); basically in all. We always believe in the importance of peaceful international relations, we are the only country that has written “working for peaceful and lawful international order” in our constitution. We have a long tradition of opening up our borders for people in need. 15-16 century Jews, later Protestants from France, these days many from Syria. I know Turkey have 3 million refugees which is worth a big compliment. In the West we also do our share. In the Netherlands we took in 10,000’s, with more to come via family reunification. We spent 100’s millions of Euro’s in the Netherlands and 100’s of millions in this regions. Although we have our share of discussions in my country as well about immigration we can still be considered a welcoming country. We have many examples of succesful integration. Take for example the mayor of our second largest city,Ahmed Aboutaleb. He was born in Morocco and now he is the mayor of Rotterdam.
In my strong personal opinion there should not be a debate on Christians and Muslims, but only on values and human rights. In the Netherlands at present over 10% of the population is Muslim.
It is true that in Europe we see more populism. Apparently, after having had the same political order after 1945 the world, especially the West, wants something different, no matter what the consequences might be. I am concerned about this development. We should realize that in history things always change; there are no fixed borders in the long run. Look at that Youtube movie showing the borders of Europe in the past 1000 years. Once you see that you understand how easily and quickly any situation can change. So we have to be careful what we wish for.
After Brexit results, you tweeted and described to this case as a ‘’revolution’’ in front of our eyes. What do you think about that?
We live in a time where post-truths and fake news play a big role, unfortunately. This makes it more difficult to predict what is going to happen. Who would have predicted Brexit or the election of the US president?
Of course Britain is strong country and it will survive, it will not collapse. But leaving EU complicates matters as in this world you have 1 million issues to decide to solve for which you have to work together. That’s the thing with European Union, even if there is no European Union then you would invent it as you need a coordinating mechanism. It is much more efficient to do this in one organization instead of negotiating between 28 countries separately.
We should also never forget that originally the EU started as an instrument for peace, over 60 years ago, to prevent any future war between Germany and France. And this worked very well. Later it also served to keep democracies safe in former dictatorships of Greece, Spain and Portugal. This side of the EU, keeping the peace and democracies, is not always appreciated enough.
What want you say Turkey and European Union relations, sir?
Turkey has been part of Europe for hundreds of the years, the Balkan was a central part of the Ottoman empire. On many occasions Turkey looked at the West for finding solutions, first to France later Germany. And when the Great Ataturk came to power he also look at Western models. And more recently, at the start of AKP governments, there was also a strong focus on the EU model. In short, Europe has always been big part of Turkey. Turkey is also more. Turkey is not only Europe; Turkey is also Middle East, Central Asia, that’s why Turkey also extremely interesting for a country like the Netherlands. With Turkey as a partner, you have a country that is part of the West, but also part of other segments of the world. At both sides the popularity of Europe is very low now; this has been different and hopefully it will change again one day. Talking about NATO. This is very difficult region, Turkey is in the middle of it… Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Georgia, Cyprus, and Armenia every middle of it: Turkey. Turkey has been remarkably stable, it has always been a good partner within NATO.
BŞ: Many thanks you for your time and your hospitality Sir.
RS: You’re welcome, it’s my pleasure.