Toespraak van de minister van Defensie Ank Bijleveld-Schouten ter gelegenheid van de “Security and Defence” conference van Chatham House op 7 maart 2019 te Londen

“European unity or a divided continent: how small groups can lead to big steps”

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear colleagues,

I know we are – thankfully – heading towards spring… but allow me to tell you a small winter’s tale… It would, of course, have been too predictable to start with the Dutch naval expedition to Chatham in 1667…

But my winter’s tale takes place some three centuries later.

Every winter, a small group of people from the Frisian province in the north of the Netherlands is the centre of national attention. Plans are made, tournament shirts are gathered, heaters are inspected and daily weather reports are watched with high hopes. And everyone asks each other the same question:

Will there be an ‘Elfstedentocht’ this year? Roughly translated: an eleven cities tour?

For those who are not that familiar with Dutch culture: it’s a skating race, 200 kilometres long, where the Dutch skate on the natural ice routes between eleven Frisian cities. But before that happens, a committee of 9 has to decide whether the race will take place. The last race was in 1997… Nevertheless, our country buzzes with excitement every winter. These 9 people unite the diverse and sometimes divided Dutch people…the whole country longs for an epic race.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A small group of 9 people – we might call them a coalition – can unite a country. And if a coalition can unite a country, then multiple coalitions can unite Europe. And a united Europe is a strong and secure Europe.

The Netherlands takes part in numerous coalitions working towards closer European defence cooperation. In many of those, the United Kingdom is our partner. Our navies have worked together for many years, so it was only natural for us to join the British-led Joint Expeditionary Force. In the Northern Group, the UK is, for example, an indispensable partner when it comes to improving military mobility and discussing deterrence and posture. And in the context of the European Intervention Initiative, the Netherlands and the UK are close partners in improving situational awareness in the Caribbean. So even though one of our biggest ties will be broken once Brexit is final, there are still many coalitions that connect us over the channel.

My country believes these coalitions can stimulate closer European defence cooperation. Small coalitions are more agile than bigger ones. They can be more experimental and thus pioneering in nature. And when they turn out to be successful, bigger coalitions can follow in their footsteps, and increase that success.

In other words: small groups can take small steps, which over time can lead to giant steps by larger groups.

One example is the cooperation between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark within the Nordic Defence Cooperation, or NORDEFCO. These four countries have signed the “Easy Access Agreement”. It is meant to cut down on red tape to increase military mobility in the northern region… and the participating countries can adapt accordingly within their own national structures. So that it’s easier, for example, to host a last-minute military exercise in a neighbouring country. You could compare it to organising a music festival in a very short space of time. You have to think of everything – where to fuel the vehicles, how to get enough field cots and plenty of food – even for that one lactose-intolerant soldier. Nobody wants to run into a problem because someone hadn’t filled in the right form.

This is a good example of a small group, achieving success, and being able to inspire a bigger group to do the same.  Because i November last year, during the Northern Group ministerial meeting, we adopted a “Northern Group Easy Access Agreement”. With this step, we have gone from four to twelve countries working towards the same goals. This is more than just overcoming bureaucratic barriers. Where military mobility was the order of the day in Europe during the Cold War, we are now rebuilding the necessary agreements, such as standing diplomatic clearances, and deregulating where possible. This should lead to shorter deployment times throughout Europe, be it for exercises or in times of crisis, or for those grey areas in between.

This is essential. Today’s world is calling for us to unite more closely. Because we are being tested… we are being tried… and old assurances such as the INF treaty are no longer a given. More than ever before, we need to stand united. I agree with my Prime Minister that we Europeans need to be “less naïve and more realistic.”

For EU Member States, this means taking more responsibility for the security of European citizens and interests. Our economic unity and military potential make us strong and unique. We need to remain fully committed to the cornerstone of our collective defence: NATO. This transatlantic unity is our strongest weapon. Because unity deters. I saw that again in Lithuania yesterday.

In my view, unity requires that we Europeans and Atlanticists collaborate closely - bilaterally, in small groups and in the EU and NATO. We need cooperation on all those levels. And the sum of our efforts in this array of coalitions is what I call European defence cooperation. Mind you, this is not a plea for a European army.

I do not see European defence cooperation as the exclusive domain of the EU. On the contrary: taking responsibility in Europe means that Europeans, acting in different compositions, should be able to respond to external threats, and to situations that affect European security. Europeans should cooperate with non-Europeans if possible... and should also be able to act alone if necessary.

I believe we should take full advantage of the complementary strengths that the EU, NATO and smaller coalitions have to offer. We now need to have a fundamental discussion about how we want to use them. These discussions should be conducted within Europe and with our non-European partners in a spirit of transparency, common values and interests, and mutual trust. And not in the press… where speculations over a European army can lead to severe misunderstandings. We need to find unity of message as well.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We need deep cooperation and trust to strengthen our military potential. Working on readiness, the ability to act and aligning interests among countries are crucial, so that we can leave aggression between countries where it belongs: in the history books.

This year, we’re celebrating NATO’s 70th anniversary and the collapse of the Berlin wall. In the Netherlands, we will celebrate 75 years of freedom this year, after the end of World War 2. Every year, fewer people can tell us what they saw and endured during the war…and how it felt to be free and have hope again. That’s why it’s so important to remember and realize that freedom is not self-evident.

It takes work. It takes effort. Dedication. Cooperation.

I’ve chosen this picture of the 11 cities tour because it shows what a small group of people can accomplish. With their work, effort and dedication, they are able to unite Dutch citizens in their longing for an epic race. We should do the same. With our work, effort and dedication bilaterally, in small groups and in the EU and NATO, we should unite Europe. To make a strong and secure Europe. That’s what we are working towards.

Thank you.