Toespraak Ank Bijleveld tijdens NATO Night

Speech by the Netherlands Minister of Defence drs. Ank Bijleveld-Schouten at NATO Night, 11 April 2019, Utrecht

“We are stronger together – and our unity is our strength.”

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is a year of celebration. We’re celebrating 75 years of freedom in the Netherlands…a lifetime spent free from war.

We’re also celebrating the cornerstone of our freedom: NATO.

Nations from both sides of the Atlantic reaching out to each other, with the promise to protect one another.

An alliance that is growing and building up its strength.

In fact, it’s the oldest defence alliance in the past five centuries.

Most defence alliances don’t live beyond their teenage years… but our NATO is a strong 70-year old!

Its membership has more than doubled since its birth.

So this year is a historic one.

And it should be a year of reflection as well.

Let me explain.

As we speak, there’s a tank battalion in Germany, operating at a base in Lohheide. It consists of Dutch and German soldiers.

Together, they protect NATO’s eastern border.

One of the Dutch soldiers is Leon Berkepeis, Corporal First Class.

His grandfather had participated in a communist protest against the Nazis at the beginning of the Second World War.

At this protest, he was shot by German Nazis.

The Corporal didn’t know about this.

One day, he told his grandmother that was going to join the battalion in Germany.

And that’s when she told him this story about his grandfather.

4 years later, Corporal Berkepeis is still serving in the battalion…and he is friends with a German soldier, whose grandfather was a Nazi during World War 2.

The hostility between their grandfathers lies in the past… and they would never have expected that their grandsons would be friends. Much less that they would serve together to protect both their countries.
Working at a former Cold War base, built by Nazis.

The fact that these men can be brothers in arms, shows what can happen when you leave a hostile past behind and believe in a peaceful future together.

Former enemies can be allies.

In our view, we are stronger together – and our unity is our strength.

Because unity deters.

It’s one of the reasons why we’ve lived in peace for so long.

It comes with a duty to contribute to that peace.

We cannot benefit from a club without paying a fee.

You know what I’m talking about: that 2 percent, that US presidents have for decades asked us to contribute –  in different tones of voice, from Kennedy to Trump.

The past 25 years or so, we haven’t paid our 2 percent.

And to this day we still don’t pay the full fee.


Today it’s not only the US president asking us to increase our contribution…
….it’s also the current geopolitical situation that begs for more.

We do however contribute manpower, in multiple coalitions.

Last year, Dutch troops participated in Trident Juncture, the largest NATO exercise since the Cold War.

The commander of this exercise, US Admiral James Foggo, complimented our troops.

Calling their professionalism “unrivalled”.

It’s important to me to mention this compliment from our valued ally.

Because I think our servicemen and women deserve our attention and our praise.

Wherever they are, in whatever coalition they serve.

At this moment, more than 250 of their countrymen are serving in Lithuania, in the enhanced Forward Presence. 
I visited them in March.

It’s only a four-hour flight, but when you exit the airplane, you step into another world.

Because of procedure, I had to leave my smartphone behind and use an old fashioned portable phone for safety reasons.

Our service men and women were doing field training exercise.

So the dinner I ate with them was a packet of dried food, mixed with some water.

After the sun went down, I couldn’t feel my feet anymore because of the cold.


During my stay, I talked to Lithuanian soldiers whose parents had told them stories about the Russian occupation.

You could sense that their recent past was filled with violence and strife .

The Lithuanian government has provided its citizens with a guide about what to do in case of an invasion.

I’ve spoken to the Lithuanian Minister of Defence about the importance of that guide.

This seems like a world that’s far away from ours, here in the Netherlands.

But it’s the world of our ally… so it’s our world.

The threat to their safety is our call to help.

That’s what allies do.

That’s what an alliance does.

It’s one for all and all for one.

This year we're celebrating that promise, the core of our alliance. But as I said, it is also a year of reflection.

And I ask myself – and you: when we look back at this moment in time, what will the history books say?

I think we can already write a few pages.

They will tell the reader about those years in which old certainties crumbled, such as the INF treaty.

A time in which geopolitical world power was shifting and new threats were emerging.

A time in which NATO countries increased their Defence budgets after decades of cuts. 

In which the Netherlands showed, in many different ways, that we are a strong and reliable ally.

We owe it to NATO to do more.

We owe it to future generations, such as the grandchildren of Corporal Berkepeis and his German friend

… to do everything we can in the name of lasting peace.

Thank you.