Alphonsus Stoelinga’s six-year stint in India comes to an end on Sunday. He speaks to The Sunday Guardian on a range of issues.
Alphonsus Stoelinga, the Ambassador of Netherlands to India, has spent six years representing his countryhere. His stint in India will come to an end on Sunday. Before his departure, he spoke to The Sunday Guardian on various issues, ranging from India-Netherlands cooperation to his views of Section 377, prostitution and his time in India. Excerpts:
Q: Mr Ambassador, it has been six years you have been in India. How has your experience been here representing your country?
A: I arrived in India in 2012. It has been six years of hard work and I can confidently say that relations between India and Netherlands are more on each other’s radar screens now. Business in India now knows what kind of partner Netherlands can be for the economy of India. Over the years, Netherlands has become India’s hub in Europe.
We are the hub in Europe for India’s exports, because 20% of all India’s exports to Europe enter Europe through Netherlands, which is 10 million euros of the total 50 million euros worth of India’s exports to the European Union (EU). Then, we are the hub in Europe for India’s investors: since Brexit was announced, the number of Indian companies establishing themselves in the Netherlands is doubling. Third: people-to-people connect between our countries has also increased with six daily flights now flying to Amsterdam from cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Jet Airways has made Amsterdam one of its hubs. This increased connectivity leads to more business and that, in return, to even more connectivity.
Q: What does Brexit mean for the European Union (EU)? And what will be the consequences for “the City”?
A: What Brexit will bring is not yet clear. The EU and the United Kingdom are still in the process of negotiations and these negotiations have had serious delays because the British did not know what they wanted. In EU, we have 28 countries and minus Britain, it is 27 countries.
All these 27 Parliaments have to agree to the compromise and on the terms and conditions. The deadline for Brexit is March 2019; by then, if nothing is agreed upon, Britain will automatically exit without any arrangement. And any arrangement that the EU and Britain might come to conclude will have to be ready before the 27 Parliaments by the end of October. We just have two months left. We are of the opinion that Brexit is not a good development, but since they decided to that, it was their choice. What will happen with the access of the British financial institutions to the financial sector of the EU is not clear. But I would not be too optimistic about that. You think it is sustainable for the most important economic bloc of the world to have its finances be done outside its influence?
Q: Europe has a great potential for tourism and Netherlands is one of the most sought after tourist destinations from across the world. How do you see tourism between both these countries?
A: The entry of tourists to Netherlands has been increasing, because of the increase in connectivity. With respect to India, with greater connectivity of flights from India to Netherlands, we can see a tremendous potential for tourists in both countries. With six times more daily, direct flights, we can expect six times more tourists, students and business people travelling between our countries.
Q: In India, recently a debate for legalisation of gay sex and striking down of the Victorian law (IPC 377) is ongoing. What is your opinion on this matter?
A: Currently, the matter is being heard by the Supreme Court of India. People are talking about it, the media and even the political parties in India are talking about it, which in itself is a positive sign. I am confident that it will be legalised in India, so that members of the LGBT group get equal rights that they are entitled to, because it is an identity and you cannot change your identity since that is how they are born. I think India is moving towards that direction and it is moving towards doing away with such archaic laws in the 21st century. What is important is that India is not doing it under pressure from the outside world, but on its own initiative, Indian society is adjusting the rules or the interpretation of rules and laws. For example, as one of the first countries in the world, India has recognised the third gender.
Q: Rising Islamist fundamentalism is one of the major concerns across the globe and India is one of the most affected countries. How does the Western world look at terrorism and what steps are being taken to check it?
A: Anti-terrorism has been one of the major talking points for all countries across the globe. Anti-terrorism is a very important subject for both your government as well as my government. When our Prime Minister Mark Rutte visited India and met your Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they both spoke about anti-terrorism measures. We also work with the EU and the United States on this issue. All the EU countries have it on their agenda. I think, internationally, a lot is already being done on it and it can always be better. It is one of the items always on the agenda.
Q: Netherlands has legalised prostitution long back, unlike India. Do you think prostitution should be legalised in India?
A: Yes in Netherlands, prostitution is legalised, but it is also regulated. I do not want to express myself on how it is organised in India. In Netherlands, what they do is that they regulate, so that the people involved in it are not exploited, get regular health check-ups.
They ensure that no trafficking or criminality is involved in prostitution and the human rights of the sex workers are protected and upheld.
Q: Your Foreign Minister Stef Blok had recently said that he is unaware of any successful multicultural society; but India is one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. What is your reaction?
A: He has taken back his words publicly. In Amsterdam, you will find 168 nationalities. The Netherlands is a society where many cultures, races, religions live together successfully. We are an outward looking country.
In Netherlands, some 50% of our prosperity depends on the business of Netherlands with the rest of the world. So we have to be open and we were open for ever, even 400 years ago we were open and trading with so many other countries. But being open means not only going out to other countries, but also receiving people from other countries—like refugees whose lives are at risk. We have received Jewish refugees from Spain and Portugal, Protestants from France and Jews before and during World War II. We also had people coming into our country from our erstwhile colonies as well.
Q: What has been your take on India’s foreign policy?
A: India’s foreign policy is now very proactive and India is now firmly on the map. A lot of countries across the world now want to engage with India since India is more visible with its fast growing economy with 7% annual growth and an extremely young population. India is now proactively engaging with the rest of the world. The global scenario is changing and whichever government comes in India will have to be up and running from day one, since the world is not going to wait for you. Fast growing and with 16% of the world population, India needs a lot of minerals and energy and this means that India has its interests that it has to defend. India is, for example, opening 18 embassies in Africa; so that means you see your interest in that continent and want to engage with them, which is a very positive sign.
Q: What are the experiences you will take back from India? Is there something you will miss?
A: There are two things that I did not know when I first came to India, which I know now. Firstly, that business here is about parivar (family) where you have that personal touch with your partners and clients. I always tell Dutch companies that in India, business is not a contract, but rather the contact, without the “R”.
In India, the personal feel is very much attached to any contract or business. Secondly, Indians have science in their DNA, where every parent wants their child to either be an engineer or a doctor. I think it is an Indian DNA to be good in science. What I will miss is the vibrancy that India has; this city (Delhi) never sleeps and is always up and running. Indians are very ambitious. The energy, the ambition and the dedication of the young people will change India.