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Building personal relationships is still a very important aspect of business in the Czech republic

An interview with H.E. Eduard W.V.M. Hoeks, Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Prague

“Building personal relationships is still a very important aspect of business in the Czech republic”

  H.E. Ed W.V.M. Hoeks began his work for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1978 and was among others posted at the Embassies of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Since the 5th of September, 2012 he leads the embassy in Prague and says, “My ambition is to promote the idea of one team, where everybody is committed to the task of the embassy.” 

Thank you for your time, Mr Ambassador. Let me begin with a simple question. You’re almost year and a half in Prague. Do you feel settled here?

“I feel very much at home, very welcome. I also have travelled outside Prague and the Czech people are very hospitable. They make you feel at home. I’m not far away from the Netherlands. It is easy by car in one day, an hour and half by plane. We are kind of like-minded countries, we are both small countries, both in the European Union, both thinking about same kind of problems. So it is very much like at home.”

You’ve been to many places around the world. Is there something special about Prague?

“Prague is a fascinating city because of the beauty of it. The architecture is well known worldwide. People call it the most beautiful city in Europe. The special thing is that Prague has historically come through quite interesting developments. It was the part of the Austrian Empire, German domination and Russian domination. Now it’s free country. This fascinating experience is

relatively new. Czechoslovakia was created in 1918; the Czech Republic is a new country and that makes it special.”

There are many nationalities is Czech Republic. How many Dutch people are here?

“We have registered approximately three thousand Dutch people, but not all of them are registered. We have quite a lot of Czech people living in the Netherlands as well. There were two moments in history when Czech people came – in 1948, when Gottwald was taking over and 1968 after the Prague Spring. Many of these Czech families in the Netherlands established themselves and are now second or third generation coming to travel to the Czech republic. Some have Dutch nationality, some Czech, but we have many Dutch people who came to the Czech Republic after 1989 for business. Some of them were very successful, some of them less so. But many stayed. We actually have a Dutch community that is varied. We have not only businessmen; we have artists, writers, and farmers. It’s quite an interesting group, actually.”

Farmers?

“Yes! They are living near the German border and bring innovative farming technologies to the Czech Republic. But we have also successful businessmen living in Brno and Ostrava. We have Dutch people working at the university in Olomouc. It is quite a big spread.”

There are many topics in common for both countries. Let’s start with the easiest one – tourism.

“I don’t keep statistics, but approximately 250,000 Dutch tourists come to Prague during the year. As I said, it’s very near and relatively cheap to travel here. Prague has such a beauty to offer, it’s an ideal place for longer weekends.”

And do you have to work on that as an Ambassador?

“I don’t see my task to promote Dutch tourism in the Czech Republic. That is rather the task of my colleague in the Hague, Ambassador Jaroslav Horák. It could be my job to try to attract more Czechs travelling into the Netherland for tourism. We also have a lot of things to offer and many Czechs visit the Netherlands.”

I suppose that mainly means Amsterdam.

“Yes, of course, but it’s not just Amsterdam. The Netherlands has many other tempting cities and places to offer, beautiful countryside, a history and tradition but with a modern drift. Many tourists also come for sports, such as sailing or cycling. We also have the Comenius grave. He’s buried in the Netherlands and many Czechs come to see this place.”

Another huge topic is business networking. You’re not only representing a country, you are also the “medium” for business.

“Actually it’s quite interesting. When I presented my credentials to president Klaus, I told him that we are the second largest investor in Czech republic, on an aggregate level, since 1989. He corrected me: No, you’re the third one (laugh). I checked on my statistics, we keep it as if we are the second investor. When I told president Zeman the same thing, he told me: “Well Mr Ambassador, you have only one task. – to become the first one.” So we are working hard on it. We have big companies represented here, Heineken, Phillips, ING, Ahold, CTP and others. Commercially we are the sixth or seventh trade partner in the Czech republic.”

Is that mainly agricultural?

“Also products that we export to the Czech Republic such as machines, tobacco, minerals, oil products, even animals. Basically it is both agro industry and chemical industry.”

And what is your task in this area?

“What we are trying to do as an embassy is to promote small and medium sized companies. They are still underrepresented. We organize seminars, try to lead their way to Czech trade and advise them a bit on how to do business here. It is slightly different from doing business in Western Europe. Building personal relationship is still a very important aspect of the business. They have to visit the country several times and when a relationship of confidence has been built, business follows. Although we are quite similar in many of these aspects, we feel that the business culture is still slightly different.”

Do you feel the Czech market is big enough?

“It’s of course relatively small, but we are talking about a region, about the Visegrád countries, exporting to countries like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Within the Czech Republic, their strong point is very robust industry. People here are well prepared when we talk with them and they are very serious. There is a high level of trust and also high levels of friendship with the Netherlands. The advantage for the Dutch businessmen doing business here in the Czech Republic, apart from its geographic position, are the lower labour costs. It’s still one third of the labour costs in the Netherlands. Furthermore the labour force is highly educated, especially in technical areas.”

And what do Czech people offer the Netherlands? Is there some special area?

“A Heineken representative told me he has three countries in Europe where he has difficulty selling beer: Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic. It’s famous for its own beer and is also popular in the Netherlands. But it’s not only beer, it’s mainly machinery and of course the car industry is very important. When you travel in the Netherlands, you see many Škoda cars on the street. I also drive a Škoda as an official car.”

Would it be easier, if the Czech Republic had the euro?

“Czech Republic is a member of the EMU. It committed itself to the Euro at a certain point in time. It will happen, but it’s always difficult to sketch a timeline. Because as soon as you start sketching a timeline, political attention is drawn to that and people wonder when it will eventually happen. Your president has mentioned a date after 2017. I found it interesting that Slovakia accepted the euro and the Czech Republic has yet to do that. We see that the instruments of exchange rates were used recently. It is of course an instrument that Czech Republic would lose after accepting the euro.”

Might it help, in general?

“It would certainly help, as t facilitates trade. Problems the euro is at this moment confronted with, the ‘euro crisis’ makes it of course a not very easy decision for the Czech authorities, including the ways in which the euro crisis is being combatted. It is not very easy for the Czech Republic to accept the banking union, as there are many conditions to be met. We have to see what the legal framework will be. I can understand that the Czechs need some time to think. But in the end they will certainly join the euro and I think it will also help.”

Should we cooperate more on the political basis?

“Politically speaking, of course, we are both relatively small countries and are also part of the regional framework. There is Visegrád and Benelux. We have the Visegrád-Benelux consultations on a regular basis. These consultations work out very well. The Benelux mechanism also served as an example for Visegrád cooperates. Politically speaking, I would say it’s important that we found each other within the European Union. Three Benelux and four Visegrád countries make seven and if we try to have Germany on our side, that means we increase our influence in Brussels.”

Is there Euro-scepticism in the Netherlands?

“It is nearly mainstream through all political parties, but I also feel Euro-scepticism in the Czech Republic. Your former president was quite outspoken on this. Now, with president Zeman we feel there is more “pro European” attitude, but Euro-scepticism is there. We cannot deny it. There is the euro crisis; there is the question of transfer of seniority of power from national parliaments to Brussels. It’s a very sensitive subject. We have reached a certain stage and people wonder if we should go any further.”

And enlargement?

“In the Netherlands we kind of feel enlargement fatigue. Not talking about politicians now, the man in the street is wondering why we should do that, why should we continue? In the Czech Republic you see more optimism with regard to enlargement.”

I’ve seen photos of you – from Liberec. And you promoted some ‘bicycle project’…

“I’m ambassador throughout the Czech Republic, not only in Prague. I travel and see the other regions. I began with Brno, the legal capital of the country and visited the judges there. We also have interesting business people there. Brno and Eindhoven, a technologically advanced area in the Netherlands, try to intensify their cooperation through exchanges of advance technology. We consider both cities as examples of highly advanced technology areas. People can also study the Dutch language in Brno and Olomouc. I’ve been there as well. As you mentioned, I visited Liberec and we went to the city to promote a campaign called “bike to work”. In the Netherlands, we see biking as a usual way of transportation, rather than a sport. In the Czech Republic, biking is still rather an exception.”

What are your plans for 2014?

“Businesswise, we are on a good track in the embassy. We have our staff, where before we had several sections. Now we have only one section and are one team. My ambition is to promote this idea of one team where everybody is committed to the task of the embassy. The team is already in motion, but I would like to make it more effective, so that everybody comes into the office with a smile on his or her face, every day. Then of course I hope that the relationship between the Czech Republic and the Netherlands will continue to develop in a positive way. In Brussels we can find each other’s way very easily, as we are very like-minded on the Brussels issues. On the sensitive issues in Brussels we organize seminars and invite each other to attend. So we are actually quite close. And I hope that the Dutch community in the Czech Republic will have a happy life.”

And plans in your personal life?

“My wife and I have a very happy life here. We have a nice residence and we hope to see many friends, both Czechs and from Holland. We hope this year, once again, to welcome many friends from the Netherlands. I also will attempt to do more travelling this year in the country. I have not yet been to Ostrava. I’m going there to see the Davis Cup between Czech Republic and the Netherlands. And honestly, it‘s a great job to be the Dutch Ambassador in the Czech Republic, because we don’t have large bilateral difficulties.”

What do Czech people think about Dutch people – and is it true or not true?

“Let me think… I would say, Czech people see the Dutch people as very direct and very open. Basically this is true. We are occasionally too direct, but it’s not always true.”

Do you spend your free time more actively?

“Yes, in the winter I prefer cross-country skiing. We hired a house in Krkonoše last Christmas. I like mountains snd like Krkonoše. In the summer I enjoy the golf courses, restaurants and cinemas. We love movies and I love our house.”

Source: Leaders Magazine - www.leadersmagazine.cz Author: Jaroslav Kramer