How the Dutch manage their waterways and a chat with Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner in charge of enlargement.
A tour boat glides through Maasvlakte 2, Rotterdam’s 2,000-hectare port extension, past the largest container ship in the world and the container cranes that manoeuvre quietly around the fully automated dock. In the cabin, Burmese dignitaries are getting to grips with how this area was built from reclaimed land. Schematics flash up on screen and, sensing the group’s confusion, a tall Dutch man intervenes to offer a few simple pointers that cut through the technical jargon. Soon enough everyone is nodding happily again.
Henk Ovink (pictured) is the first government-appointed diplomat focused solely on water. His official title is Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, a position created by the Dutch government in 2015 to highlight and market its national know-how.
Ovink’s remit is broad. A typical month sees him taking foreign ministers around Dutch water-infrastructure projects, attending a conference in Mexico on disaster-risk reduction, jetting into Singapore to discuss water stress and participating in the High Level Panel on Water, which involves 11 sitting heads of state, the UN secretary-general and the president of the World Bank.
The Dutch pride themselves on being ahead of the curve when it comes to water management, a knack that dates back to extensive dam projects in the Middle Ages and the more recent “polder model” of consensus-based policy-making. As a result, the core of Ovink’s message is both inclusivity and water democracy: “The only way to get to results that are meaningful, add value and are sustainable is by inviting everyone to the table.”
His aim is to raise awareness about the opportunities and risks associated with water, deal with problems when they arise and encourage proactive thinking. But despite the topic’s clear importance – 90 per cent of all natural disasters are water-related – it’s often an upstream struggle. “Water is too abstract for a lot of people,” says Ovink. “Every scientist agrees that climate change hits us hardest through water: either too much or too little.” And it’s not just an issue for developing countries: “I don’t have to go to Burma to see bad systems or governance when it comes to water.” As he points out, even the UK has floods most years.
Johannes Hahn is the European commissioner in charge of enlargement. His challenge is shepherding countries towards the EU.
How do you think EU citizens need convincing about enlargement; does the Brexit process help?
I don’t see a particular context between Brexit and enlargement. But we can only gain acceptance [for enlargement] if there’s a feeling that a new member is not a financial burden. Economic development is so important. The best way to convince our citizens would be if people from the Western Balkans working in the EU today moved back there because conditions were better.
What could be done to speed up an accession bid?
It’s up to the partner countries how fast they proceed but it takes time. Soft power means you have the power of better arguments and role models. This creates an appetite and politicians come under pressure from their people to satisfy that demand.
If the wait is too long, could countries be discouraged from seeking EU membership?
The EU is always perceived to be demanding reforms so we have to communicate their positive consequences.
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