Central European Time Zone UTC-04:00
Capital City Amsterdam
National Day 27 April
ON BEING ASKED how he is finding Britain’s capital since his appointment, His Excellency Simon Smits responds with Samuel Johnson’s famous comment that “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Smits first saw the quotation on a poster at his grammar school in the Netherlands in the early 1970s. Since that time, he notes, London has become much more international in its make-up, but the city has lost none of its power to astonish and inspire.
Smits grew up in an internationally oriented environment, a factor that he believes contributed to his eventual career as a diplomat. His father was a German teacher, and he himself taught English. He first seriously considered the diplomatic service while completing a Harting Fellowship at Oxford University. “I got to know a lot of foreign students and was heavily involved in student life – so I thought if I tweak my studies to English and International Law I might have a chance of getting in.”
In 1984, Smits was sent to Belgrade, followed by postings to Bangladesh, Geneva, Zagreb, The Hague, South Africa and Brussels at the Permanent Representation to the EU. In 2006, he was appointed senior adviser on government relations to Royal Dutch Shell, a working environment he describes as similar to the foreign service – a large expat community, work around the clock, and a close and loyal workforce. In 2011, Smits was seconded to the newly merged Ministry of Agriculture, Innovation and Economic Affairs, overseeing its international affairs. From here he moved, along with his team of over 100 people, to serve as Director General for Foreign Economic Relations at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Smits says that his first year as Ambassador will largely be defined by the Dutch Presidency of the EU (1 January to 30 June 2016). “We will devote our attention to the competitiveness of Europe, jobs and growth, the internal market, and particularly the services and digital markets.” The country is also keen to ensure better regulation and to see more involvement of national parliaments in EU decision-making. “I am sometimes surprised that people talk of Brussels as though it is a distant entity, but we’re all part of the same group,” he says. But despite what Smits describes as a very Dutch predilection for “agenda setting,” he acknowledges that the country’s Presidency will be guided by world events, notably the refugee crisis, the war in Syria and Iraq, and international terrorism. The Netherlands is also a UN Security Council Candidate for 2017-18: elections are in June.
The Presidency and Smits’ role in London will also be taken up with talks on a possible British exit from the EU. “We will wherever possible, help, facilitate and inform the debate and will also act as an honest broker” he says. Britain is not alone in its scepticism of the European project and Smits sees one of his country’s main challenges as helping steer the bloc “through turbulent waters.” Set up in the wake of two devastating wars, the EU has largely succeeded in its original aim of keeping the peace, but Smits says that as time has gone on that dividend has worn thin, and countries have begun to take a more “transactional view.”
“Everywhere in Europe you see critical voices being raised and these voices should be taken extremely seriously,” Smits says. However, he believes that any evaluation of EU membership must extend beyond a simple assessment of how much a country puts in and how much it gets out. “This is a very limited view of Europe because if you look at the responses to ISIL, we are about a set of traditions, norms and values that bind us as Europe.” There are no simple answers here, but Smits says that it is vital that the continent does not lose sight of its shared past, both good and bad: “If you don’t know your history, I am convinced that you cannot really have a sense of where you are going.”
Smits, who is an avid fan of the Rolling Stones, describes his favourite hobby as spending time with his family (his wife Astrid and their four sons). Despite – as he says himself – regularly being outpaced by Astrid, he also enjoys running and playing tennis.