Photo above: Carin Lobbezoo is in charge of diplomatic contacts with MEPs from all member states
'The Dutch spend a lot of time online. We use WhatsApp, post messages on Facebook, fill in online forms. When we shop online, we share our names and credit card numbers with international retailers in good faith. Our personal information travels all over the world. The circulation of digital data knows no borders and no limits. But as a country, the Netherlands believes that there should be limits to what is done with our data, to ensure it is used appropriately and safely. We want to have European legislation that will lay down the rules. This means that data protection is an issue we have to address with other member states.'
The Dutch Permanent Representation in Brussels works to ensure that the EU protects the digital personal date of every Dutch person in the EU. Some of them are staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while others are policy officers from other ministries. Wherever they’re from, they have a shared mission: conveying the Dutch position on EU issues, defending our interests and supporting Dutch Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
Working with MEPs
One colleague from the foreign ministry is Carin Lobbezoo, who is in charge of diplomatic contacts with MEPs from all member states, first and foremost the Netherlands. ‘That’s typically where it starts,’ says Carin. ‘If you want to launch a discussion on a topic that’s important to the Netherlands, like data protection, it’s essential to work closely with our own MEPs. We need each other, so we keep in touch regularly. As you can imagine, it’s impossible for them to know every single detail of all the Netherlands’ positions. There’s just not enough time.
But they do need to know what our standpoints and interests are. At the same time it’s important for Dutch government ministers to know what Brussels is thinking on an issue. The more we work together, the better the MEPs can put forward Dutch positions in the European Parliament, or at least tell us that something isn’t going to work.’
The collaboration between the Permanent Representation and the MEPs demands more than simply providing each other with information. As Carin Lobbezoo says, ‘The Netherlands has 26 MEPs. That’s not a lot, when you consider that there are a total of 751 MEPs from 28 countries. But we can still exert a lot of influence.'
'For that we need to make contact with people and find allies. This is more complicated than you might think. Brussels is a complex environment. Take the European Parliament, for example. It’s made up of eight main political groups. In these groups our Dutch MEPs work with their colleagues from Greece, Germany, France – you name it. They have to contend with differences in language and culture and sometimes competing national interests. This means they have a good sense of what their colleagues think and why.'
'As diplomats at the Permanent Representation, we too know where the differences lie, and where there is common ground. We know which countries are like-minded. We know who we can make deals with on common positions. We work with our own MEPs to make things happen. We tap in to our network: making contacts with MEPs and diplomats from other countries, with EU officials and the European Commission. We help draft proposals and debate the best approach. By working together in this way, we can achieve a lot for our country.'
Geran Kaai, a Dutch attaché working in Brussels, knows how much can be accomplished through diplomacy too. He’s not a diplomat by training; he’s a staff member at the Ministry of Security and Justice. ‘At the Permanent Representation, I’m the linchpin between the specialists at my ministry in The Hague, on the one hand, and Brussels, on the other,’ he says. ‘Experts in The Hague work out the details of our positions, which we then put forward in proposals, consultations, debates and negotiations. This results in real successes.'
'With our help, for example, agreement was reached on a strong data protection package. As a result, the statutory frameworks for protecting personal data are now a good fit with the Dutch system. With smart diplomacy we can really make a difference.’