BY NARMIN RZAYEVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
This meeting happened on an exceptionally warm October day, when the soft breath of a kind autumn in Baku started to turn the night’s cooler. I entered ISR Plaza, most likely for one of the most important meetings of my life.
My first impression of the Ambassadors, Onno Kervers of The Kingdom of Netherlands and Bert Schoofs of The Kingdom of Belgium never faltered during our deep, interesting and, most importantly, educational discussion. The Ambassadors possessed a nobility with a powerful ambience surrounding them, that wasn’t once dispelled by their friendliness and willingness to help. Ambassadors Kervers and Schoofs educated me on the history and importance of the Benelux region; where the world’s future history is predicted.
“Would you please tell me more?” I asked, “How Benelux emerged? Who came up with such an innovative idea?”
“It was the leaders of the three countries in exile, who gathered in London during World War II.” Ambassador Kervers answered. His sparkling eyes revealed the Ambassadors passion for history. “The leaders decided it was absolutely mandatory for future survival and progress to create a union in the region. This idea materialized as soon as World War II – which had a horrible impact on our countries – finally ended. One could say that Benelux foresaw the European Union and its basic concepts!”
“The trial project!” I added, and Ambassador Kervers nodded. “Could we say, in this sense, that Benelux was the inspiration and even the model for the European Union?” I tried very carefully to choose my words. It is diplomatic talk, after all!
“Absolutely, except we came up with it first!” The Ambassadors apparently did not think poorly of my choice. “The concept was similar, the movements of capital, goods and people were completely free, and the political and economic cooperation was adhered to at all times. Benelux truly is the first European community to abide by these ideas and benefit from them. I remember myself very young and traveling to Belgium for the first time, no borders, no customs control… Believe me, it was a long time ago!” Ambassador Kervers laughed.
“Let me also add to the point of my colleague,” Ambassador Schoofs said, after the short pause. “Benelux historically played the role of a cushion; we are stuck between the three political and economic giants – France, Germany and The United Kingdom. The level of tension in the atmosphere can be scientifically measured; conflicts could appear out of nowhere. Benelux, being the center of the European Union as such, is an important catalyzer of relations in the region.”
“This must be politically stressful! Has there been an historical example to this “cushion” role?” I asked.
“Well, my dear, there is none. But does that not mean that Benelux does a great job?” Ambassador Schoofs smiled, and I noticed how proud he is to be a Belgian.
Our talk paused again for a while, until I broke it with another question.
“But where did Benelux diplomatically spread first? I reckon, the three big neighbors were the first ones to come to mind, weren’t they?”
“Exactly! Our three nations have lived alongside France and Germany, but also the United Kingdom, for centuries and centuries – it is only logical of us to first reassure the stable economic relations with our immediate neighbors!” Ambassador Kervers replied.
“To add there, we must not forget the United States, that have initiated the famous European Recovery Program, also known as Marshall Plan,” Ambassador Schoofs added.
I felt a very powerful character behind his joyful voice. By this time, I had already realized that both the Ambassadors, despite the softness of their speech and relaxed ambience around them, possessed the strongest nature and will. My preliminary respect to them, replenished with every moment.
“The U.S., being our allies during the Second World War, tried to avoid another war in the region and donated huge amounts of capital into the recovery of Europe. Benelux seemed to them a natural partner, since no centrifugal forces and separatist movements were noticed there.”
I listened to the political history of Benelux with such interest, that I almost forgot to ask the questions I prepared beforehand.
“Undoubtedly, Azerbaijan was not amongst the countries that Benelux immediately started building diplomatic relations with; neither did it exist independently at the time, nor would it have had such a regional importance. And yet, how did our relationship begin?”
“I think it was in 1991, when our countries recognized Azerbaijan as an independent state on the international arena, it all started from there on,” Ambassador Kervers answered.
I suddenly remembered there was a point I wanted to clear for myself.
“Do Netherlands or Belgium represent Luxembourg, here in Azerbaijan?” I asked.
“We both do. Luxembourg is too small a country to have a representation everywhere in the world. It was our agreement to divide the responsibilities between our missions.”
“How exactly are these divided?”
“In theory, I, as the Head of Mission of Netherlands, should handle protocol and political matters,” Ambassador Kervers explained, “Whereas my colleague Ambassador Schoofs and the Embassy of Belgium is responsible for the economic and cultural side of the coin.”
“In practice though, this division of labor is not strictly adhered to, since we have a very good cooperation between our Embassies that brings benefit to all the members of Benelux on an equal basis.” Ambassador Schoofs smiled. “As soon as we start planning an event that concerns any of our three countries, Ambassador Kervers and I get together and start regulating the whole project. It helps we are in the same building!”
“Have you initiated the visit of delegation from Luxembourg in 2017 to Azerbaijan? As I recall, Jacques-Yves Henckes was one of the visitors?”
“Actually,” Ambassador Schoofs paused for a moment to think. “As far as I remember, it was the other way around: we were told by Luxembourg, that there is a delegation being organized, and our two Embassies on this end helped with protocol and documentation.”
“That is interesting, considering, that Luxembourg initiated the visit. How would you describe the Azerbaijan-Benelux relationship nowadays? Are they purely political, or more economic-oriented?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“At this point, our relations are, indeed, very broad and balanced.” Ambassador Kervers said. “The amounts of bilateral trade, increase each year, and does not solely concern the energy sphere anymore. We have large amounts of agricultural products imported to Azerbaijan, along with logistical cooperation. The tourism field expands with each season: people from Azerbaijan are now interested not only in Amsterdam, Brussels and Luxembourg – they travel to the regions and spend a significant amount of time in our countries.” “There is also potential to further increase tourism from our countries to Azerbaijan,” Ambassador Schoofs joined in, “and concluding an Aviation Agreement between the EU and Azerbaijan, would result in cheaper and more direct flights, to increase the number of tourists coming our way.”
“Not to forget an education sphere,” I added. “Lots of my peers choose the countries of Benelux as a region, where they can continue and complete their studies and acquire new knowledge and skills!”
“Undoubtedly, my dear. It is really important to see though, how similar the diplomatic tendencies with Benelux are, with the ones in the rest of the European Union.” Ambassador Schoofs noted. “At the beginning of each ministerial EU-session, our three Foreign Ministers have a joint breakfast and determine the direction of our countries’ foreign policies. These policies, as time shows, could later be reflected in the overall movement of the EU. Our big neighbors have already realized, that the answers and solutions to almost any issue that emerges on the territory of the EU, either are suggested by Benelux directly or could be seen from our historical example. Long story short, relationships between Benelux and Azerbaijan pretty much reflect Azerbaijan’s relations with the European Union overall!”
“What space do we have to evolve and excel?” I asked. “How could we deepen our relations with your three countries and, by that, with the whole EU?”
“Benelux right now is very much interested in the security aspect of our relationship,” the Ambassador of Netherlands replied. “Apart from being situated in what is not the most stable region in the world, Azerbaijan also is important for energy security, information security and economic stability. We are closely cooperating on these issues, along with some human rights and anti-corruption projects.”
“The open wound of Azerbaijan certainly is a risk for stability,” I agreed. “What solution does Benelux – and you, as experienced diplomats – see to the notorious Nagorno-Karabakh problem?”
“The answer is always the regulation of the peace,” – Ambassador Schoofs said, and his colleague nodded. “The Minsk Group is doing an exceptional job in trying to solve the conflict, and the world community is unanimously against disrupting territorial integrity of any country. Nowadays is not the time to start redrawing the map, which would be detrimental to international peace and security. All I – and with me the whole Benelux – can wish to Azerbaijan, is to be patient and wise. Not falling into provocations is also a diplomatic art.”
He paused for a bit, and then continued “I wish the region of the South Caucasus to have something very similar to Benelux – three neighboring friendly countries moving together to the bright future.”
These words touched my very soul. I wish us all to learn the lesson of calm friendliness and unstoppable success taught by Benelux and its Ambassadors here, in Azerbaijan – Ambassador Onno Kervers of The Kingdom of Netherlands and Ambassador Bert Schoofs of The Kingdom of Belgium.