As Ukraine braces for a massive Russian assault on its eastern Donbas region, Dutch officials are preparing for a much friendlier invasion by thousands of visitors to its once-a-decade floriculture exhibition known as Floriade.
Held this year in Almere, about 30 kilometers from Amsterdam, the 62-year-old event seeks to show horticulturalists from around the world not only the best way to grow tomatoes, but state-of-the-art solar roof tiles and vertical façade gardens, Andre Haspels, Netherlands’ ambassador to the United States, told VOA.
The theme of the expo this year is literally what goes into the construction of sustainable cities, Haspels said, adding that Floriade will provide the chance to study the special construction material known as cementless concrete the Dutch have developed and now use for roads and bridges.
And while the tulip also blooms in times of war, the conflict unfolding in Ukraine rings a special bell for the Dutch men and women who experienced the sudden and tragic loss of loved ones in 2014 when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by what investigators say was a Russian-made missile as the jet flew over eastern Ukraine, which was controlled by pro-Russian forces.
The flight was on its way from Amsterdam to Malaysia. All 298 people onboard were killed.
“The death of 298 civilians, including 196 Dutch, cannot and should not remain without consequences,” Deputy Prime Minister Wopke Hoekstra said in a recent statement. “The current events in Ukraine underscore the vital importance of this.”
Russia has categorically denied any involvement in the incident known as MH17.
Outside the Dutch ambassador’s residence in Washington, the Ukrainian flag is posted in the front near the Dutch national flag. Inside, Haspels recently hosted “Tulip Days,” an annual spring event that was used this year to promote Dutch-American friendship, Floriade and to express support for Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine is not the only concern that has given pause to organizers of the flower show, which opens Thursday and runs for six months. They have had to deal with the two-plus-year-old COVID-19 pandemic, which is only now easing its grip in Europe.
“They had moments when they had to decide, ‘Go or no-go,’ Haspels told VOA during the Tulip Days event, which had been on hold since 2019 because of the pandemic. “In the end, they decided to carry on with the festival, partly because the event would mostly be outdoors.”
The Netherlands, like the United States and most European countries, has lifted many of the stringent COVID-19 measures, including mandatory masks, “except on public transportation and airports,” said Haspels, who has tested positive twice, despite having been vaccinated and boosted.
Impact, lessons of war
As the COVID-19 threat weakens, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced Western European nations to face new challenges to their security and economies.
“First of all, we have taken sanctions against Russia. That means that our oil prices and our gas prices go up. Our food prices go up. So, there’s inflation,” he said.
“Secondly, there’s a large number of refugees coming from Ukraine to Europe. First to the neighboring countries, mainly Poland, but also to other countries, including my country. I think we have about 12,000 refugees from Ukraine now in the Netherlands.”
While Ukraine’s bids for membership in the European Union and NATO are being pondered, what is known as an Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU is proving to be critical when it comes to helping fleeing Ukrainians to resettle, Haspels said.
Among the privileges granted under the agreement, Ukrainian people can enter the EU to live, work and find housing.
“The children can go to school in the Netherlands or any other European country” without applying for asylum. “That’s what we’re focusing on at the moment,” Haspels explained.
“This is going to be a decisive moment for Europe for a long, long time for a number of reasons,” the Dutch ambassador told VOA. “You’ve seen as a consequence that many European countries increased their defense expenditure — the Netherlands did, under the new government. But also our neighbor, Germany, has increased their defense expenditure to 100 billion euros, which is huge if you look at German’s history, as well. So, they will become a stronger player within NATO and in European defense.”
The war is also forcing European countries, including the Netherlands, to rethink their reliance on Russian energy sources, seeking out alternate fossil fuel sources and speeding up the shift to renewables.
“Norway is a producer of oil and gas. Even in my own country, in the Netherlands, we still have gas availability, but we decided not to use it because of environmental risks. But now, we understand that in this emergency situation, we might need to explore this gas reserve in the Netherlands, as well,” he said. “So, our energy relationship will change. I think we will have a much faster transition to a green economy. So, also solar, wind, hydrogen will get a huge incentive.”
Haspels noted that the war in Ukraine has taught allies and their adversaries another valuable lesson.
“What we have learned is that alliances are very important. The alliance within Europe and the unanimity that we have, which I think is a great achievement, but also the alliance between Europe and the U.S.,” he said.
Asked how the Washington diplomatic scene has changed because of the war and reduced fears about COVID-19, Haspels said most of the EU missions in the U.S. capital have started to organize bigger in-person events.
“Diplomacy is a contact sport,” he joked.
But the Dutch ambassador has not been in contact with his Russian counterpart.
“At this stage, I do not see what added value that would have,” he said, explaining that relations between his country and Russia were already tense due to MH17.
Although Ukraine is not an EU member, Kyiv’s top diplomatic representative was invited in February to attend a formal EU meeting of ambassadors, where “she briefed us on the situation in Ukraine” and expressed appreciation for the measures the EU had taken, Haspels said.