Magdalena Surma and Michele Di Leo had the great honour of interviewing Mr. Anne van Leeuwen. From 1999-2002, Mr. van Leeuwen served as Press and Public Diplomacy Officer at the Netherlands Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Following this posting, he worked from 2002-2006 at the Netherlands Embassy in Ottawa as Cultural Attaché before taking positions as Deputy Director of the Facility Services and Housing Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2006-2009) and as Head of the Consular Affairs Division at the Ministry (2009-2013) . In 2013, he was appointed as Consul General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Toronto.
Can you please begin by discussing the significance and the impact of the work that you do here in Toronto as a successful diplomat?
I have been in Toronto as the Consul General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands since 2013. My mission here involves three pillars. First there is economic diplomacy, where we try to be an honest broker between Dutch firms and parties with Canadian counterparts. We focus on niches and fields where we believe we can be of added value, like water and waste management and issues related to urban planning and climate change. The Netherlands is twice the size of Lake Ontario but we have half the population of Canada and that implies that during the last decades and centuries we have encountered many of the challenges that the fast growing and densely populated GTA is currently facing. Resiliency, of our cities in particular, is one of our core strengths and we do see a win-win in working in these fields with our Canadian counterparts.
Other pillars are consular business and public diplomacy. We have a very big community of Dutch Canadians: according to Statistics Canada, 1 million Canadians claim to be of Dutch descent and half of that group lives in Ontario. We have a responsibility and connection to this group, and we also provide consular services, like issuing Dutch passports, to those who still hold Dutch citizenship. Another important consular function of my office is the issuance of visa to foreigners who live in Canada and who want to travel to the Netherlands.
Part of our relationship with Canada is the recognition of the Canadian Armed Forces as our liberators at the end of WW2. This is a rock-solid base of the relationship and friendship between Canada and the Netherlands and between the Dutch and the Canadians and we keep on building on this in a modern way in our Public Diplomacy. We work hard on keeping the Dutch image vibrant and positive as a country of innovation and creativity.
With all the work that you have done, what would be your advice to young people who are interested pursuing diplomacy?
I cannot really provide a lot of advice on education and your academic training, because there really is a wide variety of backgrounds for diplomats. We have lawyers and historians and students of international affairs, but also linguists and social scientists. It is of course important that you know about history and culture and international relations, but in my view, the most crucial is your emotional and social intelligence. You have to be capable of putting yourself in the place of other cultures, interests and ways of working. You always have to see who really is at the other side of the table. You have to find a way to connect yourself to other people from other countries and continents.
You must also be flexible in adapting to this life. If you have a family, it is not always easy to move every 3 or 4 years. It also helps to be curious and to stay young at heart, and be willing to take new challenges and new endeavors. I have never regretted joining the Foreign Service.
Can you touch on the importance of engagement, particularly by young people, in the various initiatives that are available out there?
One of the nice things in my office here in Toronto is that we always have two or three interns from Dutch universities joining us. They are senior students doing their Masters and typically assist us here for six months. It is a joy to have them here because they are enthusiastic young people who want to learn. This is the next generation and they have to be educated and learn to think beyond their own immediate surroundings. They will be instrumental in building bridges between communities, cultures and countries.
With all the experiences and successes in your career, what would you say have been some of your most memorable moments?
Every posting has its own fascinating experiences. My first posting about 24 years ago was in Suriname, which was a Dutch colony until it became independent in 1975. This bilateral relationship was tense and relaxed at the same time. We all spoke Dutch and knew about each others countries and history. Because of the very special bilateral history and relationship, it was asking top diplomacy to manoeuvre across the pitfalls and instances in this relationship. I worked in the Embassy as a personal assistant to the Ambassador who was a very nice mentor and I learned a lot of him.
Another posting was in Indonesia, Jakarta. This was similar to Suriname in history in the sense that it used to be a Dutch colony until the 1940’s, but different in the sense that Indonesia gained its independence through a hard fought struggle. It was fascinating to travel there and find pre-colonial and Dutch heritage, as well as to just talk with the people and find common ground. We have a special history with these two countries that goes back centuries. I had a very interesting time and I have learned a lot about how historical ties and relations are influencing bilateral relations and how you have to position yourself as a diplomat in this environment.
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