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Dutch ambassador: 'Netherlands and East Anglia must not drift apart after Brexit'

PUBLISHED: 11:23 15 July 2019 | UPDATED: 12:01 15 July 2019

Why the Norfolk and Suffolk must find a way to stay close to the Netherlands after Brexit

Why the Norfolk and Suffolk must find a way to stay close to the Netherlands after Brexit

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The Dutch - like most Europeans - did not want Britain to quit the European Union. Here Dutch ambassador to the UK Simon Smits talks to business editor Richard Porritt about the 'regrettable' referendum and how the East can stay close to it's North Sea neighbour.

Barely 100 miles separates East Anglia and the Hook of Holland.

In the 16th century Norwich welcomed a wave of so-called 'strangers' from the Netherlands and beyond when they were forced to seek asylum.

And it was the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden who the Earl of Bedford turned to for his land reclamation expertise when the decision was made to drain the Fens in the 17th century.

For centuries East Anglia and the Netherlands have enjoyed a close friendship and excellent trading ties.

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In fact only last year Norfolk and Suffolk had a stall at the Netherlands' largest food, drink and hospitality trade event in Amsterdam.

But now Britain is preparing to turn her back on the European Union. And Dutch ambassador to the UK Simon Smits shares the fears of many business leaders that a no-deal Brexit could prove disastrous.

Speaking during a recent visit to East Anglia he told this newspaper: "The main reason for being here is the enormous number of links between the Netherlands and the East of England.

"At a certain time in the 16th century I think the Dutch composed about one third of the total population in Norwich. Of course there was engineering - draining the Fens - but also weaving, manufacturing and skills exchange - and that really hasn't changed.

"If I look at industry now - off shore oil and gas, the cooperation between the universities ... There really is a strong link between the two and a strong economic link because the Netherlands for Norfolk and Suffolk is a prime export destination.

"With Brexit it is very hard to predict what will happen. We first need to see who will be the next prime minister and what the future economic relationship will be.

"As countries we need all the anchors we can get to keep from drifting apart. The automaticity of the contacts between our ministers and civil servants via Brussels, the councils and high-level working groups - all that will disappear. We will have to fill that vacuum and that will have to be filled on a largely bilateral basis. That is our absolute priority.

"We regret the decision. At the same time of course we respect that this is a democratic process. But there is nothing we can, or will, or want to do to change this. In the end it is a challenge for everybody.

And ambassador Smits, who has also had postings in Geneva, Bangladesh and South Africa, is adamant that politicians must do whatever it takes to avoid the UK crashing out of Europe.

"Looking at what is happening in politics, I think there is one clear majority and that is to stay away from a no deal," he said.

"The general opinion is that this would not be desirable and it would be bad for business. I think also the lingering uncertainly that has now been going on for three years is not good for business or investment either.

"I was previously the director general for foreign economic relations - basically a travelling salesman for Dutch industry - if investors and companies are sitting on their hands not knowing what to do that is bad for everybody.

"The sooner we can resolve this the better it is."

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But he does believe that the historic ties between the region and the Dutch will benefit East Anglia.

"The East like any part of the UK will be bound by the same rules after Brexit as the rest of the UK," he added. "We can't have different rules for different areas. But you are very close - for some people in the East the nearest motorway is probably in the Netherlands rather than in the UK.

"The close relationship between the East of England and the Netherlands has always overcome the hurdles and as the Dutch king Willem-Alexander said in his speech to both houses of parliament: 'However high the waves may rise, you will always be a very important partner for us, your North Sea neighbour.'

"The North Sea neighbour element is very much a focus for us. The geography will not change. We will be very close to you geographically but also in mind, in values and everything that makes us the societies that we are.

"Our businesses hope for the softest and easiest possible goodbye so that in the new agreement we can keep trading, exchanging knowledge and cooperating in all fields we are right now.

"Norfolk is now exporting gin to the Netherlands whereas we originally brought is about three or four ages ago ... that's trade for you."

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