On the 22nd of May, former Prime Minister of the
Netherlands Jan Peter Balkenende received an honorary doctorate
from Hofstra University in New York, recognizing his achievements
in policymaking on "social security and deregulation." ScienceGuide
was given the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview with
Prof. dr. Balkenende, who reflected on his decade in European
politics and his future as strategist at a major international
Take your responsibility
Dressed in the traditional Hofstra blue gown, Balkenende
addressed hundreds of graduate students, their families and friends
during the Commencement ceremony in a basketball hall. In his
speech he mentioned the strong ties the Netherlands had with the
USA and especially with Hofstra, a university in New York State
founded by Dutch immigrants in 1935. He urged all graduates to go
out into the world and "take their responsibility" as intellectuals
living in a fast paced world of change and technological progress.
Especially now it would be important for them to see themselves as
part of a greater community and as world citizens creating a better
future for coming generations.
Getting an honorary doctorate from Hofstra, Balkenende finds
himself among fine company. Earlier awardees are for instance
former general and then president-to-be Dwight D. Eisenhower in
1950, dr. Martin Luther King in 1965, Alfred Heineken in 1996 and
president Bill Clinton in 2005. For Balkenende it is his
4th honorary doctorate, after earlier laud from
universities in Budapest, Tokio and Seoul.
ScienceGuide editor Tim-Patrick Limmer, a German student
from the LearningLab of the University of Amsterdam,
spoke with Balkenende during his exchange studies at Hofstra.
ScienceGuide highly appreciates the willingness of both
Hofstra University and Balkenende for the opportunity to conduct
this interview on such a special occasion.
Doha, Singapore, Davos
You were Prime Minister of the Netherlands during an
incredibly eventful decade, both in your country and in Europe as a
whole. Now, you have a very different job with Ernst & Young.
Let me ask you bluntly: what is it exactly that you're doing in
your new position?
In essence, my new job is made up of three elements. First of
all, I support the top management of Ernst & Young on
international strategic issues. I give them my advice while they
are preparing their position or statements on international
developments and important meetings. Think of the Doha Round on
international trade agreements, but also the meetings of the G20 or
the Davos conferences of the World Economic Forum. This is my
internal function in our firm.
The second major part of my work has to do with the emphasis on
corporate responsibility as an important aspect of our work. For
instance, we have to be very alert on corporate responsibility
issues in advices Ernst & Young gives when it comes to auditing
and advices on firms´ tax policies. We support our client to become
active on this theme. The other day for instance, I was in
Singapore for meetings with the CEOs of client firms for whom this
is a major policy question. On this issue I will also be active in
the media, giving my views and experience in this field.
The third part of my new job concerns helping our clients in the
development of their worldwide strategy and relationships. For
example, I can give them background knowledge and know-how on how
to be successfully active in developing countries.
Next to Ernst & Young you have made a comeback as a
university professor as well!
Indeed! I will be lecturing at the Erasmus University Rotterdam
on governance, preferably good governance..…
One week off
You could look at your new positions at Ernst & Young
and the EUR as a very challenging situation, also for yourself
personally. Having been a Prime Minister for almost a decade, do
you feel you had to reinvent yourself?
Well, let me put this in the right order. It is indeed a cut in
your life when something like this, the collapse of your cabinet,
happens. Our government fell, as you probably know, over
disagreements with the Social Democrats (PvdA) concerning our role
in Afghanistan and our future involvement. This is politics, you
know? On Friday you're Prime Minister, the next morning it is
So then the moment of transition came, with Mark Rutte creating
a new government coalition. As elections and negotiations were held
during the summer, I had to prepare another fiscal budget. So when
Rutte took over, I had a lot to inform him about. For instance,
concerning the budgetary measures we had prepared and in some cases
already taken. Another important element of the transition was the
background information I had to give him on major international
issues such as the agenda of the Dutch government for the next G20
In October last year I left my office in The Hague. Right after
that the annual autumn holidays for schools started. So my family
and I took a week off to relax and enjoy being together. After
that, during November, I had my first talk with the people from
Ernst & Young.
As Prime Minister you installed the first Innovation
Platform in which government ministers, top scientists and
representatives from industry developed a long-term innovation
strategy for the Netherlands. In that context, do you see links
between your new job at Ernst & Young and the way you worked
Well, yes I do. The theme of corporate responsibility has been
part of my earlier work and publications, even when I was a
professor at the Vrije Universiteit before I got involved in
national politics. The same holds for my work at the policy
analysis institute of the Christian Democratic Party (CDA).
Looking back at the last decade, I can honestly say that I had a
great time being Prime Minister. It was very rewarding to be able
to do such important work for my country. But at the same time you
have to be aware of what I said before: "on Friday you're Prime
Minister, the next morning it's over". So when this happens and you
have another opportunity to do interesting work, I say: move
Someone else also moved on: Mark Rutte. In 2004, he was
junior minister of Higher Education within your second government.
You met and worked with him as his Prime Minister during those
days. Did you already see his potential back then? Did you help him
to develop his political talent?
We have our differences. Still, we kept a good relationship.
Remember that Mark Rutte once said "I am a fan of Jan Peter
You know, in politics you never know how things will work out.
When Rutte had to compete with Rita Verdonk for the leadership of
the Liberal Party (VVD) this was the case as well: you never know
what will happen. After he won that party contest Rutte really had
difficult times at the beginning.
Now, he doesn't have an easy job either. Policymaking is hard.
For instance, the necessary reform to make the labor market more
flexible is not moving ahead because of the Freedom Party (PVV)
blocking any initiative.
Life Long Learning a must
In your government Mark Rutte was very active in introducing
a new way of financing Higher Education through the concept of
leerrechten [Higher Education vouchers for students]. This was an
idea that you supported very strongly. Do you still think that this
would be the best approach towards the future of Higher Education
funding in the Netherlands?
I have always had a positive opinion of the leerrechten
concept! It is very useful when you think of the fact that
societies all have to move towards a system of life-long learning.
This calls both for investments from public means and for
individuals to invest in themselves. A system of
leerrechten could be a great concept to realize this.
Let me add one more thing here: this investing in life-long
learning is not just a responsibility for the government, the
educational system of universities and hogescholen and for
individual citizens. It is really important that industry and
corporations also step in and take their responsibility as
Now, when it comes to the funding of Higher Education I guess
you probably want to ask me about my thoughts on the
'langstudeerboete' [the controversial penalty for overdue
students]. So maybe we should conclude our talk here. Allow me
not to be too involved in the current discussion on Higher