On the 22nd of May, former Prime Minister of theNetherlands Jan Peter Balkenende received an honorary doctoratefrom Hofstra University in New York, recognizing his achievementsin policymaking on “social security and deregulation.” ScienceGuidewas given the opportunity to conduct an exclusive interview withProf. dr. Balkenende, who reflected on his decade in Europeanpolitics and his future as strategist at a major internationalconsultancy firm.
Take your responsibility
Dressed in the traditional Hofstra blue gown, Balkenendeaddressed hundreds of graduate students, their families and friendsduring the Commencement ceremony in a basketball hall. In hisspeech he mentioned the strong ties the Netherlands had with theUSA and especially with Hofstra, a university in New York Statefounded by Dutch immigrants in 1935. He urged all graduates to goout into the world and “take their responsibility” as intellectualsliving in a fast paced world of change and technological progress.Especially now it would be important for them to see themselves aspart of a greater community and as world citizens creating a betterfuture for coming generations.
Getting an honorary doctorate from Hofstra, Balkenende findshimself among fine company. Earlier awardees are for instanceformer general and then president-to-be Dwight D. Eisenhower in1950, dr. Martin Luther King in 1965, Alfred Heineken in 1996 andpresident Bill Clinton in 2005. For Balkenende it is his4th honorary doctorate, after earlier laud fromuniversities in Budapest, Tokio and Seoul.
ScienceGuide editor Tim-Patrick Limmer, a German studentfrom the LearningLab of the University of Amsterdam,spoke with Balkenende during his exchange studies at Hofstra.ScienceGuide highly appreciates the willingness of bothHofstra University and Balkenende for the opportunity to conductthis interview on such a special occasion.
Doha, Singapore, Davos
You were Prime Minister of the Netherlands during anincredibly eventful decade, both in your country and in Europe as awhole. Now, you have a very different job with Ernst & Young.Let me ask you bluntly: what is it exactly that you’re doing inyour new position?
In essence, my new job is made up of three elements. First ofall, I support the top management of Ernst & Young oninternational strategic issues. I give them my advice while theyare preparing their position or statements on internationaldevelopments and important meetings. Think of the Doha Round oninternational trade agreements, but also the meetings of the G20 orthe Davos conferences of the World Economic Forum. This is myinternal function in our firm.
The second major part of my work has to do with the emphasis oncorporate responsibility as an important aspect of our work. Forinstance, we have to be very alert on corporate responsibilityissues in advices Ernst & Young gives when it comes to auditingand advices on firms´ tax policies. We support our client to becomeactive on this theme. The other day for instance, I was inSingapore for meetings with the CEOs of client firms for whom thisis a major policy question. On this issue I will also be active inthe media, giving my views and experience in this field.
The third part of my new job concerns helping our clients in thedevelopment of their worldwide strategy and relationships. Forexample, I can give them background knowledge and know-how on howto be successfully active in developing countries.
Next to Ernst & Young you have made a comeback as auniversity professor as well!
Indeed! I will be lecturing at the Erasmus University Rotterdamon governance, preferably good governance..…
One week off
You could look at your new positions at Ernst & Youngand the EUR as a very challenging situation, also for yourselfpersonally. Having been a Prime Minister for almost a decade, doyou feel you had to reinvent yourself?
Well, let me put this in the right order. It is indeed a cut inyour life when something like this, the collapse of your cabinet,happens. Our government fell, as you probably know, overdisagreements with the Social Democrats (PvdA) concerning our rolein Afghanistan and our future involvement. This is politics, youknow? On Friday you’re Prime Minister, the next morning it isover.
So then the moment of transition came, with Mark Rutte creatinga new government coalition. As elections and negotiations were heldduring the summer, I had to prepare another fiscal budget. So whenRutte took over, I had a lot to inform him about. For instance,concerning the budgetary measures we had prepared and in some casesalready taken. Another important element of the transition was thebackground information I had to give him on major internationalissues such as the agenda of the Dutch government for the next G20meeting.
In October last year I left my office in The Hague. Right afterthat the annual autumn holidays for schools started. So my familyand I took a week off to relax and enjoy being together. Afterthat, during November, I had my first talk with the people fromErnst & Young.
As Prime Minister you installed the first InnovationPlatform in which government ministers, top scientists andrepresentatives from industry developed a long-term innovationstrategy for the Netherlands. In that context, do you see linksbetween your new job at Ernst & Young and the way you workedearlier?
Well, yes I do. The theme of corporate responsibility has beenpart of my earlier work and publications, even when I was aprofessor at the Vrije Universiteit before I got involved innational politics. The same holds for my work at the policyanalysis institute of the Christian Democratic Party (CDA).
Looking back at the last decade, I can honestly say that I had agreat time being Prime Minister. It was very rewarding to be ableto do such important work for my country. But at the same time youhave to be aware of what I said before: “on Friday you’re PrimeMinister, the next morning it’s over”. So when this happens and youhave another opportunity to do interesting work, I say: moveon!
Someone else also moved on: Mark Rutte. In 2004, he wasjunior minister of Higher Education within your second government.You met and worked with him as his Prime Minister during thosedays. Did you already see his potential back then? Did you help himto 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 PeterBalkenende”.
You know, in politics you never know how things will work out.When Rutte had to compete with Rita Verdonk for the leadership ofthe Liberal Party (VVD) this was the case as well: you never knowwhat will happen. After he won that party contest Rutte really haddifficult 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 moreflexible 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 introducinga new way of financing Higher Education through the concept ofleerrechten [Higher Education vouchers for students]. This was anidea that you supported very strongly. Do you still think that thiswould be the best approach towards the future of Higher Educationfunding in the Netherlands?
I have always had a positive opinion of the leerrechtenconcept! It is very useful when you think of the fact thatsocieties all have to move towards a system of life-long learning.This calls both for investments from public means and forindividuals to invest in themselves. A system ofleerrechten could be a great concept to realize this.
Let me add one more thing here: this investing in life-longlearning is not just a responsibility for the government, theeducational system of universities and hogescholen and forindividual citizens. It is really important that industry andcorporations also step in and take their responsibility aswell.
Now, when it comes to the funding of Higher Education I guessyou probably want to ask me about my thoughts on the’langstudeerboete’ [the controversial penalty for overduestudents]. So maybe we should conclude our talk here. Allow menot to be too involved in the current discussion on HigherEducation policies!