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Interview with interim cabinet minister Van Leeuwen: from lawyer to diplomat to politician

In his last week as interim cabinet minister, alumnus and outgoing Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Geoffrey van Leeuwen set time aside to give a guest lecture at his alma mater, Leiden Law School. It was the perfect opportunity for a flash interview.

Geoffrey van Leeuwen

Which specialisation did you follow here, and why did you decide to study in Leiden?

‘I did my master’s specialisation in civil law here. I chose to study law due to the broad nature of the degree programme. Honestly, I didn’t even think twice about coming to Leiden because my two brothers were already here at the time.’

How did your time in Leiden shape you and contribute to your current expertise?

‘It was the early 1990s at the time, and I think the spirit of the times had a really big impact on me. It was during Operation Desert Storm, the allied attack aimed to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. At the time, the whole house was glued to the television, and we watched a CNN correspondent literally reporting from the middle of a war zone and the allies’ eventual success. 1991 was also the last year of the superpower that was the Soviet Union. It was several years after the fall of the Berlin wall, and Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1991 was the final blow for the communist empire. All of these things helped form my optimistic, positive worldview as the impossible became possible and a long period of peace and prosperity began. However, as Machiavelli once said, “It is a common fault of men not to reckon on storms in fair weather”. Just think about the turbulence across the world at the moment... My fascination with international politics was sparked during that time.’

Do you still apply what you learned from your studies to your current work as an outgoing government minister?

‘Of course! Although I don’t practise as a lawyer any more, I think my legal mindset gives me a real advantage. My absolute favourite course was Professor Franken's ‘Introduction to Law’. One particular quotation from Professor Mr Franken, who took me on as his student assistant, has always stayed with me: “It ain't necessarily so”. By this, he meant that lawyers shouldn’t draw conclusions too quickly – all sides of the case should be examined first, and that’s important for lawyers, diplomats and politicians alike.’

You entered the diplomatic service pretty much straight away. Was that always your dream?

‘For a very long time, I thought I would become a lawyer. I enjoyed arguing cases and participating in Moot Court hearings. By the time I left Leiden Law School, I felt very well prepared for a career in law. But then in my final year, I wanted to look a bit further. I was going to do a masterclass organised by a law firm, but then realised that I what I really wanted to do was go out into the wider world and work at a broader, more international level. Hence why I decided to do another master's degree in international relations at the University of Cambridge. The fact that after many years working as a diplomat – including my stint as Dutch ambassador in Kabul – I’m now an interim minister isn’t so strange in itself. Before this, I was a council advisor at the Dutch Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence for many years, and I therefore have lots of experience with working on complex social issues.’

Which qualities do you feel make a good diplomat and a good minister?

‘There’s at least one key parallel between a good diplomat, council advisor and government minister: the importance of always highlighting, weighing up and factoring in all aspects, interests and perspectives before arriving at a decision or conclusion.’

What’s your greatest challenge as a government minister?

‘Having to prepare everyone for a very unpleasant, unstable world. It’s not as if doomsday is just around the corner – and I don’t want to sound too alarmist – but the Netherlands may have to reposition itself and adapt.’

You gave a guest lecture here on 8 April, which shows how committed you are to your alma mater. Do you think we do enough to inform and engage our alumni?

‘After all these years, I still receive the alumni magazine, Leidraad, by post and I always read it! I’m very proud to have studied here. Leiden really does enjoy an international reputation – I can talk about Leiden all over the world, and to my mind, Leiden is one of the top global universities. Opening and developing the campus in The Hague was another a fantastic step. The campus has even been commended by my daughter's international school. The guest lecture back in April was my first active contribution as an alumnus, and I’m definitely willing to do more if and when I’m asked. So my advice would be: don’t be afraid to ask!’

And finally, just so we can get to know you better as a person: what’s your guilty pleasure?

‘I don’t think I really have a guilty pleasure… to be honest, I struggle more with general gluttony. My job involves a lot of travelling and irregular hours, which has caused me to keep yoyoing in weight by five or six kilograms.’

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