Monday 10 December 2018

Obituary: Ruud Lubbers

Former Dutch prime minister who steered the Maastricht Treaty into being

Ruud Lubbers announcing his resignation as UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005
Ruud Lubbers announcing his resignation as UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2005

Ruud Lubbers, who has died aged 78, was the longest-serving prime minister of the Netherlands, from 1982 to 1994, and later, from 2001, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a post from which he was forced to step down in 2005 over accusations of sexual harassment.

"I liked Mr Lubbers, a young practical businessman who now applied his talents to good effect in Dutch politics," wrote Margaret Thatcher in The Downing Street Years. "Although his instincts were federalist," she went on, "in day-to-day community business we often found ourselves on the same side."

Her successor, John Major, described Lubbers as "among Britain's closest friends. He was prepared to ruffle feathers and did so, while avoiding slogans and remaining full of common sense".

Lubbers was the man who, as president of the European Council of Ministers during the second half of 1991, brokered the Maastricht Treaty.

Popular, experienced, pragmatic and multilingual, Lubbers was seen as the ideal man to steer what was billed as "a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe", and to lay the foundations for the euro, to a successful conclusion.

In fact he almost fell at the first hurdle when, on September 30, 1991, a comprehensive scheme for political union, drafted by Piet Dankert, the Europe minister in the Dutch coalition government, was trashed by almost every other member state as too federalist.

Although he could not disown the draft altogether, Lubbers somehow escaped the blame and set about working out a form of words to satisfy all. His patience was said to be limitless and his victims, according to one commentator, "usually succumb to frustration, confusion or plain exhaustion".

Looking back in 2011 on Europe post-Maastricht, however, Lubbers admitted things had not progressed as he had hoped: "I thought the euro would be so successful it would lead to political union and that it would be attractive for other states to join. This was a mistake."

Rudolphus Franciscus Marie "Ruud" Lubbers was born on May 7, 1939, into a wealthy Catholic family, the owners of a major construction and civil engineering company, in mainly Protestant Rotterdam. After education at a Jesuit college, he studied economics at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, where he was a student of the Nobel prizewinner Jan Tinbergen. He originally planned an academic career, but instead joined the family business, becoming co-director with his brother in 1965 after their father's death.

He entered politics in 1973 after an invitation to be the Minister of Economic Affairs in the cabinet of Joop den Uyl. Subsequently elected to the Dutch House of Representatives, he became parliamentary leader of the Christian Democratic Appeal, a broadly centrist party formed in 1977 under Dries van Agt from three smaller parties. When Van Agt unexpectedly stepped down after winning an election in 1982, Lubbers was elected to succeed him and became the youngest prime minister in Dutch history.

He led three CDA-dominated coalition governments over 12 years and was regarded as an ideological soulmate of Thatcher. One of his campaign slogans was: "Meer markt, minder overheid" (more market, less government) and his years in office were marked by cutbacks in public spending and far-reaching deregulation and privatisation.

Before retiring from national politics, Lubbers was tipped to succeed Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission, but somewhere along the line he had got on the wrong side of German chancellor Helmut Kohl, and the job went to Jacques Santer in 1994. Instead he entered academia, lecturing at Harvard and at Tilburg University in the Netherlands until 2001, when he was appointed UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

He was considered enough of a success in the job, looking after the world's 17m refugees, that his initial three-year term was extended by two years on the recommendation of the UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

But his accomplishments were overshadowed by a sexual harassment case brought by an American UNHCR employee, who accused him of improperly touching her after a meeting in December 2003. Lubbers denied impropriety, saying he had intended an innocent "friendly gesture". He fought for more than a year to save his reputation and job, but an internal investigation in 2004 found a pattern of sexual misconduct. Kofi Annan initially declined to act, saying the findings were not strong enough for dismissal. But after the report leaked to the press and as Annan himself came under pressure over the Iraq oil-for-food scandal, he asked Lubbers to resign.

Though a multi-millionaire, he was unostentatious in his personal life, living in a suburban house on the outskirts of Rotterdam.

In 1962 he married Ria Hoogeweegen, who survives him with a daughter and two sons.

He died on February 14.

Sunday Independent

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