Ruud Lubbers, the Netherlands’ longest-serving prime minister and a member of the OMFIF advisory board, who died on 14 February aged 78, mixed firm credentials on European integration with a sense of continent-wide pragmatism. He mounted a determined campaign against bloated Dutch social welfare programmes, under the slogan ‘more market, less government’, helping to strengthen the Netherlands as a competitive globalised economy.
In later years, Lubbers took up strong positions promoting ‘green’ policies in finance and industry, part of an anti-climate change vanguard that has swept across many areas of business and economic life. He helped orchestrate the European summit in December 1991 at Maastricht in the Netherlands that laid out the road to the euro.
Lubbers later voiced disappointment that his country, as well as the rest of Europe, had veered away from the concept of federally organised unified Europe. ‘I thought that the euro would be so successful that it would lead to political union and that it would be attractive for other states to join,’ he told me in 2007. ‘This was a mistake.’
His business background – in his 20s he became director of his family’s bridge-building company after his father died unexpectedly – gave him a depth of experience relatively rare in politics. This acumen contributed towards shaping his no-nonsense, occasionally abrasive style as an ambitious young Christian Democrat politician who became prime minister in 1982, a post he held for 12 years.
Lubbers was the last survivor of a clutch of long-serving European leaders – François Mitterrand in France, Helmut Kohl in Germany, Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Giulio Andreotti in Italy – who forged, and sometimes disrupted, the European landscape in the 1980s.
Geoffrey Howe, Thatcher’s first chancellor of the exchequer and later foreign secretary, described Lubbers as ‘a conservative, intelligent, good-looking and unfanatically tenacious… one of the few European statesmen whose company Margaret almost enjoyed.’
On a bruisingly memorable occasion at the British prime minister’s country residence of Chequers in April 1989, Howe enlisted Lubbers’ help in a vain effort to bring the UK into the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System, the forerunner of economic and monetary union. Lubbers later recalled, ‘I said that it was the same as putting on a seat belt when you drove in a car. It did not mean you would drive less fast, but you’d have more safety.’ Thatcher vituperatively turned down the suggestion, claiming Britain would lose economic flexibility.
Lubbers was at the epicentre of Europe’s reactions to the fall of the Berlin wall, German reunification and the dismantling of the Soviet Union. A month after the wall fell, at a stormy European summit in Strasbourg in December 1989, termed by Kohl the most ‘tense and unfriendly’ he had ever attended, Lubbers joined Thatcher and Andreotti in challenging Kohl about the potential disruptive effect of German unity.
Hitherto Lubbers had been one of Kohl’s closest allies as a fellow Christian Democrat, and the top representative of Germany’s most steadfast monetary allies – but now he became a figure of suspicion. Reflecting Kohl’s elephantine memory for slights, the episode cost Lubbers the 1995 prize of succeeding Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission. The setback was compounded when the administration of US President Bill Clinton rejected his candidacy that year to head the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The wrangle with Kohl was one of the background reasons why Amsterdam never became a serious contender to site the European Central Bank.
Lubbers, like other European leaders, habitually overestimated Germany’s willingness to carry out policies that would benefit its neighbours. In a letter to Kohl, long kept secret, shortly after the Bundesbank raised interest rates in December 1991 in spite of a looming Europeans slowdown, Lubbers wrote, ‘As a result of the Bundesbank’s rigid monetary policies, tension within the European Monetary System is increasing (I am thinking especially of the English pound)… seriously endangering acceptance of further economic and monetary integration.’
Kohl ignored the message. The Bundesbank found out about it only after alarmed officials from the Nederlandsche Bank wrote to the German central bank to apologise. Later, Lubbers explained, ‘My co-operation with Helmut Kohl had been exemplary up to the time of unification in 1990.’ Afterwards, Kohl’s personality changed, Lubbers claimed. ‘He no longer wanted stronger people around him to help make the decisions… He started to believe in his own legend.’
In contrast to Kohl, Lubbers – under the veneer of a professional politician – was prone to palpable self-doubt, partly a product of the setbacks as well as the successes of his career. These characteristics added to his air of occasional lugubriousness – but made him a more rounded personality whose judgement and insights will be greatly missed.
David Marsh is Chairman of OMFIF.