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A Dialogue between Dutch Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Albert Gerard (Bert) Koenders and SAIS Europe Students

March 8, 2021


  • Albert Gerard (Bert) Koenders, Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Special Envoy of the World Bank on Fragility, The Netherlands
  • Emma Bevers, MAIR candidate '22
  • Benjamin Shinogle, MAIR candidate '22
  • Zoe Strauss, MAIR candidate '21
  • Athanasios (Thanos) Theofanakis, MEPP candidate '21

Dutch Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Albert Gerard Koenders was invited by the SAIS Europe Class of 2021 to engage in a panel discussion with current students where he offered insights on a number of topics including, the upcoming elections in the Netherlands; the state of the EU following Brexit; the EU’s external political relations after Trump; and the impact of COVID on the fragility of the European neighborhood and its financial institutions. 
Koenders began the discussion by recalling the shifting global landscape he observed when he was a student at SAIS Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He posited that three major events which shaped the world at that time are seeing reverberations in the present. First, he noted the ending of the post-war economic reconstruction in Europe and the emerging consensus to build society on a combination of states and markets. The elections of Reagan and Thatcher confirmed the balance between these two institutions was shifting to favor markets. Today, he argued, that balance is reversing as a result of the financial crisis in 2008 and the COVID pandemic. He also acknowledged the socioeconomic evolution occurring in China with the rise of Deng Xiaoping, the challenges the state capitalist system posed to global power structures, and resulting need to address the growing risk of conflict with China. Lastly, he addressed the growing instability in the Middle East catalyzed by the Iranian revolution and the terrorist attack on Mecca in 1979 that today is still being dealt with through proxy wars and geopolitics in the region.
Moving into the first topic for the panel, Koenders emphasized the need to build a more operationally resilient and effective EU in order to face the challenges posed by COVID. Domestic politics, he put forward, have increasingly been penetrated by international issues. Using the upcoming Dutch elections as a case study, he noted that the continued popularity of the Prime Minister has largely been a result of people feeling that he is dealing with the COVID pandemic in a reasonable way. A reversal of the trend towards skepticism regarding the EU, which had taken hold beginning in 2015, and the view that the EU is a steppingstone to multilateralism and a necessary facet of cooperative measures to address the socioeconomic fragilities brought about by COVID, have strengthened. A pro- or anti-EU position has become a secondary facet of advocacy for or against specific issues such as climate change and health policy. 
Following this discussion, Koenders addressed how the role and position of the Netherlands has evolved since Brexit. Historically, he stated, the Dutch position has generally been to push for a closer union, though as the EU expanded fears that small- and middle-range countries would not benefit as greatly as others fed increased scepticism. Their strongest ally and trade partner in the EU was the UK; hence, Brexit is especially perceived to be tragic in the Netherlands. As a result, the Netherlands is left with two potential positions to take: (1) create alliances with Nordic and other smaller powers as a countercoalition against French and German leadership; or (2) work together in a coalition with France and Germany to promote cooperative policy initiatives, such as digitalization of the economy and the European Green Deal. Koenders personally favors the latter option as he believes it will better provide for capacity-building to address COVID and post-COVID reconstruction efforts.
Koenders also noted that while the election of the Biden administration in the US signals a turning point in transatlantic relations, both the EU and the US must focus on overcoming domestic divisions before they can engage fully in international policy initiatives. In addition, he argued that the EU needs to take initiative to establish leadership in its geographical neighborhood, as well as in regard to China and the Middle East. Rather than returning to the status quo of US leadership, Europe should seek to establish its own agreements on labor, human rights, and environmental standards, and discuss with the US and other regions of the world.
Lastly, Koenders spoke to the importance of unified EU leadership and initiative in Africa after years of fragmented approaches. He pointed to the 2011 intervention in Libya as emblematic of the failure on the part of the EU to invest effectively in strategic partners in Africa. The key lesson to take away is that the EU must choose to export stability, or it will import instability. African economies are increasingly taking initiative to establish trade and institution-building capacity with global partners, from the US to Europe to China. For countries in the EU, giving up some sovereignty in foreign policy to establish strong relations with Europe’s neighboring continent is a worthwhile investment to address issues of migration, energy, and economic development.