How does a deeply religious man who wanted to become a missionary grow into one of the most powerful politicians in the Netherlands? Aart-Jan de Geus is the Dutch secretary for social affairs and employment and oversees the country’s pensions and social security reforms. We take a closer look at the minister with a mission.
“Being a good minister for social affairs and employment in good times is easy. When the going gets tough, the social affairs ministry is one of the toughest places in The Hague because that is where the really difficult decisions are being made,” says Dick Sluimers, board member of the ABP pension fund. Sluimers, a former civil servant at the finance ministry knows De Geus well. “Given the economic climate, he is doing a fairly good job.”
De Geus was born in 1955, the oldest in a family of six boys. He is married and has three children. During his studies in the 1970s, De Geus worked as an accountant and bookkeeper at various companies and consultancies. In 1980, he graduated from Erasmus University, Rotterdam, with a degree in Dutch law. A post-doctoral degree in employment law followed at the Catholic University Nijmegen.
The roots of De Geus’ political career were e sown in the early 1980s, when he started his career at the christian trade union association (CNV), working for its industry union. In 1993, he became vice-chairman of CNV, with special responsibility for social security, pensions, health care and employment.
In that capacity, De Geus become a member of the once-renowned Dutch Molder Model when he took up seats in the highly influential social-economic council (SER) and the labour foundation (STAR ). Niek Jan Kesteren, his former negotiation partner in the SER, currently director of employers’ association VNO-NCW, remembers De Geus as “a chameleon”. He says: “As a cabinet minister, he is defending policies that would have made him sweat 10 years ago.”
The SER and STAR are integral parts of the Polder Model, taken from the low countries’ famous land reclamation projects, called polders. It refers to policymaking by consensus between the government, unions and employers. It was highly successful in the late 1990s, when the economy enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom and the model was hailed by world leaders such as Bill Clinton.
In 1998, De Geus traded the polder for big business when he become a partner at consultants Boer & Croon, mainly working on public affairs. In 2002, the former union leader was made secretary of social affairs and employment in the short-lived cabinet of prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, a fellow Christian-Democrat. De Geus was re-appointed social affairs secretary in May 2003.
Because of his union past, De Geus was hailed as the cabinet’s ‘social face’, a term soon eroded when he proposed tough reform measures and budget cuts. Recently, De Geus argued that people’s expectations of him were “too high” because they assumed he would not be willing to push through tough measures.
He also mapped out his vision for the future Netherlands. “My vision is that people will be working until they are 65 in an honest and healthy way. My vision is a society in which there is more labour participation, and where less people stand on the side lines.”
Besides his work as a cabinet secretary, De Geus also finds the time to sit on the boards of the academic hospital in Maastricht and care insurance association Zorgverzekeraars Nederland as a non-executive director. He is also active in the Dutch Council of Churches and is chairman of the Dutch Refugee Council.
De Geus is a deeply religious man, so how does his religion mix with his day-time job? After all, he was hired to oversee some rather painful reforms of the country’s formerly once very generous welfare state. In an interview with the Dutch Christian broadcasting corporation EO, De Geus says: “I don’t have the illusion that all the work I do is ‘Christian’ work,” adding, “there is no such thing as being a Christian cabinet minister. I do my job as a Christian, but that is not the same thing as calling my work Christian.”
When De Geus took up the social affairs job in 2002, he inherited some of the country’s toughest political dossiers; the restructuring of Holland’s pensions and social security system. De Geus made the tackling of the ever-expanding number of workers on disablement benefits (WAO) one of the cornerstones of his policies.
The Dutch welfare state was founded in the 1960s and 1970s on the back of the nation’s vast natural gas resources. Come 2002, however, the Dutch were at risk of becoming the sick man of Europe. According to Statistics Netherlands, the number of people unable to work due to illness or disability was coming up to one million out of a population of 16m. In the EU, the Netherlands has one of the highest number of inactive workers, costing up to E10bn annually.
Under De Geus’ reign , the number of WAO claimants has fallen and currently stands at 968,000. This is no mean feat, particularly given the fact the WAO dossier has been the nail in many a Dutch politician’s coffin, with consecutive governments virtually incapable of solving the problem.
De Geus had to do his job in rapidly changing economic times. By 2002, the 1990s economic boom which turned the Netherlands into one of Europe’s tiger economies, was in decline. After the internet bubble burst and 11 September, the economy ground to a virtual standstill, with inflation rising and unemployment hitting levels not seen in over 20 years.
Another paradox in De Geus’ political life is that he, the former trade union insider, found himself at the receiving end of mass protests against the government’s controversial proposals for social security and pensions reform this autumn. Lodewijk de Waal, FNV’s union leader, promised De Geus a “long hot autumn” if the government tried to push through measures to cut the cost of the country’s ageing population.
In November, after exhaustive political manoeuvering, the country’s social partners, at last reach a compromise, overhauling parts of the country’s social security and pension system. De Geus scored a personal triumph when he managed to push through pre-pension plans and the lifestyle savings scheme, dubbed the ‘love baby’ of the Christian-Democrat Party.
Although De Geus failed to push through retirement age proposals, the cabinet’s plans to scrap tax breaks for VUT and pre-pension premiums in 2006 were upheld. The partners also agreed a deal on WAO proposals and a freeze of civil servants’ wages and benefits.
De Geus credits the social agreement with healing the months’ long rift between the government and its social partners. “We must prepare our social security and labour market for a society with more senior people and strong international competition. It is about modernisation while maintaining solidarity.” It seems the Polder Model has worked its old magic once again.