Willem Frederik Van Eekelen

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Willem Frederik Van Eekelen

Minister of defense of the Netherlands Willem Frederik Van Eekelen (born 1931) became secretary-general of the Western European Union in 1989.

In 1939 Willem Frederik Van Eekelen was born in Utrecht in the Netherlands. In 1943 he entered Utrecht's best secondary school (equivalent to junior high school and high school in the United States), the Stedelijke Gymnasium Utrecht, and studied there until 1949. He then left the Netherlands to study political science at Princeton University in the United States. In 1952 he received his Bachelor of Arts degree, graduating with high honors.

Upon return to his country, Van Eekelen studied law at the University of Utrecht and received his law degree in 1956. Being an outstanding student, he was later admitted to study for his doctorate degree in political science at the same University of Utrecht. His thesis, "Indian Foreign Policy and the Border Dispute with China, " was published in 1964.

While pursuing his doctorate, he joined the diplomatic service in 1957. He was first assigned to the Dutch embassy in New Delhi and then later at the London embassy. Between 1966 and 1971 Van Eekelen interrupted his career as an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and became a member of the Dutch delegation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels, Belgium.

From 1971 to 1974 he was back at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but this time he was put in charge of coordinating European political cooperation. The idea of European political cooperation originated from the will of the member states of the European Community to extend European cooperation gradually from purely economic matters to include political and security issues. The objective was to advance and consolidate political unification of Europe. Van Eekelen's position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs included direct responsibility for determining the scope and content of the Dutch contribution to the European political cooperation.

In 1974 and for the next three years, still as an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he became director for Atlantic cooperation and security matters.

At the age of 46 he interrupted his diplomatic career to present himself as a candidate in the legislative elections of 1977. He was elected as the representative of the VVD (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie), the Dutch conservative party, in the Lower House of Parliament. In 1978 he entered the first government of Prime Minister Van Agt (a coalition of the Christian-Democratic Alliance [CDA] and VVD) as state secretary of defense (more or less equivalent to an under secretary of defense).

In 1981 he was elected a second time to the Lower House, but had to leave his government position during the next two short-lived Van Agt governments (September 1981 to November 1982). His party, the VVD, was not part of those two government coalitions. He was elected a third time to the Lower House in 1982.

While a member of the Dutch Parliament, Van Eekelen simultaneously served as a member of the Consultative Assemblies of the Council of Europe and the Western European Union from 1981 to 1982. After the fall of the third Van Agt cabinet in 1982, the new prime minister, Ruud Lubbers (CDA) asked Van Eekelen to join his administration. Van Eekelen entered the Lubbers cabinet as state secretary for foreign affairs (roughly equivalent to under secretary of state in the United States).

In 1986, after new elections took place, Ruud Lubbers formed a second government. This time, Van Eekelen was asked to assume the post of minister of defense. In this capacity he attended the Eurogroup sessions. The Eurogroup was composed of all European NATO defense ministers, minus France and Iceland. Van Eekelen did not hold his ministerial post for long. In 1988 a political "mini-scandal" known as the Passport Case forced him into resigning. A parliamentary inquiry had begun in May 1988 on the case, which involved the unsuccessful attempt to introduce a new fraud-resistant passport in the Netherlands. It soon appeared that the passport was far from fraud-resistant, although it had cost a lot of taxpayers' money, nothing to scoff at by Dutch standards. According to the investigative commission's report, which was released in August 1988, the Department of Foreign Affairs had underestimated the complexity of the passport project, and the entire scheme was grossly mismanaged.

The state secretary for foreign affairs, Van Der Linden, was accused of having given incorrect information to the Parliament and was first forced to resign in September, Van Eekelen, as predecessor to Van Der Linden, had initiated the project in the previous Lubbers cabinet. Three days later he also resigned. These resignations saved the entire government from falling. During the heated debate in Parliament, Van Eekelen's competence and his public management ability were often unfairly criticized. Even the VVD, his own political party, suspended its support for him. His eventual resignation became necessary lest he lose all credibility. Although his personal integrity was never questioned, press reports deemed that this event put a likely end to his political career in the Netherlands.

In May 1989 Van Eekelen became the secretary-general of the Western European Union (WEU). The WEU legally binds nine European countries in a mutual defense treaty, but is not linked to NATO. It is often seen as a forum where Europeans, and France in particular, can discuss their defense concerns without any non-European interference. With this appointment, Van Eekelen showed that his national political misfortune was not to diminish the international recognition he had gained in defense and security matters.

Through the 1990's the WEU, under Van Eekelen's guidance, continued to influence post cold war security and political integration. Van Eekelen contributed scholarly articles on the role of the WEU to magazines such as; Harvard International Review (Fall 1991) and NATO Review (October 1993). By 1994 the WEU was opening its doors to East Europe.

The dramatic political changes in Europe that began with end of the Cold War put the existence of the organization in a new perspective and, consequently, increased the political role of its secretary-general with regard to European defense and security matters. Van Eekelen supported the idea of multinational European armed forces and the decision to cooperate in the area of conventional arms verification. Such initiative signaled a new-found resolve for an organization too well known in the past for being little more than a formal discussion group. Van Eekelen's experience in European and defense cooperation was certainly a strong asset for the WEU.

Further Reading

One may consult the several volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Book of the Year, in order to obtain more information about the Dutch political context of W. F. Van Eekelen's career. Unfortunately, there is no specific biographical information on him available in English, except for a very short paragraph in Who's Who in The Netherlands (1989 edition). Van Eekelen, as Dutch minister of defense, wrote an interesting report on transatlantic defense policies in NATO Review (Brussels: 1987). While secretary-general of the WEU, Van Eekelen wrote "Future European Defence Cooperation: The Role of the WEU, " European Strategy Group (Paris: September 1989). Except for these reports and his 1964 doctoral thesis, none of his numerous articles on defense matters and foreign policy are available in English. An interview with van Eekelen, by Brigitte Sauerwein appeared in the International Defense Review (March 1990). □

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