By Barend ter Haar.
Until seven years ago, Dutch governments used to consist of 26 to 29 ministers: 14 to 16 full ministers and 10 to 14 state secretaries, that carry the title of minister when they are abroad.
Since 2010 this number has come down to 20. At first sight that might seem a welcome sign of frugality in times of austerity, but in reality it has harmed Dutch interests.
What national politicians tend to forget is that major decisions concerning the future of the Netherlands are at present usually taken outside the Netherlands and that ministers are needed as national representatives to influence these decisions as much as possible.
In former times the most important issues on the national agenda were domestic affairs. International conferences were a sideshow that could be left to the minister of Foreign Affairs, but this has changed dramatically. Domestic matters, such as public health, tensions in inner cities and the state of local nature and environment are nowadays strongly influenced by what happens abroad. Climate change, cyber security and migration are among a growing number of matters that cannot be effectively handled at the national level, but require intensive international cooperation, often in the form of ministerial conferences.
What every diplomat that has attended international conferences knows, is that the influence a country can exert depends on the formal level of its participation. In theory all heads of delegation are considered to be equal, but in practice a distinction is made between ministers and professional diplomats.
Take for example a UN conference that is attended by 120 of the 193 member states of the United Nations and let us assume that two states are represented by their president, seventy by a minister and the rest by professional diplomats. The two presidents will have the opportunity to speak at the beginning of the conference and will therefore be able to get their message across to all delegations. Most ministers will have the courtesy to listen to at least some of their colleagues, but when, at the end of the plenary meeting, it is the turn of the other high officials, most seats will be filled by young trainees.
What is even more important are the opportunities that ministers have for informal consultations during coffee breaks, lunches and dinners. Foreign ministers might be willing to listen to Dutch diplomats, but they will interpret the absence of a Dutch minister as a sign that the Netherlands takes the subject of a conference less seriously and will therefore tend to ignore the Dutch position.
By being absent at many conferences, Dutch ministers have left many opportunities to influence the international agenda unused. In order to safeguard Dutch values and interests a new Dutch government should make sure that it has sufficient ministers available to participate in international conferences at the appropriate level.