Did you know early on that you would study law?
‘I was very well spoken as child. I liked to participate in all kinds of recitation and eloquence contests, as they were called. When I became finance minister in 2013, I received a letter from my old diction teacher to congratulate me. I also did a bit of theatre, but that didn't suit me. I'm not a good actor, I'm a comedian. I’m always myself, I can’t play other roles.’
‘My parents gave me my love for languages, they were Germanists. Still, I was given very wise advice to choose to study rights if I wanted to commit myself to furthering society. My school director saw a future for me within the EU – when I got European affairs as a minister's portfolio I had to think back on him.’
What kind of student were you?
‘I did my bachelor in Antwerp. But for my master, I went to Leuven, where my parents also studied.’
‘I was taught by an incredible generation of professors: Roger Dillemans, Walter Van Gerven, Roger Blanpain, and later Frans Vanistendael and Raf Verstegen. I liked to study, but I felt the need for an even broader education, to be able to understand more about society. I briefly considered taking courses from other faculties, but that was not practically feasible.’
Nowadays there’s a push for a ‘broad bachelor’...
‘When I took part in the elections for Rector in 2009, it was one of the things I would have liked to have seen implemented: a kind of studium generale, with subjects from history, politics and sociology, law…a bit like in a college in the U.S. The super specialisation that you see today in the bachelor years has to be made up for somewhere.’
After obtaining a master of law at Harvard, you decided to do a doctorate in Leuven.
‘That was not an obvious choice back then, because there was still very few doctorates granted – one per year in the Faculty of Law – and professors remained until their seventies. So it was a wild guess, but I would never have forgiven myself if I hadn’t written a dissertation before entering the legal profession. During my studies I enjoyed nothing more than writing a seminar, paper or master's thesis. So I thought a doctoral thesis was really the right thing for me.’
For many years you combined your mandate at the university with the legal profession, as co-founder of the largest independent Belgian law firm.
‘I never understood why there is so much difficulty in Belgium about a law professor who has a practice as a lawyer. It is no different than a professor of medicine who has a hospital practice in addition to their lab. In both cases it enriches your scientific and pedagogical insights. That’s why I have always argued for a legal clinic on Ladeuzeplein, which could handle difficult cases, such as the difficult medical cases that go to Gasthuisberg.’
I have always argued for a legal clinic on Ladeuzeplein, which could handle difficult cases, such as the difficult medical cases that go to Gasthuisberg.
‘The legal profession is a very nice profession because it allows you to be engaged on behalf of someone else. As a lawyer you are your client’s special purpose friend. This means that you help him or her – at least in this particular case – as a true friend. You assist them even if they don't listen. It also means that you can say no, you don't have to accept or keep everyone as a client.’
Nevertheless, you had to say goodbye to the legal profession when you became a minister. But today you’re still affiliated with the university.
‘For seven years I combined my ministership with three teaching subjects, including company law and financial law. But because my students had to come to class very early or very late, and I had to leave a lot of practical lessons and theses to assistants and colleagues, I’ve been teaching only one subject since the beginning of this academic year, deontology of the lawyer.’
‘I love teaching too much to let it go completely. And as you get older, you can teach certain things much better because you understand them better.’
What achievements can you look back on with satisfaction?
‘I was chairman of the education committee of the faculty for twelve years and during that time I was able to help shape the bachelor/master overhaul. I think we have the best program in the country: basic legal training is concentrated in the first three years so that students can make maximum use of exchange options during their master.’
‘And that's what they do: they go to Paris and Barcelona, to New York and Australia. I had hoped that it would go even further, that the master would be a period of traveling around Europe and studying in English. That’s progressing, but a bit too slowly. Students need to be old and wise enough to make full use of all those options – yet another argument for a studium generale prior to the bachelor.’
You are still involved in the Jan Ronse Institute for Company and Financial Law. What were the highlights there?
‘A rich school of eminent corporate lawyers received their doctorates there. I’m also reminded of the second new Company Code; all our Belgian colleagues worked together on it and it’s been in force since 1 January 2020. Private organisation law is extremely important for the smooth running of civil society, from the smallest partnership or non-profit to the largest listed international company. In '99 I worked on this myself, and in recent years I’ve been able to do that as Minister of Justice together with colleagues from Leuven, among others. I am very proud of that, today we have one of the most attractive company law regimes in the EU.’
Do you see politics as a passion or as a profession?
‘As with everything I say yes to: if you see it as a profession, the passion disappears. The political train has passed through several times in my life. Sometimes I wanted to get on board, but it didn't stop. But if it stopped and I thought it was worth taking it, I took it.’
‘That was the case when Kris Peeters asked me to become his chief of staff, and also when he and Wouter Beke asked me to be Finance Minister. Participating in policy is in my blood – be it at the faculty, within Eubelius, on the board of the Thomas More Colleges or in the High Council for Economic Professions, which I have chaired for many years.’
The political train has passed through several times in my life. Sometimes I wanted to get on board, but it didn't stop. But if it stopped and I thought it was worth taking it, I took it.
’At school and at university, I wanted to know why something was decided, and then be able to explain myself if it was not quite what I thought should be done. That I have been able to convert many matters that are close to my heart into legislation or practice in both Finance and Justice is the best gift I could have received.’
What achievements are you most proud of as Minister of Finance and Justice?
‘My mandate at Finance, in 2013, was during and after the debt crisis. I’m proud that we managed to save our country from a European fine for excessive debt. And that we were able to pass completely new banking legislation in a short time, which has solved a number of problems.’
‘At Justice we have four big plans for modernisation. A lot has already been done. For example, a number of new codes have been published, including new legislation on inheritance law, matrimonial property law, company law and property law. The new Criminal Code and the new Criminal Procedure Code are awaiting parliamentary consideration. But I’m most proud of everything we have done around incarceration, because of the impact on people who are patients, not prisoners. And despite all the social troubles, I am also happy with what we have been able to do in the prison system.’
What were the lows?
‘I regret that we were unable to make the final switch over to workload measurement for the magistracy. A university faculty is allocated resources in proportion to its needs and performance, but in courts it’s still based on a historical framework. As if you were to appoint lots of professors at a faculty with few students because that was how it had once been decided it should be. We fought and fought for that, but we ran into a wall of incomprehension. Some goodwill has been slowly growing, but there has been a great deal of opposition.’
The attacks in Zaventem and Brussels, the Julie Van Espen case…I can only deal with that if I can walk with them through the suffering, so to speak. There are very few cases where I can’t do that and have to keep a distance.
’And of course we experienced several very terrible incidents during this legislature: the attacks in Zaventem and Brussels, the Julie Van Espen case…I can only deal with that if I can walk with them through the suffering, so to speak. There are very few cases where I can’t do that and have to keep a distance. Resigning is rarely the right response. That’s the political solution. The easy solution. The real message to send is to say that you will try to do everything you can to prevent this from happening again. So that it wasn’t all for nothing.’
Last month, as the Royal Commissioner, you tried to lay the groundwork for government formation talks. How do you look back on that now?
‘It didn’t produce the desired result. That’s unfortunate, but compared to the things I just talked about, it’s completely meaningless. And it is what it is. In government formation you have to play your role as constructively as possible and realise that it’s a strategic game. You shouldn’t make the mistake of taking such a thing personally. If you know that you've done your best, you should be happy with that. In the words of Churchill: “Success is not what you see. Success is stumbling from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”’
‘I’ve functioned in enough environments to know that human calculations and passions and drives are the same everywhere. Even at the university.’
Last week you gave your view on the future of Belgium. What about your personal future?
‘I've been asked that continuously for ten months and I can only answer: Que sera, sera. If I had concrete personal expectations, I wouldn't be free. And I really only have one big ambition and that is to be free and healthy with my family.’
‘Last week I received the VRG Alumni Prize. It’s not customary to award this prize to someone from within the faculty. That they saw fit to do now…that makes me very proud and grateful.’