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Top diplomat and novelist Frans van Daele: "Without diplomacy you’re flying blind"
Depth interview

Top diplomat and novelist Frans van Daele: "Without diplomacy you’re flying blind"

His career often took place behind the scenes, but top diplomat Frans van Daele helped shape the politics of the last decades.

11 minutes
16 December 2020

Few diplomats in recent decades have been as involved in world events as Baron Frans van Daele (73). Although his career often took place behind the scenes, he helped shape the political drama. As ambassador to the US he helped to smooth out the wrinkles between Brussels and Washington, as Herman Van Rompuy's private secretary he helped save the euro and as the right hand of the king he assisted in yet another difficult government formation. In the meantime, the Roman Philology alumnus found the time to commit himself to his first love: KU Leuven.

“I never completely let go of Leuven,” says Baron Frans van Daele, when we ask him about his relationship with the university. “I’ve had a seat on the Board of Governors since 2001. Later I became chairman of Alumni Lovanienses (the central consultative body for KU Leuven alumni circles, ed.), and recently the rector asked me to chair the “600 Years of KU Leuven” steering group. I enjoy being closely involved in all of that, and a university environment has its advantages: you only encounter smart people (laughs). I also thoroughly enjoyed my own student days and got a lot out of them. So I don't think it's strange to give something back.”

Those student days started in the Swinging – but equally explosive – Sixties. In 1967, Van Daele put his bags down in Leuven and enrolled in the Romance Philology programme. A well-considered choice, he says. “I was born in the Netherlands and spent a large part of my childhood there. As a result, I didn’t know a word of French, and I always thought that was a loss, especially as it’s the second national language in Belgium. In addition, I’ve always been fascinated by linguistics, right up until today.”

Flemish Leuven

Van Daele focused on his French grammar courses in the turbulent Flemish Leuven period. Did he personally get much out of the student protests? “I was first and foremost in Leuven to study, but like so many of my generation, I was also involved in those political actions, yes. We often argued collectively and I went to listen to the debates with many others, including Paul Goossens, with whom I have had a lot of contact since thanks to Europe. I even once started handing out pamphlets at the Cockerill factories in Liège, to explain to the workers there what we were doing.”

“During my college years I tried to get a taste of different ideologies and world views,” he says. “I've always found that interesting, just like international politics. Even back in high school I was reading a lot of newspapers, including foreign ones, because I wanted to know what was going on in the world. My interest in the European project also existed early on. I remember giving a lecture in my fifth Latin year (second year of secondary school, ed.) about the forerunner of the European Union (laughs).”

After his studies, a job in education was obvious, but Van Daele opted for a different, more individualised path. “Although I could have immediately started as a teacher at the Sacred Heart in Heverlee, an information evening about career opportunities outside of education made me enthusiastic about diplomacy. In the first licentiate (former university degree level, ed.), some of our older students had extended an invitation to then-Ambassador Van Bellingen. He was a gifted speaker, and I was immediately hooked. I took the diplomatic exam, passed, and have been a diplomat since 1971.”

“There are many diplomats with a background in philology, which is not surprising, because extensive knowledge of languages ​​is very important,” says Van Daele. “During my training I not only learned French, I also worked on learning English on my own – mainly by reading many English books or listening to the BBC on the radio.”

During receptions you can quickly learn a lot about power relations in political negotiations.

Prejudices

What qualities are needed as a diplomat? “You have to be able to find out which limitations or pressures your negotiating partner is subject to. Understand what it is like to be in someone else's shoes. In addition, you have to be able to think strategically and estimate what is possible and what is not possible during a negotiation. In other words, watch out for emotional or instinctive reactions. They’re not always bad, but you always have to do the math to know whether you can make it over the ditch without ending up in the water.”

Van Daele explained his insights on diplomacy last year in the book "Shaken met de macht" (On the chessboard of power). "It wasn't my intention to ‘tell tales out of school’, but I wanted to frame events that I myself experienced and that are now generally known," he says. "I also wanted to show that diplomacy adds value to our democratic system and debunk the clichés that surround it."

“There are many prejudices about diplomats,” he says. “That it’s only a matter of eating and grabbing pints, for example. That’s part of it, but it’s not the essence. At a reception you can speak to many people in a confidential environment in a short time. This can be very important if you want to find out something about the balance of power in a particular political negotiation. Suppose you receive a piece of information from one contact. Then you go to someone else, tell him what you’ve heard, and ask if he knows anything more. In a few hours you can easily puzzle the whole story together. And that story is exactly what your minister needs to hear as they negotiate with their foreign colleagues.”

“If you sit in the European Parliament or in the UN Security Council, it’s important to know your opponents’ hidden agenda,” says van Daele. “The back of the cards. And that information usually comes from bilateral diplomacy. Anyone who claims that they no longer need separate embassies within the EU is deeply mistaken. I experienced this myself when I was a permanent representative to the EU. Without the confidential information of my colleagues from the various European capitals, I would have been doomed to fly blind during negotiations. And that’s something you must avoid at all costs.”

Foto Frans van Daele 1

On speaking terms

Van Daele's highly impressive career has now spanned more than forty years. He was a diplomat in Athens and Italy, ambassador to the US, and represented our country at the EU, NATO and as a deputy representative at the UN Security Council. All of this gave him, he says, many "sporting moments" in which he was put to the test. “For example, in 2001 Belgium was president of the EU, and just then there were the 9/11 attacks,” he says. “Our agenda was shaken up and we needed to formulate a 'European response' to those attacks. What that would be was not obvious …"

Van Daele also has many memories of his ambassadorship in Washington. “I became an ambassador in 2003, when the relationship between Belgium and the US was worse than ever. Our country opposed the war in Iraq, and Washington was none too pleased with that.”

“The genocide law was then voted on in Belgium,” he says. “This allowed suspected perpetrators of crimes against humanity in our territory to be arrested and tried. Several organisations filed complaints against President Bush and his Secretary of State, which also did not exactly improve the relationship .... I eventually tinkered with that genocide law to make it acceptable to the Americans and restore our ties. It took a lot of work to get back on speaking terms with Washington, but it worked.”

A new challenge beckoned at the end of the Aughts. Van Daele became Herman Van Rompuy's chief of staff in 2009, assisting him in his European Council presidency. “Another very interesting and intense period. But here again, it was exciting. The currency crisis hit in 2009, and I was very closely involved in the rescue of the euro. The stakes were terribly high, because it really was about the survival of the European Union. That was perhaps the most challenging moment in my career. Although, I have to admit that I am always looking for challenging jobs. I always want to go to the places where the action takes place. So you have to consider that when looking at those difficult periods (laughs).”

Van Daele sat in the same conference room with many world leaders, sometimes chatting with an Obama or a Sarkozy. Which political figures have impressed him the most? “I think Mark Rutten is a clever negotiator,” he says. “He was always able to defend his positions and proposals well, and he knew when to step forward or to the side. Angela Merkel, on the other hand, made the biggest impression, because she always succeeded in uniting German and European interests. As the leader of by far the largest country in the EU, she also had the talent to interact with the leaders of smaller countries, which is not always easy, and to get them involved in the European project. An art in itself. ”

As Herman Van Rompuy's private secretary, I was very closely involved in the rescue of the euro. Perhaps the most challenging moment of my career.

Europa

Van Daele is a Europhile in his heart and soul, and has himself contributed significantly to the unification of Europe. How does he view the EU today, now that the British are leaving? “Obviously I would have thought it better if the UK had stayed within the EU, but it is what it is. We in Europe now have to deal with this rationally and try to get a deal done. It's last-chance negotiations, but it's never over until it's over.”

The corona crisis and the resulting economic consequences also pose enormous challenges, he says. “But the European Commission is doing its best to tackle those problems. Just look at the joint purchase of corona vaccines, and the plans to put on the table an extra solidarity contribution of 750 billion euros in addition to the seven-year budget financing to help countries get through the crisis. That is the EU at its best. Most member states fully understand that in these turbulent times it’s better to work together than to rely only on yourself. Benjamin Franklin knew this when he said: "We must all hang together or we shall all hang separately."

In short: Van Daele continues to have confidence in the European project. “There is still a lot of work to be done to achieve a truly unified union – think the development of an integrated political system, or a genuine European defense force – but we are getting there. It happens step by step. You shouldn’t forget that it also took the US a long time to achieve its current form of integration. The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court once told me that in the early years of the US people would still say ‘the United States are ... ’. Only a hundred years later did that become ‘the United States is ... ’.”

Voltaire

Van Daele retired as a diplomat in 2012, but a "quiet old age" is not for him. The following year, he added one more line to his resumé and became King Philippe's Private Secretary, a position he would hold until 2017.

“Our relationship dates back to the 1980s, and I have always enjoyed and worked well with the king,” says Van Daele. “In ‘Schaken met de macht’ one thing I wanted to say was that I know the king as a very well-read and intelligent man, one who has been unfairly dismissed as a caricature for too long. For example, I’ve had several interesting discussions with him about politics and philosophy. I remember a long conversation about Voltaire, whose works the King had read extensively, much more than I had. So that intellectual side appealed to me. Furthermore I know him as very honest and correct, and a man convinced in his discourse. He’s also handled government crises well, I think, along with many others.”

His time working in the palace was Van Daele's last major position. We hardly dare to ask, but are there any boxes that need to be ticked off his wishlist? "I'm approaching 75," he says. “You have to take that into account .... Professionally I am satisfied, but I would like to be able to write something more. Not about diplomacy this time, but fiction. I do have a few ideas in my head for stories or novels, but since I'm still quite busy I don't know if I'll ever find the time. We'll see (laughs).”