As Prime Minister, he headed a coalition of the PvdA labour party and the VVD conservative-liberals (referred to as the purple cabinets) for eight years from 1994 to 2002. Prior to that, he was Dutch Finance Minister and deputy Prime Minister in the third government led by Ruud Lubbers. In that capacity, he also participated at the European Summit of 1991 that eventually resulted in the much-discussed Maastricht Treaty.
Although he was actually on the sidelines at the time – as Finance Minister he had completed the difficult preliminary work in the six months prior to the summit – he was nevertheless present in Maastricht. The former trade union official was already aware that he was playing an important role in developments that would have a lasting effect on Europe. “Maastricht is very significant and exceptionally dear to me. It really heralded a new phase in the development of Europe.”
Dr Wim Kok was born in 1938 in Bergambacht in the Province of Zuid-Holland as the son of a carpenter. After secondary education, he studied business administration at Nyenrode business school. Many people can still remember him as the enthusiastic leader of the Dutch Trade Union Confederation who expressed himself passionately on TV regarding social issues and the policy of the then government.
That made him very popular among the public at large. In 1986, he stood for election to the Dutch House of Representatives on behalf of the PvdA labour party. As number two on the list of candidates (as second only to PvdA veteran Joop den Uyl), he attracted more than 570,000 preference votes. When Den Uyl quit as party chairman later that year, Wim Kok succeeded him as leader of the party and the opposition.
The name of the former Prime Minister – he was appointed Minister of State in 2003 – will always be associated with the ‘kwartje van Kok’, a reference to an increase in petrol excise, which was part of wider spending cuts.
Looking back on what has happened in Europe in the past few years, Kok – who enjoyed a great deal of respect internationally during his career – can get very cross with those who assert that many of the current problems can be traced back to alleged structural defects in the Maastricht Treaty. “That’s too easily said. I will be the first to admit that given what we know now, it would certainly have been better to be more circumspect about the course of events over the next twenty-five years. Policy mistakes were certainly made when the euro was introduced and in the following period, so there are, of course, weaknesses in the structure. However, it’s too simple to associate the events of the past few decades to alleged defects in the Maastricht Treaty. Such an approach is too easy and also demonstrates a smallness of mind.”