Ben Knapen is the straight man to Rosenthal’s clown

NRC journalist Pieter Kottman is not sure how respectful he should be towards his old colleague, Ben Knapen, now State Secretary for European Affairs and Development, writes Giles Scott-Smith on The Holland Bureau.

Kottman ends up firing questions about Knapen’s youth, his religious belief, his controversial position on the board of PCM Publishers from 1999-2006, and to what extent he is an idealist. All typical Dutch stuff. While the two of them follow Knapen’s dawn-till-dusk itinerary through conflict-riddled Rwanda and Congo. A more bizarre setting for such a discussion is hardly imaginable.
Knapen was touring these two countries because they both receive development aid from the Netherlands. And the number of recipient countries is going to decline from 33 to 16 or less. The State Secretary was obviously not going to give anything away about final decisions while spending time as a guest in these two nations, but his comments and Kottman’s background commentary leave plenty of hints: Rwanda has economic growth of 6%, the Congo is a failed state with an exploding population problem.
Both need help, but one is clearly ahead in the development sweepstakes. Incredibly, Kottman does not press Knapen on how the decision on who will get what will be taken. The setting is somehow incidental – this is all about who Knapen is, and what makes him tick. Rwanda and Congo as convenient backdrop for the worldly Binnenhof.
So does Knapen say anything interesting about himself and the Dutch situation while wandering around in his suit in the central African tropical heat? A little. He doubted about taking the State Secretary position and only seems to have done so when he received full-on guarantees that he could pursue his Europe/Development portfolios with sufficient autonomy from Wilders and the PVV.
He appreciates the sentiments of the PVV voter who sees the EU – in the form of Polish workers taking low-wage Dutch jobs – as a threat. The benefits of the European mission should be explained better.
But ultimately the ‘Tolerance Agreement’ between VVD and CDA on the one side, and Wilders on the other, does not determine everything, since all that is required is support from some corner of parliament in order to get the minority cabinet’s policies through.
Idealist? Weird that Kottman even thinks of this word. Knapen is a pragmatist of the highest order – not for nothing is the article titled “I have always been a man from the middle.” After almost five months of this cabinet, a picture is forming of its foreign policy apparatus.
Rosenthal is not proving to be a good front man, moving from glitch to blotch with his rather clumsy style, talking reform but lacking the open thinking to appreciate what it means in practice. Marc Chavannes’ critique of Rosenthal last week was spot on, describing a Minister who presented himself as bringing new zeal to Dutch diplomacy in December (break up the stuffy diplomatic clique, close embassies, unite with European partners), but who since then has proved to be a major disappointment (the Bahrami case, undermining the commitment to human rights, no appreciation of the significance of the changes in the Middle East).
Meanwhile Knapen, as he proved with the PCM business, slips through the cracks, avoiding controversy, gets on with the job. Non-ideological. Businesslike. Efficient. The ’straight man’ to Rosenthal’s unfortunate clown.

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