The Cow and the Hare

The Cow and the Hare

It is crucial to be able to smell opportunities when they arise. This is something you learn, or not. How a cow catches a hare (this is one of those typical Dutch sayings meaning more or less that you never really know how things will happen or how you will accomplish something). It is something that the Flemish literally call opportunity. Next to culture shock, it was an important word that coloured my first years in Brussels. I was like a Frisian cow grazing in a European meadow, accompanied by hares. And luck, that was part of it as well.My second internship came to an end. The moving boxes were filled and the trailer was loaded. I felt like a cow with its tail between its legs. Brussels had so much more to offer and Groningen did not excite me that much. I was tired of studying and thought it almost to be below my standing. Brussels; it gets to you, or it doesn’t. For me, I was hooked from day 1 to Europe’s capital. Cocktails, lunches, lobbying. Babylon. I wanted to stay there forever. The opportunity presented itself. We are talking 1994, a year of European elections. When I would crawl out of my basement there was a buzz in the atmosphere. Elections were coming!

The politicians who wanted to stay in office and those who wanted to enter the European Parliament (EP) were busy campaigning. A hectic time. They were looking for a driver. A change of scenery in a subservient role, but good for some well needed pocket money and to remain connected to power.

I chauffeured the ladies and gentlemen from both the VVD (Dutch Liberal political party) as well as D66 (Dutch centre oriented political party) several times. After all, they were in the same European group. From Arnhem to Ridderkerk and from Almelo to Purmerend. I brought them safely to their campaign happenings. Chauffeuring is also learning. I learned a lot during that time from the front-seat back-seat conversations. Only of course if the back-seat would allow it; because as a driver, you were the servant.

Sometimes the music was playing really loudly, sometimes the news was on. We laughed a lot, but things went wrong as well. GPS did not exist in those days, flat tires did. What struck me most was how insecure politicians are, especially during their campaigning period. But also, how often it was just about headcount and hardly ever about policy content. De Clercq taught me a beautiful bit of wisdom: “outside my own party, I have no enemies.” Well, this got confirmed time and again on the back-seat. I also met quite a few celebrities during that time, however, mostly from a respectful chauffeur’s distance. At one of the campaign gatherings I met Dr Elly Plooij-van Gorsel, the number six candidate on the EP list of the VVD.

I was introduced as the chauffeur of a colleague and this got the ball rolling. She noticed that I somewhat understood the insides of the European Parliament. She did not. We agreed that, if she would be elected, we would have a conversation about a possible job position. It happened that, thanks to the generous electorate who spoiled the party with six seats in Parliament, she won her seat in the EP.

Our conversation took place in The Hague. That day, I was as sick as a dog: heavy fever and a bad cold. I would have preferred to stay in bed but what do you do when your dream is at stake? Everything! So I got on the train from Groningen to The Hague running a 39-degree fever, armed with my student card with great thanks to the late Pim Fortuyn (as he was former CEO of the company that managed the students’ public transport subscriptions). Of course I was nervous, very nervous even and this bloody fever and running nose did not help either. I was certain that I would be rejected. Plooij did not like sweaty sissies. I felt this already and later on, this was painfully confirmed several times (see 2.4). But this time, it turned out to be totally different.

That was the luck factor I mentioned earlier, but it also had to do with perseverance. She thought it was incredibly brave of me that I came to the interview even though I had a bad fever and cold, showing how much I really wanted to work for her. On the one hand, she was flattered by this very visible sacrifice from my side and on the other, her mother instinct surfaced when she saw me coughing and sneezing. I was unfortunately never shown that much compassion later on. But it worked.

Again, there was no thought-through lobby strategy behind this, but it is always the end result that counts, that much I had learned in the meantime. When I eventually got the hang of it, my nose started running even more and faster. She would call me, she said, handed me a handkerchief and wrote down some strong medicine to fight my fever. She had melted for me and this was not easy when it came to the ice cold Plooij.

I was in my bed in my student apartment in Groningen, surrounded by pills and handkerchiefs. One day later, Elly Plooij called herself, which made sense because she did not have any staff yet. She asked me how my fever was doing and whether I had already been to the pharmacy. And, by the way, she wanted me to come and work for her, see if it would work. This is what she said: “let’s give it a try, you working for me”. That did not sound overly enthusiastic, but for me it was more than enough: Gotcha! I was in, back in through the front door of the European Parliament. Back in politics, Europe, power. Brussels, I’m back!

Instantaneously, I felt fine again. As if the fever just slid off of me, like a warm blanket. My fever went down with a couple of degrees right away with so much luck and success. I threw out all the cough syrup and called a friend. This had to be celebrated. At that very moment, there was no time to be sick. It was time for a much better medicine: Champagne!