Prime Minister gives lecture to first-year students. ‘Democracy will always be stronger than tyranny’
A year after the start of the war in Ukraine, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, gave a guest lecture to first-year law students in the Cleveringa lecture theatre at Leiden University. He spoke about democracy, the war and the role of the Netherlands in the conflict. ‘Democracy is more than a political system.’
There was huge interest in Rutte’s lecture: alongside the Cleveringa theatre, a further three lecture theatres with a livestream were needed to accommodate all the first-year students from the Foundations of Law course. The PM began by giving his lecture entitled ‘Democracy and Tyranny’ before opening the floor to student questions.
Rutte, who was there at the invitation of Professor of Jurisprudence Afshin Ellian, argued why democracy will always be stronger than tyranny. He began by emphasising the Netherlands’ support for Ukraine. Rutte, who as well as prime minister is also a historian, explained how the Second World War played an important part in this. He also spoke about David and Goliath: how a big and powerful country shouldn’t be able to invade a smaller neighbour with impunity.
‘Democracy gives people the space to get the best out of themselves, which leads to creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.’
The Netherlands also has a direct interest in supporting Ukraine, he said. ‘We have good reason to doubt whether Putin would have stopped at Ukraine if we had let him have his way. That would be a serious threat to NATO territory,’ he said. ‘It would threaten the international order and hit the Netherlands where it hurts, both militarily and economically.’
Link to prosperity
Rutte emphasised how democracy is more than just a political system. Together with freedom it is an important element of the economy, culture and social structure of a country. ‘Democracy gives people the space to get the best out of themselves, which leads to creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship. There is a direct link between a strong democratic state and a prosperous and attractive country.’
After the lecture, it was time for the students’ questions, and they jumped at the chance. ‘How do you deal with world leaders with different views?’, ‘What motivates you to carry on as prime minister and when is it enough?’, ‘What do protests for freedom mean?’, ‘How is the housing crisis being combined with the refugee crisis?’ and ‘Do you take big problems that affect you home with you?’ The students also asked about healthcare, polarisation, conspiracy theorists, threats to politicians and the influence of social media.
‘Ukraine is an amazing country. You see tremendous willpower in everyone who is doing all they can to keep normal life going.’
Rutte was impressed by a Ukrainian student who asked him how seriously the West takes Putin’s threats to NATO. You can never rule anything out, said Rutte, but we should not be intimidated and should never accept this. He was recently in Kyiv for a meeting with the Ukrainian president Zelensky, and that was incredibly inspiring. ‘Ukraine is an amazing country. You can see tremendous willpower in everyone who is doing all they can to keep normal life going. You have every reason to be extremely proud of your country.’
When asked about his most important lesson since becoming prime minister, Rutte had to think for a moment. He finally answered that he had once believed that you could achieve anything with a good education: he also teaches at a secondary school in the centre of The Hague. Now, however, he sees that the kind of family you come from and the environment you grow up in really matter. And that this in turn has a great effect on which level of secondary education you are advised to follow. ‘There is an opportunity crisis that we have to tackle because you do want to keep society together.’
Rutte ended his lecture with an appeal to the students: ‘Read the newspapers, follow the news, find a cause!’ And if they want to bring about change, they should join a political party. ‘Democracy is human work and making sure it continues to work takes the commitment of the very best people.’
Text: Nynke Smits
Photos: Freek van den Bergh