Q&A session with Minister Ploumen
MAASTRICHT. The Aula at the Minderbroedersberg is filled on Tuesday evening with students on a mission: they are preparing to sound out Lilianne Ploumen, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation, on the current political climate in a question-and-answer session as part of the Ambassador’s Lecture Series. Minister Koenders of Foreign Affairs was also supposed to attend, but cancelled a few days in advance.
Ploumen (PvdA) starts by introducing the issues she has been working on for the past few years. All boil down to one key theme: the refugee crisis. “In any given country you have someone who speaks for its citizens. When you ask someone who has been on the run what they lack most, they will say: a voice.” She has the attention of the room: nobody will walk away and say they don’t care about refugees, but is this issue really so close to Ploumen’s, and her party’s, heart?
The evening unfolds on knife’s edge between admiration and critique, starting from the very first question. A young woman begins with praise for Ploumen’s She Decides campaign, which raises money to ensure full access to sexual health and family planning worldwide after President Trump put a stop to US funding. But she moves swiftly on to a challenge: “People are organising all over the world. They have a voice but they need a megaphone. They need global attention and support.” Nodding in agreement, Ploumen launches into a well-considered response, always looking at both sides of the coin. “We must facilitate and support people in organising their own issues locally, which, as you said, is already happening. But we also need to be aware that investment in some areas is tricky right now.”
Her emphasis on balancing involvement with caution returns throughout the evening. On the Netherlands’s relationship with Israel, on negotiations in the Syrian civil war, on Turkey’s role in the refugee crisis: “We have our disagreements [with the government] but that doesn’t mean we have to dismiss any cooperation from the start.” Take the example of Turkey: “It’s not all horrible either. Before any agreements were made they did take in three million refugees.”
Ploumen doesn’t shy away from the issues the audience raises, dealing competently with their questions. But it is clear she also has concrete plans of her own, both for the evening and for a possible next term in government. She gently nudges her answers towards the issues she wants to cover: development cooperation, “the rights of women and girls” (her favourite catchphrase) and trade. “I have a better future than TTIP”, she proclaims with a smile, referring to the proposed trade agreement between the EU and the USA. Rather than commenting on its demise, she frames the uncertainty brought about by Donald Trump’s presidency, and its effects on trade, as an opportunity. “Until he [Trump] addresses TTIP, we need to think about our own interests and diversify and strengthen our relationships with other partners.”