Interview with Het Financieele Dagblad
Interview with Frank Elderson, Member of the Executive Board of the ECB, conducted by Annemiek Leclaire
8 May 2021
The job interview with René Smits started as soon as I had come through security at De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). “Let’s take the stairs,” he said and began to race up two steps at a time, asking me the first questions on the way. It’s far easier to pose questions when you’re dashing upstairs than to answer them. By the time we arrived on the fourth floor I was out of breath. Smits had invited me for breakfast but I decided to have something at home first because I knew I wouldn’t manage to eat a bite.
I began my career at the law firm Houthoff Advocaten specialising in EU competition law. At the end of 1998, when stationed in Brussels, I was charged with researching an issue for a major customer: a US tobacco company whose billboards featured cowboys at sunset. The European Commission wanted to clamp down on those advertisements, and I was asked to explore whether we could stretch out the process.
In US films you sometimes see a young lawyer studying through the night in a library; that was me in Brussels. At three in the morning I had a flash of inspiration that allowed the customer to continue advertising for at least another six months, a period in which you can sell plenty of cigarettes. But when I woke up the next morning I had mixed feelings. It was terrific that I could tell my boss what I had found. But then again, what was I doing? My father was a doctor, as was my wife. I thought: I don’t want to spend the rest of my life working for large tobacco companies, I want to do something that I believe in.
The legal profession had fantastic intellectual appeal, but there’s more to life than racking your brain; what are you ultimately using your brain for? I did some soul-searching: what really motivates me? Resoundingly, that was “Europe”.
Some ten years earlier, as a grammar school student, I had written a final examination paper on the causes of the First World War. In 1913, just a year before the war broke out, people thought they were embarking on a century of peace. The first aeroplanes had flown, there was radio, you could telegraph each other and sail all over the world. An era of opportunities lay ahead. One year later saw the start of the worst carnage in the history of mankind, and two decades on it happened again.
I read diary entries by people from that time who were equally well educated, listened to the same classical music, read the same Russian classics. I realised that there was unnervingly little difference between that time and our own. The only difference was that we knew how terribly wrong things could go. And that we had institutions such as the European Union, NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations. None of these international bodies for cooperation existed at that time but they do now. I wanted to contribute to that cooperation, I just wasn’t sure how.
I spotted a job advert from DNB seeking lawyers to further shape the monetary union. It was after 1 January 1999, the euro had been born. You couldn’t yet withdraw it from ATMs, but legally it had seen the light of day. It would be great if I could contribute to that.
During that interview René Smits, Head of Legal Services at DNB, impressively brought the idea of working for Europe to life. The European Central Bank had just been set up in Frankfurt. As its President, Wim Duisenberg was the first Dutch person on the ECB’s Executive Board. Smits said, “You’ve probably seen on television how things work at that table in Europe. The members of the ECB’s Executive Board are spread around the table among the governors of the national central banks. If you come to work here, I’ll bring you along and you will join the legal committee.” And indeed, already that autumn I sat beside him at such a table. Funnily enough, my current office is now two floors away from that very table.
Smits asked me, “You’ve been a lawyer for four years and you’re now thinking of coming to work here; what will you actually be doing in ten years’ time?” “Maybe I’ll have your job by then”, I replied. I think that he found that a little presumptuous, because when introducing me to his two deputies, he said, “So now you have to tell these colleagues what you said.” Thinking that I should make it sound a little more modest, I said, “Oh yes, I think you asked what exactly I would be doing 15 years from now…” But he interrupted me with, “No, it wasn’t 15 years, it was ten!” The extraordinary thing is – and that’s how life plays out sometimes – that I actually did have that role within ten years.
Another thing I remember is the trust that he expressed, telling me, “I have very high expectations of you.” I often thought about that afterwards. I saw it as an incentive, he was setting the bar high. When I began after the summer I made sure I knew all the documents that he had given me by heart.
My entire path within DNB which took me where I am today, and the fact that, if I so wished, I could now re-enter that plenary meeting room and sit on the same chair, lends a special significance to that interview with Smits.
‘“Are you out of your mind?” my lawyer friends asked me. “That’s such a boring place!” But just imagine what kind of financial crisis could have erupted if there had been no European cooperation during the pandemic and no ECB. To be honest, the power of Europe is still my driving force.