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Students in informal conversation with leaders Trudeau and Rutte

Hordes of photographers, students trying to catch a glimpse and take selfies, and cheering people at the entrance to Wijnhaven. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Prime Minister Mark Rutte were received like true pop stars, in the late afternoon at Leiden University’s Campus The Hague.

In an informal setting, leaning against the desk with their jackets off, the two political leaders entered spoke to students from Leiden University, The Hague University of Applied Sciences and Erasmus University. ‘It felt really special to be able to ask Trudeau a question.’ 

Rolled up sleeves

It was clear that the two had been hanging out together all day. They put their jackets on the table at the same time, rolled up their sleeves in unison and even fist bumped Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in the front row in the same way. Before visiting Campus The Hague, Rutte and Trudeau had attended a series of meetings, discussing topics such as the good relationship between Canada and the Netherlands, developments in trade relations and investments, and cooperation in defence and security, and the climate. 

Pushing hard on climate change

‘We agree a lot,’ Rutte laughed. ‘I wonder whether it’ll be the same here.’ Students could sumbit questions about climate change and global issues. The room was full of students who wanted to ask questions, but very few actually had a turn. Student Josephine, for instance. Looking ahead to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next week, which Rutte and Trudeau both attend, she asked about the action that Canada and the Netherlands will take to honour their commitment to the Paris Agreement. Trudeau noted that it’s not just about setting goals, but is about making plans. ‘You have to have a plan that you can actually achieve, that’s realistic. When I was elected in 2015, I promised to take on the climate targets. And that's what I’m going to say at the summit, let other countries know that we have ambitions. Pushing hard on climate change! Every country can and must do more.’ 

Rutte emphasised that governments can’t take up the fight alone. Help from the private sector and NGOs will definitely be needed too. ‘We definitely need the companies and will continue to talk to them, but as Justin also said we are working hard to meet our targets.’

Student Omar Al Sadeh asks a question


Omar Al Sadeh asked how the Netherlands and Canada will continue to promote the international rule of law. He was impressed by the mood of the conversation and the ease with which the two prime ministers said what they wanted to say. ‘It’s so clever of them. And yes, it felt very special that I got to ask Trudeau a question. That’s not something you get to do every day.’

At the end of the hour, the students were allowed to ask three more questions in the ‘Dare to Ask’ category. What career would the two have had if they hadn’t gone into politics. Again, the two had the same answer. They’d have been a teacher. Trudeau actually was one and Rutte still teaches one morning a week, on a voluntary basis.

Words of praise

The final question was what advice the two would give to any aspiring politicians in the room. Trudeau answered at length, finishing with warm wards urging the students to decide on their core values. ‘What do you want to fight for? What are your values? As a politician you have to make such difficult decisions. You don’t need people around you who agree with you one hundred percent, as long as they have the same values and want to achieve the same thing. That’s what it’s about.’ 

Mark Rutte had nothing to add. Praising Trudeau as an inspiring politician and with a heartfelt ‘we'll be back’, the two left for the final part of their day: dinner in The Hague. But not before hundreds of photos, videos and selfies were taken on the Spanish Steps before they left Wijnhaven.

Watch the livestream

Photos: Arash Nikkhah

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