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In conversation with Ben Smulders: from Leiden Law School student to top civil servant at European Commission

Alumnus Ben Smulders has worked for the European Commission for the past 33 years. ‘The discipline and depth that I experienced during my student days has helped me through various stages of my professional career.’

What did you study in Leiden?

‘I studied law, specialising in civil law. Although my thesis was about a topic of European law, I combined it with civil law (intellectual property), which set the course for my future career.’

Why did you decide to study law?

‘There was never a doubt in my mind: I wanted to study law and then become a lawyer. Fighting injustice seemed like a very worthwhile cause, and I did that for almost ten years.’

Ben Smulders as a young lawyer working at Nauta Dutilh

What’s your best memory from your student days?

‘Lots of people give the same answer, I think. The best thing is the freedom it gives you, which in my case partly came from the student association I joined as soon as I arrived at university. You have a freedom and a certain level of rashness that you only get in that stage of your life. It was a huge contrast from the life I had before that and the life I’ve had since then.’

You’ve worked for the European Commission for 33 years now. Can you say a bit more about your career there?

‘I’ve had various roles here over the years. For a long time, I worked for the Legal Service, which advises the entire European Commission and represents the Commission in cases brought to the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg. My roles have included Head of the Inter-Institutional Relations team, Head of the Economic and Monetary Union team and Head of the World Trade Organisation team. I've also served on five different European Commission cabinets, working in close collaboration with the other Commissioners, and I've been chef de cabinet (the right-hand man) for EU Commissioners Neelie Kroes and Frans Timmermans.’

‘My current role is Deputy Director General of the Directorate-General for Competition. My focus is on State Aid Control, which determines how much monetary support and other forms of support that Member States are allowed to give to businesses. This is closely intertwined with EU industrial policy, which has been of great topical interest in recent years following crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent energy crisis. On top of that, we have to deal with the current geopolitical challenges, sustainability transition and digital transition.’

How do you apply what you learned from your studies to the work you do now?

‘The mentality, the legal system and the application of legal rules in concrete cases... I got my analytical reasoning from both lectures and the study groups I participated in. That level of discipline and depth is an essential part of my work, whether it’s policymaking, monitoring compliance or resolving disputes.’

What’s the best thing about your profession?

‘The most enjoyable aspect is working with my younger colleagues. At the age of 63, being able to work with colleagues aged 30 to 35 adds a nice contrast. Initially, I thought that my colleagues would take everything I said as an order. But that's not the case at all – it’s seen as a contribution to discussions. More experienced colleagues don't have that much intrinsic authority here. That’s one thing, and there’s also a contrast in terms of dress code. None of my younger colleagues wear ties any more... Also, I’m always impressed by their level of intelligence and sharpness. They’re enthusiastic and idealistic, which inspires me and keeps me young.’

Can you share something about the alumni event happening in Brussels on 29 February?

‘I’ll be there, of course! I'll be taking part in a panel discussion on the European elections, which is a topical subject given the rise of populism. It's great that the faculty is focusing on it again this year. I will also make a pitch to encourage students to work for European Union institutions – they could use more Dutch employees!’

What would you like to tell students?

‘I want to encourage them to vote in the European elections. Whatever your political affiliation, it’s important to vote because not doing so means you’re indirectly voting for something you’d prefer to avoid.’

And finally, what’s your guilty pleasure?

‘Well, I enjoy good food way too much. There’s a lot of temptation in Brussels and I’m also married to an Italian woman...’

Banner photo: Guillaume Perigois through Unsplash
Thumbnail photo: Yellow Cactus through Unsplash

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