Wim Duisenberg Biography

Born Willem Frederik Duisenberg, July 9, 1935, in Heerenveen, Netherlands; died of natural causes, July 31, 2005, in Faucon, France. Banker. Wim Duisenberg was known as the "father of the Euro" across much of Europe. As the first president of the European Central Bank, Duisenberg oversaw the introduction of a common currency, called the Euro, during his five-year tenure. For a continent whose peoples had gone to war with one another almost since they learned of the others' existence, the implementation of a single currency was an historic step among European Union (EU) member-nations, and the genial, stubborn Dutch economist was eventually commended for his managerial talents in supervising the complex process.

Born in 1935, some of Duisenberg's youth was spent under the shadow of the Nazi German occupation of the Netherlands. He grew up in the town of Heerenveen, and went on to earn his doctorate in economics from the University of Groningen in 1965. After working for the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., for a time, he returned home and was made advisor to the director of the Nederlandsche Bank, the country's central bank, in 1969. Over the next decade, he served as a professor of macroeconomics at the University of Amsterdam, held a seat in the Dutch parliament, spent four years as the country's Minister of Finance, and became vice chair of a privately owned bank.

In 1981, Duisenberg was made a director of the Nederlandsche Bank, and named to its presidency a year later. He stayed on the job for 15 years, during which time he emerged as one of the most ardent advocates for the adoption of a common European currency. The process began with a 1992 agreement, called Maastricht Treaty, for a planned economic and monetary union among EU signees to the accord. Several strict criteria had to be met in each country before the currency conversion could take place in each, and central banks such as the Nederlandsche Bank played important roles in achieving those goals. During Duisenberg's tenure, for example, he linked the Dutch guilder to Germany's mark, which helped Dutch financial markets and economic indicators remain stable.

Duisenberg was named to serve as the first president of the European Central Bank (ECB) in 1998, ostensibly for an eight-year term. The job came with enormous power, and analysts asserted that, as the supervisor of interest rates in the European countries known as the eurozone, Duisenberg would wield more influence than any elected leader. Yet the appointment, which European heads of state had to agree upon, was not without controversy: France was reportedly miffed that the head of their central bank was bypassed for the post, and so a deal was struck whereby Duisenberg agreed to serve just four years. The ECB would then be turned over to Jean-Claude Trichet, director of the Banque de France.

The euro was launched as an accounting currency in the world's financial markets in January of 1999. That spurred some unexpected fluctuations and economic difficulties over the next few years, and the central banks of the member countries pleaded with Duisenberg to lower interest rates to alleviate further hardships. Known for his stubbornness and independent mind, he refused to be swayed, once even telling the bankers, "I hear, but I don't listen," according to the Los Angeles Times. The French press devoted innumerable unflattering headlines to what they deemed his poor stewardship. Trichet, meanwhile, faced charges of fraud for his role in a scandal involving Credit Lyonnais, a state-owned bank in France that went through several upheavals in the 1990s.

Actual Euro notes and coins were introduced throughout the eurozone on January 1, 2002. This time, Duisenberg was commended for his deft management of the major event, which essentially removed all national currencies from circulation forever and affected 305 million Europeans. By then, the Euro was doing better as well, and concern about its devaluation had faded. He announced his retirement on his 68th birthday in 2003, but stayed on the job until Trichet extracted himself from his legal quandary. Duisenberg officially stepped down on October 31, 2003.

A heavy smoker, Duisenberg likely died of a heart attack in his swimming pool in Fauchon, a town in the south of France, on July 31, 2005, where he had a summer home. Survivors include second wife Gretta, a political activist whom he married in 1987, and two sons and a daughter from his first marriage to Tine Stelling. His legacy as what some termed "Mr. Europe" was unchallenged, and he himself noted that "it has been an honor and a privilege," a CNN.com report quoted him as saying on the day the Euro notes were introduced. "Europe has made history and I have been given a place at the heart of it." Sources: Chicago Tribune , August 1, 2005, sec. 4, p. 10; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/BUSINESS/10/31/duisenberg.stepsdown/index.html (August 1, 2005); Los Angeles Times , August 1, 2005, p. B9; New York Times , August 1, 2005, p. A13; Times (London), August 1, 2005, p. 42; Washington Post , August 1, 2005, p. B4.

Carol Brennan

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