Dutch Round Table
The Tafelronde (English: Round Table) is a private gathering every six weeks of important Dutch people within politics, media, the economy and the civil service. Outside society is barely aware of its existence.
The Round Table is an private society where the top people of Dutch business, politics and the civil service have been meeting for 120 years, and where confidentiality is so self-evident that hardly anyone else knows about it. There is no deed of incorporation and there are no minutes taken. The meetings has survived two world wars.
The main event of the evening is a substantive discussion. The chairman selected a topic in advance and asked a Table Round member to introduce it. Speakers always come from their own ranks: the private society does not invite outside experts.
The Round Table follows a "fairly tight formula", said chairman Dick Benschop, CEO of Schiphol. Nine times a year, the members meet behind the fences of Wittenburg Castle in Wassenaar. The meetings of the Round Table always take place on Monday evenings and last approximately two hours, from seven to nine. The meeting starts with a short drink, followed by a dinner in the library room. On average, twenty to thirty members attend one evening. It was not until 2011 that the Round Table admitted the first woman.
The monumental Wittenburg castle has been an exclusive meeting place for the Dutch elite since 1963. Just like the Amsterdam industrialist L.W.F. Sträten, the former owner, envisioned. He bought De Wittenburg with a specific goal: "The intention is that contacts are established here between prominent people and that those contacts are maintained; that initiatives are born among members that are so important that they can be implemented." "Everyone knows where to find each other when there is a problem."
Membership in the Round Table is reserved for only a few. Even people you would expect to see because of their powerful position in society don't always get in. According to Benschop, members should above all be "interesting" and "have something to say". "A nice CV is not the criterion," he says, "you want thinkers who can do just that little bit more in their role and position".
New members often come from the immediate environment of existing members, for example when a member is succeeded in his job. For example, former NRC editor-in-chief Jérôme Louis Heldring was told to approach Wout Woltz in 1983, when it became clear that he would become the new editor-in-chief of the newspaper. Woltz reports that eventually Ernst van der Beugel took over the task of recruiting him.
Members include top executives whose organizations and companies have left their mark on the Dutch economy and society. Hans Wijers, Chairman of the Supervisory Board of ING and former Minister of Economic Affairs (1994-1998). Klaas Knot, the president of De Nederlandsche Bank. Laura van Geest, the former CPB director who now runs the Netherlands Authority for the Financial Markets. Home Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister Kajsa Ollongren. Jeroen van der Veer, former CEO of Shell and currently chairman of the supervisory board of Philips. And the current chairman of the Round Table, Dick Benschop, is director of Schiphol airport.
When the Minister of the Interior and Deputy Prime Minister Kajsa Ollongren was asked in 2021 if she finds it problematic in any way that she meets on this structural basis with top people from the Dutch business community, the answer was: 'The minister is open to a conversation or discussion with everyone and has participated once in a while since she took office. A membership of, for example, a tennis club, the chess club or a food club is allowed." The minister sees no problem in her membership of the prominent society.
Eelke Heemskerk, associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam, specializes in elite networks states: "It is a time-honored sociological mechanism," he explains, "that outsiders overestimate the guiding function of such societies and those in them underestimate the influence it exerts." Both positions misunderstand how such societies function. "Influence does not come directly from the societies themselves, but from the relationships people develop or maintain there," he says.
Heemskerk sees the Tafelronde as a kind of echo chamber, a "consensus machine" for the elite. "By that I don't mean consensus as in" everyone agrees, so let's do it this way, "but a consensus that clarifies the playing field of acceptable views. What is within the boundary, what is outside it, how should we consider this? "