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Willy Claes was elected to the Hasselt City Council in 1964, going on four years later to enter parliament when he was elected to the House of Representatives and appointed to report on the Budget. From 1971 onwards, he was one of the spokesmen of the Belgian Socialist Party each time a government was formed. His first ministerial appointment was to the Department of Education in the government headed by Mr. Gaston Eyskens in 1972. In 1973, he was put in charge of the Department of Economic Affairs in the Leburton-De Clercq-Tindemans government.
In the second government headed by Mr. Tindemans (1977), Mr. Claes was once more appinted Minister of Economic Affiars. Between 1978-1982, Willy Claes was Minister of Economic Affairs in four governments led by Wilfried Martens, and in one headed by Mark Eyskens. He was also appinted Deputy Prime Minister, a post he has held five times.
In December 1983, King Baudouin appointed him Minister of State. From 1988 to 1992, he was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Affairs in the government led by Mr. Martens. In March 1992, when Mr. Jean-Luc Dehaene became Prime Minister, Mr. Claes was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. He was elected Chairman of the Party of European Socialists in July 1992.
Mr. Claes is a well-known orchestral conductor and accomplished musician. He is married to Suzanne Meynen, a former nurse and midwife, now active in several associations providing psycho-social and medical assistance. They have two children.
In September 1994, Mr. Claes was nominated by NATO Foreign Ministers to succeed Manfred Wörner as Secretary General of NATO. He took up his appointment as Secretary General on 17 October 1994. He was succeeded by Mr. Javier Solana in December 1995.