Parties' leading candidates in Brussels debate

16 April 2009

Parties' leading candidates in Brussels debate

With a month and a half to go, the campaign for the European elections on June 4th is once again under way. The most important debate between the parties' number one candidates took place last Tuesday in Brussels. In Brussels? Yes, you heard correctly, the debate between the six Dutch candidates was held in.... Belgium. European elections, like Dutch national elections, are organised around party lists, and the candidates present were in each case the 'lijsttrekkers', the leading name on the list. The six were invited into the European Parliament building to put each other to the test.

Dutch voters turn up anyway

Almost four hundred Dutch people who live and work in Brussels were present in the meeting room. A poll showed that they had all made up their minds which way to vote before the debate got under way, so there wasn't much in the way of hearts and minds for the various politicians to win. Still, the gathering was useful in that it gave the many journalists present an opportunity to give their attention to differences of opinion on the future of the EU and the role of the Netherlands within the Union. Left and right believe that the Dutch voter hears far too little from the media about these matters. Tuesday saw this, for a short time at least, put to rights.


Prize-winning political journalist Mark Kranenburg, looking around the meeting room, noted that almost everyone present earned their crust within the EU institutions. Their official neutrality, however, wasn't much in evidence when it came to applauding political statements. Even the SP won applause when Dennis de Jong complained that far too much money was being wasted on the Common Agriculture Policy practice of handing money to the member states which they had themselves paid to the EU. When it came to giving the public the floor, Dutch officials in Brussels took a large slice of the time, but they certainly didn't provide any kind of reflection of their country's population. On virtually all subjects it was the same story: there seemed to be no 'anti-Europeans', and the SP was cast in the role of a 'Eurosceptic' party.


Dennis de Jong of the SP, Judith Sargentini of the centre-left green party Groen Links, Thijs Berman of the PvdA (Labour Party), Sophie in ’t Veld (D66 - centrist), Wim van de Camp (CDA – Christian Democrats) en Hans van Baalen (VVD – right wing liberals) debated each other on six propositions concerning privacy, agricultural policy, the crisis, the environment, EU enlargement and the European Constitution, now renamed the Lisbon Treaty. Genuine debate is a skill which these candidates, all of whom occupy number one spot on their party's lists and so are certain to be elected, will soon have no more chance to exercise.

…is forbidden

It is in fact forbidden to react to another speaker in the European Parliament's plenary meetings. These may be called debates, but in the European Parliament there is no real debate but merely a series of monologues. Speakers are given only a minute or so to say their piece and thus must deliver a written text. You can't employ word-play, because puns and so on are untranslatable. And once your speaking time is up, the Chair simply turns off the microphone - whether you've made your point or not. On this election debate evening, however, the candidates were at least able to react to each other.


Should we follow a protectionist course in these times of economic crisis? A straw poll taken in the meeting hall said 'no'. Dennis de Jong agreed: the economic crisis cannot be solved by falling back on protectionist measures. "But we must indeed have a thorough rethink of our economy. The EU is, after all, one of the guilty parties in the present crisis, through its abolition of surveillance of banks. What the SP stands for is more influence for the interests of consumers and workers."

In reaction to Sophie in 't Veld from D66, who said that the Netherlands would have had less protection had it not been for the introduction of the euro, De Jong countered that the euro was creaking, that the guilder had hardly been a weak currency when it was abandoned, and that the Netherlands had had too little in return for giving it up. Countries which had not adopted the euro, De Jong asserted, such as the UK, Denmark and Sweden, had maintained an even keel.

On the environment, Dennis de Jong supported plans to reduce CO2 emissions by 30%, in line with the Kyoto goals. "The SP does not see taking environmental measures as unfair competition within the EU," he said, looking towards Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes, present in the hall, as he did so. Kroes's interpretation of EU competition rules make it difficult for the Netherlands to introduce environmental policies more stringent than those of other member states.

Listen to the citizens

"The European Parliament is not succeeding in involving the public in the EU", was one of the propositions for discussion. Dennis de Jong's comment on this was that during the debate on the European Constitution, the public had indeed been highly involved. But if you want to alienate people, then you just have to disappoint the voters, De Jong pointed out. Thijs Berman of the Labour Party said that people really did feel themselves involved in Europe, but he recognised also that the voters had been angry after the referendum, to which De Jong replied "then you should surely begin to listen to them.” Hans van Baalen of the centre-right VVD said that he recognised that the European Parliament had not found a place in people's hearts, while the Green Left feared that the public was being made unduly anxious, and the Christian Democrats were "worried about contact between the voter and Europe.”

Dennis de Jong and Sophie in 't Veld
Dennis de Jong (SP) and Sophie in 't Veld (D66). De Jong: “61.6% voted no in the referendum on the European Constitution." In ’t Veld: “So 38% said yes."


In the case of the proposed accession of Turkey to the EU, Dennis de Jong believes that this should be put before the Dutch electorate in a referendum, and that on this point, too, the Dutch government should listen to what the people want.

Other issues

- Dennis de Jong said that the EU should stop taking money with one hand to give it back with another when it came to the payment of subsidies, and that subsidies should be paid direct to the farmer and only the farmer, and not to the likes of Nestlé, Heineken and even the Prince of Monaco.
- Hans van Baalen of the centre-right VVD said that he found a limited infringement of air passengers' privacy acceptable if this served the interests of security, pointing to the supply of reliable data on passengers to the American authorities.
- Sophie in ’t Veld of D66 said that protectionist measures would be the worst medicine for curbing the economic crisis.
- Labour's Thijs Berman recognised that the voters, in the aftermath of the European Constitution referendum had been angry, of course, but he insisted that nevertheless people felt really involved in Europe.
- Judith Sargentini, in answer to the question of in whose interests she would soon be entering the European Parliament, expressed the opinion that there was no such thing as 'the' Dutch interest. .
- The Christian Democrats argued that it would be a good thing to proceed cautiously in the matter of enlargement of the EU, but expressed no opinion regarding a maximum size.

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