The past week the European Union’s Parliamentary elections took place. With the South African elections just behind us, it was quite interesting to see how the organisation thereof differed.

The first thing to be noted was that the Dutch lampposts did not heave under the posters. Boards were erected at strategic points, specifically for election posters. A week after the election it still remains, but it is not as untidy as the South African system with its discoloured posters sometimes still visible on sidewalks for months afterwards.

  • Board in Leeuwarden

The posters clearly indicate the two streams of thought in the Netherlands about this election. On the one side there are parties in favour of the continued existence of the European Union, and on the other side the Eurosceptics.

Of the largest election issues that came under consideration this year, was border control, climate change and social care.

  • Some posters:

Secondly, the locales where one could vote was particularly interesting. We are used to places such as church or school halls. In the Netherlands people could even vote in their favourite book shop (with accompanying special offers for the voters) or even on a tram in The Hague!

On the evening of Sunday 26 May 2019, the Dutch election results were analysed and the other incoming European results were studied at Nieuwspoort, an international media centre and association in The Hague, located just behind the Dutch parliamentary building.

  • At Nieuwspoort

The programme of five hours started with a wider glance over the workings of the EU Parliament. The fist speaker was Mendeltje van Keulen, a Europe expert from the Haagse Hogeschool in The Hague. She is also the author of a book titled Wat doen ze daar eigenlijk? Gesprekken met Nederlandse Europarlementariërs which was recently launched.

  • Mendeltje van Keulen addressing the audience:

There were 751 Euro parliamentarians. Their primary duty is to give shape to legislation and policy which is valid across Europe. The dilemma of anyone being elected, is according to her that it will take a long time, even years, for the new arrival to find his or her feet in the EU Parliament. One must build a network and garner support for the matters one would want to focus on, before you can reach success.

In a national parliament there will be positions taken, then debate and then a decision from which an action or legislature can possibly stem. At the EU Parliament it is about compromises the entire time. You have to simultaneously please your own party members, members to the group within which your party falls in the EU, the other 750 parliamentarians, as well as the broader public in your country of origin and win to support your matter.

Too much self-focus is also not welcomed. The supposition is that, when you become a member of parliament here, your first focus must be the welfare of Europe and not that of only your community, district or country. You must now further the interests of 500 million Europeans. You know you can start achieving success when influencers and member states start approaching you to garner support for their matters.

Mendeltje also gave her opinion on how the other member states’ parliamentary members view the representatives of the Netherlands. She is of the opinion the fact that many members of the Dutch Parliament only hold their seats for short periods can sometimes result in other countries having less trust in contact with the Dutch politicians than with other countries where people sit in Parliament for many years. Sometimes they would also perhaps experience the Dutch as somewhat withdrawn. Networking can therefore take longer for new members from the Netherlands and require much patience and effort.

At home in the Netherlands the question – what do members actually do? – is regularly asked. They must of course be held accountable, but on the other hand the Dutch media seldom reports on their activities. One of the reasons for this, is that decisions must be made on so many different levels before it could finally be implemented. If the media reports on the process before it is escalated to the next lever, the public would grow bored. Oftentimes only the final decision is reported on, without taking the preceding years of work into account. From outside this could then seem to the public as if nothing is ever done.

She is of the opinion that critique that the EU Parliament focusses on too many details, is sometimes indeed justified. Hard political choices are avoided. The major question in Parliament is always to which extent it may intervene in violations of the status of the constitutional state principle in member states. This remains a difficult issue and raises many questions about the purpose of the system. Monika Sie Dhian Ho, Director of the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, also gave her opinion on the influence of the Netherlands in the EU.

She confirmed that members are supposed to serve a broader ideal than their own country’s advantage. Solutions that are suggested for problems must be packaged as EU solutions, and therefore not as Dutch solutions, to achieve success and be accepted.

In her opinion, countries such as France and Germany are better at this type of diplomatic game. Frans Timmermans, the particularly popular Dutch candidate to possibly succeed Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxemburg as President of the European Commission, is according to her an exception to the rule. He is efficient at building proverbial bridges and this is a skill that will be necessary in the uncertain times should Brexit succeed.

It is also speculated that the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, could succeed Juncker. Rutte is currently evading all questions in this regard in a capable manner, but he is a confidante of Angela Merkel and with her political career swiftly coming to an end, now will be a good time for him to take the step if he would perhaps want to count on her support and indeed has ambition to serve in the EU.

In panel discussions later the evening the Dutch election campaign was also examined. It was described as a sluggish campaign, with little parties that truly made the effort with their canvasing. Podcasts also played a big role in this election. Although slightly more people took part than in the 2014 election, many members of the public felt that it was irrelevant and that they did not want to make the effort to go vote.

In Germany there were 41 parties on the ballot this year. This splintering is telling of the large political regrouping in Europe. Incidentally, there are about 500 political parties in Europe.

At Nieuwspoort the preliminary election results from Germany, Spain, Italy, Poland, Hungary and France were continually announced. The reaction of those present was determined by their own political viewpoints – those who feel strongly about climate change loudly welcomed the larger support to green parties in Europe, while others were divided between those hoping for a long future for the EU, opposed to those that think it is time for a change.

Where the rest of the world is concerned, the only issues touched upon was the trade war between the USA and China, and consequences it may have for the EU, as well as the political instability in the Middle East. Nothing was said about Africa – a relatively sobering experience for me and another reminder that although we would like our problems at home to be the focus of the world, we are only a small speck on the world map for most journalists and politicians elsewhere.

This doesn’t mean that we must ever neglect building out our networks to the international territory or bringing our issues under their attention, but it must always take place with realism and with the knowledge that most of the solutions for challenges staring us in the face will have to be found by ourselves back home.

This post is also available in: Afrikaans

Alana Bailey
Alana Bailey
Alana Bailey is Head of Cultural Affairs at AfriForum responsible for International Relations and Cultural Affairs.

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