Last Monday I had some ironing to do. Then I remembered that television still has one advantage over surfer-blogging: you can do the ironing at the same time. Of course the upcoming referendum was on several channels. I could not stand more than 20 minutes of it though (neither the ironing nor the tv). The various program presenters seemed to want to make it look like this was a political *debate as usual*, or so it seemed. National politicians dominated the guest lists. And most of them did what we expect from them nowadays: instead of seriously and conscientiously considering arguments, the majority of them seemed more intent on achieving a high score in something resembling a high-school debating-contest. Television comes in handy here.
In fact one of these *debates* was actually organized like a contest. Six politicians were invited. On every issue two of them went into a direct confrontation and the 6-minute sessions were immediately followed by a ‘flash vote’. And the winner is…
Perhaps the most bizarre moment came when the interviewer asked Geert Wilders just before the exit-poll results came in whether he would like to *claimed victory* already: as if this Wilders guy was the one who was responsible for the ‘no’ vote. Take note: Geert Wilders is an independent member of parliament after he left his party VVD. He gets bags of media-attention because polls suggest that he can put together a coalition which can win somewhere between 3 and 30 seats in parliament after the next election based on a combination of fearmongering about islamic fundamentalism and the fact that he received death-threats.
Of course all the usual tricks were displayed. A carefully chosen metaphor were would be used, and then the counter-attack would simply be a reversal of the metaphor. Participants were more into attacking the ?sometimes distorted – arguments coming from the other side than arguing their own case. It seems as if our traditional politicians, once they have made up their mind, -or worse: once their party has made a choice-, welcome every argument in favour of that choice or against the opposite one, no matter the extent to which that particular argument is based on incorrect information, or no matter how flawed the logic.
It took me some time before I realized why this annoyed me more than ever before: in the last couple of weeks I discovered that the debate inside the blogosphere is – in some aspects – superior in a lot of ways. On one hand this is no doubt due to the merits of the bloggers themselves, but on the other some conventional debating tricks simply do not work on the internet. During the last week I have also been able to extend my linklist by adding a number of interesting Dutch sites I didn’t know before.
So the debate was far too *business as usual*, even though the referendum as such was new to Dutch national politics. Now it will be hard to ever get rid of again. The number of people who dare to argue against the idea that a referendum is democracy at it’s best is small. I argued against it long before this referendum, so for me it has been easier, but if politicians who preferred a *yes* on the referendum start to formulate their objections on referendums in general only now, they will look like bad losers. This is not going to happen. It would be nice if politicians who preferred the *no* came up with objections to referendums but the chance of that is null.
I can elaborate on this.
In the relation between democracy and referendums in general, it is possible to identify 3 major problems.
1) Who is going to come up with the (simple) yes-no question?
2 What will the outcome mean – especially in the light of turn-out, and for how long will the decision be “valid”.
3) Who has the right to vote?
At first glance the third of these presents the least problem: at least for this referendum on the constitutional treaty. Of course everyone should have a say and the interest of every citizen should weigh equally. The *European leadership* however succeeded in making this into a major additional problem not only by accepting a referendum in only some of the member-countries but also by leaving the timing of the referendum to the country (and of course its governing politicians) to decide for itself.
The protracted period during which the votes are being held will itself have contributed to the strength of the Dutch *NO*.
As we are seeing, the interpretation of the meaning of the vote on this specific referendum is a huge problem too.
The no came from very different perspectives (among other things because of the complexity of the yes-no question of course). One could argue that the treaty, being the result of extensive negotiations, was a reasonable compromise between the two extremes that are now combined in one vote: *NO*.
This is not an exact represention of my point of view, but I’m sure you get the point :).
Looking back I think that the first mentioned problem ?who actually comes up with the question – is the most interesting one. The political elites went to some effort to get a strong drafting commission. Although there were warnings, in the Netherlands in particular from one of the two main contributors – Frans Timmermans – that the commision worked at too great a distance from the realities of national politics. My guess is that most politicians, or most of the ones who thought about it, thought the commision was populated by the right people.
From the voters point of view the question was one that was being asked by *those politicians*: national politicians and European beaurocrats. There was no inspiring European leadership with a strong conviction. As Europhobia wrote:
Europe is not ambitious enough. This is the problem with this bloody constitution – there’s no vision behind it. There’s nothing to inspire interest, enthusiasm or loyalty – even among the faithful. For a project as ambitious as the breaking down of barriers between the disparate, once war-ridden nations of an ancient continent, you’d think they’d have at least tried to have given it a shot or two of pizzazz.
But actually we do not have European politicians at all! The European Parliament is chosen along country lines. The commissioners combine aspects of beaurocrats and of representatives of the countries from which they come.
I really dislike the *those-politicians* sentiment. What is so wrong about it is that most people never engage with politics at all. Take the *blood their noses*-approach: *them politicians* are positioned on such a distance from *common people* that the politicians are going to live up to the expectations. They do not *exchange* views at all.
The other side of this problem is, of course, that distrust towards the politicians is justified.
I will close with the example of the Dutch Guilder that is said to have been under-valued at the time the Euro was introduced: the row on this gave an extra boost to the Dutch no-camp. In my opinion the extent of this undervaluation has been seriously exaggerated, and really there is little formal relation between this and the constitution treaty. Indirectly, of course, there is a huge relation. This can be seen from the comments of senior officials at the Dutch National Bank and mr Koos Andriessen, economy minister when the rates were agreed upon: During a meeting of a working committe from the cabinet in 1991 pm Ruud Lubbers asked: do the politicians really know what they are doing right now? After the meeting economy minister Andriessen admitted to Szasz: they have no idea, no idea whatsoever”.”
*Those politicians* are ill-informed and the *common people* can smell it.
And finally: could the voters be blamed for their intention to teach MP Jan-Peter Balkenende a lesson when the very same Balkenende reacted to the French NON with: “We can’t let the charter’s destination be predetermined by the French. To quote Belgian ex-pm Dehaene the Dutch should teach the French a lesson” (source: NOS-journaal). He set the example himself.