‘Those Politicians’

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”.”
(source).

*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.

7 thoughts on “‘Those Politicians’

  1. You deserve a detailed answer

    1) Who is going to come up with the (simple) yes-no question?

    Who comes up with the question parliaments vote on in last consequence? There’s no need to alter the system. Secondly you can come up with alternatives and use a system of preference voting.

    2)2 What will the outcome mean – especially in the light of turn-out, and for how long will the decision be “valid”.

    Good question, but a technical question, that has to be dealt with as such. Can you give me the reason why parliaments in most countries last 4 years and not 3 or 5? Or why the voting age is 18, not 17 or 19?
    My personal preference would be 50% turnout for facultative referenda and no limit for obligatory referenda and I’d consider them binding for the duration a parliament is elected for.

    3) Who has the right to vote?

    As we are seeing, the interpretation of the meaning of the vote on this specific referendum is a huge problem too.

    It is at any election. I might vote liberal because I think they might be the only party making sure that economic reforms go far enough although they are insanely soft on crime – or I might vote conservative because the liberal economic programm is ideologically motivated, yet the conservative stance on drugs is a typical example of the nanny state at its worst.
    I see the concern, but it is unavoidable and I am sure modern means of demoscopics will solve it.

    You may of course state that elections are about choosing a group of wise leaders, giving them legitimacy and getting rid of those who screw up. Then you are sidestepping the whole will of the people issue and there should be no referenda at all.

    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*.

    Yes, but so what? A compromise is not automatically a good thing. If a section of a bridge you are driving on crashes down into the river in front of you, you can hit the brakes or accelerate for the jump, but doing the compromise of continuing at your present speed will surely kill you.

  2. “National politicians dominated the guest lists”

    Good text, Frans. And I am glad I can finally respond to your writings (as you know I have technnical difficulties accessing your blog’s comments).

    I for one would like to see more field experts in the political debates. Politicians always need to defend their interests, which is as understandable as it is regrettable sometimes.

  3. I guess you aren’t around right now Frans, but your post is very timely. Look at the thing on Denmark, the referendum has entered European politics, and it may be difficult to get rid of.

  4. @Oliver “You deserve a detailed answer”
    Who? Me? Well, thank you!
    We clearly have different opinions on this subject but there are also some points the result of misunderstanding; my first hypothesis for the cause of those is of course a combination of my poor english and limited writing skills as such.
    From the way you write “? and there should be no referenda at all” I can see that apparently I was not clear enough that this is exactly what I meant: except for some purely local issues in neighborhoods and villages and maybe with the exception of referenda that focus on withdrawal of a policy that is actively deployed , I think any referendum is a bad idea. They only enhance the credibility gap.
    ?1) Who is going to come up with the (simple) yes-no question There?s no need to alter the system. Secondly you can come up with alternatives and use a system of preference voting.
    My wrong, definitely. You read an emphasis on *Who?* but I should have emphasized the combination of *simple* and *yes-no*. But now that you mentioned it: the *who* is part of the problem too. On dozens of places I read a comparison with the American founding fathers. At least in the perception of a lot of voters *who* was a bunch of burocrats and those are unpopular. Partly because national politicians in refusal to defend less popular policies blame *Brussel*.
    I am not inspired by your suggestion to have more alternatives (than two) and organize a system of preference voting. I try to imagine what you propose and come up with a book of 400 pages, another one of 200 and 7 booklets of 40 pages. For example. Would this be helpful?
    2) What will the outcome mean – especially in the light of turn-out, and for how long will the decision be *valid*. Good question, but a technical question, that has to be dealt with as such. Can you give me the reason why parliaments in most countries last 4 years and not 3 or 5? Or why the voting age is 18, not 17 or 19?
    My personal preference would be 50% turnout for facultative referenda and no limit for obligatory referenda and I?d consider them binding for the duration a parliament is elected for.
    I am afraid that you try to solve huge political challenges with technical means.
    Of course it would be insultive to organize a new referendum on exactly the same question within 3 years. But in the real world a new referendum would be on another question. If this question is more of the same or something new would be subject of heated debate of course.
    Your focus is on what turn-out there should be and that kind of figures: there I agree with you that this will remain arbitrary but not in a way that it is a real problem.
    My focus is on how to interpret the substance. Now that the Dutch (and French) said *NO* does this mean that *the people* does not want a constitutional treaty where the national governments are blocked to support their national industries/corporations or does it mean that the European project should not have a say in social issues?
    In the little Dutch town Urk, where over 90% percent of the voters choose NO, it seems that their NO was based on two issues: the fact that god and christianity was not mentioned in the treaty and the the falling fish-quota… What is European about that?
    ?3) Who has the right to vote?
    This could use some elaboration too, I see. The point I was trying to make is that on a lot of referendums it is hard to say who should vote. For example the simultaneous referendum in my hometown on Sunday-shopping in the city-center: all inhabitants of the town could vote and all of these had the same weight. Insane. The people living in the inner-city of course should have a stronger vote than me, not living there. The people working in shops in my hometown (or owning them) but living just outside the town surely should have a vote too.
    So while in almost every referendum this is a serious problem it was not necessary to have that problem on the treaty as well. Now we face the problem of a referendum in one group of countries and a normal parliamentary decision in the other group while the countries with a referendum organize it on different dates.

    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*.
    Yes, but so what? A compromise is not automatically a good thing. If a section of a bridge you are driving on crashes down into the river in front of you, you can hit the brakes or accelerate for the jump, but doing the compromise of continuing at your present speed will surely kill you.
    That is a funny metaphor but I am not an entertainer so I will not react on it.
    Of course you are right that a compromise is not automatically a good thing. But the question is: can we find answer to the challenges we face in Europe supported by clear majorities in popular votes.

  5. @Guy: “(as you know I have technnical difficulties accessing your blog’s comments).”
    You could try again; I made some changes.

    @Edward: “…the referendum has entered European politics, and it may be difficult to get rid of.”
    I fear Californian situations.

  6. You read an emphasis on *Who?* but I should have emphasized the combination of *simple* and *yes-no*.

    I don’t see this as a problem. A legislative action always boils down to a yes/no distinction. Do you want the following law enacted, or don’t you?
    You cannot replace discussion on a law with a referendum, yes. But why do you see a need to do so? In parliament finding a parliamentary majority is replaced (or extended) by the need to find a popular majority. What you do lose is the ability to trade horses. Eg. Vote for A and we’ll vote for B. But at least for the things significant to have a referendum on them, that is very good.

    If this question is more of the same or something new would be subject of heated debate of course.

    Why? We would have a simple provisions: If a law is passed by referendum, for X years after the referendum it can be changed only by referendum. Maybe add a provision for emergencies.

    My focus is on how to interpret the substance. Now that the Dutch (and French) said *NO* does this mean that *the people* does not want a constitutional treaty where the national governments are blocked to support their national industries/corporations or does it mean that the European project should not have a say in social issues?

    Why do you want to interpret anything? A concrete question was asked and has been answered. Suppose the government had suffered a parliamentary defeat. What would be different? (OK- you can’t dissolve the people – yes) The government would either resign, or talk to parliamentarians about how to negotiate a new treaty. Finding out which kind of treaty may survive a popular vote cannot really be a problem in our age of advanced market research.

    the fact that god and christianity was not mentioned in the treaty and the the falling fish-quota… What is European about that?

    The first issue: everything. I’d disagree, but if that isn’t european, what is? The quota is set by the EU, too. Where’s the problem?

    The people living in the inner-city of course should have a stronger vote than me, not living there.

    NO
    Do not, ever think that. The next step would be to ask why somebody who pays more taxes shouldn’t have more votes in general elections. That would tear contemporary european societies apart.

    can we find answer to the challenges we face in Europe supported by clear majorities in popular votes.

    Why not? The earlier treaties were passed. We may not find a solution pleasing a unionist, but we’ll find a solution. It may mean curtailing the powers of the EU, but that was the point.

    BTW: I was really surprised to learn that the Netherlands don’t have referenda. Having a long republican tradition I would have assumed they had without bothering to check.

  7. We really have opposite views. Well, let?s see if our exchange of views can result in something useful for us and/or the fistful-readers.
    ? You cannot replace discussion on a law with a referendum, yes. But why do you see a need to do so? In parliament finding a parliamentary majority is replaced (or extended) by the need to find a popular majority. What you do lose is the ability to trade horses. Eg. Vote for A and we?ll vote for B. But at least for the things significant to have a referendum on them, that is very good.
    We agree on the last line: getting rid of horsetrading is a good thing. Horsetrading is not the same however as settling on a compromise. In horsetrading A and B are completely unrelated; when you talk about a compromise A and B are related. (I admit that this is not a perfect dichotomy but there is a real difference). To me the discussion is more important than the popular vote. In the discussion we try to get the best policy: in my POV that is the policy that is most thoroughly based on reality (as opposed to idology and sentiment). Not even MPs working 70 hours a week are sufficiently informed on all aspects of all subjects of parliamentary debate. So opposing referendums has nothing to do with the idea of voters being stupid.
    Immediately following the Dutch NO the 8 o clock news (NOS-journaal) asked some *men in the street* what the goverment should do now. The strong sentiment (and I can understand that sentiment; to some degree I feel it too) being *the politicians do not listen* now national television asked some voters what should the goverment do. And all they came up with was the repetition: they should come over here and listen. *But what will you tell them when they visit?* *they should come over and listen*.
    On my own weblog I have this oneliner: Unintelligent but wise people know they are not intelligent, unwise but intelligent people don’t know they are unwise.
    One of the interviewed persons clearly belonged to the category unintelligent but wise. His comments was a very simple: *they should be honest*.
    That is the gap indeed.
    Column-writer Bas Heyne of my newspaper commented on the Urk-fishermen: some politicans should go there and tell them what the real problem is with the fish-quota instead of hiding behind the *Brussel*-abstraction.

    ?We would have a simple provisions: If a law is passed by referendum, for X years after the referendum it can be changed only by referendum. Maybe add a provision for emergencies.?
    Well, I think you avoid the problem here. Yes, if a law is passed…. okay. But when a law is not passed. That is what we are talking about here!
    Do we have an emergency now with the real threat of a crisis of the European Project?

    ? Why do you want to interpret anything? …….. Finding out which kind of treaty may survive a popular vote cannot really be a problem in our age of advanced market research.?
    So you really do not want to interpret the popular vote but use market research instead?
    Here we really, really disagree.

    ? can we find answer to the challenges we face in Europe supported by clear majorities in popular votes.
    Why not? The earlier treaties were passed.?
    Here it looks like you do not see any challenges. We simply go on the way we did before.
    In my first post on the referendum this was the decisive reason to say yes (reluctantly): We do not need China-bashing; we need sensible European answers to the major changes in the world economy and state of the environment.
    The rapid changes in the global economy to me is enough to completely disagree with the idea of European integration going to fast. Yes it is going fast but the changes in the economy and ecology are faster. We can not politically pause here.

    Finally on the fish-quota: no of course the fish-quota is not a European issue. It is an international issue. Fish do not see borders at all. Not the ones between European countries nor any other border. Implicit in my original text was the absurdity of the idea that even on the fish-quota we had beter have national decisions.

    Your BTW is really funny.
    .. surprised to learn that the Netherlands don?t have referenda. Having a long republican tradition….?
    We have a long anti-republican tradition. Yes the Netherlands, or maybe here I should say Holland, was the first very succesful republic. An example to many in the rest of Europe who were still fighting the king and emperor tyrannies. But the monarchist won. Not a single political party is actively proposing to get rid of the monarchy. I am ashamed for this aspect of my country.

    (see this post at hollandaise as well: http://emmering.blogspot.com/2005/05/french-reject-eu-constitution-analogy.html)

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