The two men somewhat awkwardly approach the photographer. This isn’t the most enjoyable part of an interview, but it’s all part of the game. An hour later, Ruud Burlet and Mathieu Segers are engaged in a sometimes heated debate about the EU, a serious subject on which their opinions differ considerably.
But first, before we ask them to discuss three statements: what’s the lay of the land? This Tuesday evening, Burlet is venturing into unfamiliar territory with his business background (“in the chemical industry”). In fact, if his party leader Thierry Baudet is to be believed, it’s enemy territory. We’re being undermined by our universities, Baudet claimed in his victory speech after the States-Provincial elections in March.
“I don’t feel like I’m in the belly of the beast at all”, begins Burlet. “Some people wonder if Baudet was right to make such strong statements about universities. But that aside.” He quickly moves on to address all the fuss about the hotline for complaints about ‘leftist indoctrination’ in education. “As a party, we received a lot of questions from students, sometimes even including examples from textbooks and exam papers. It’s a shame the press turned it into a snitch line. Moreover, it wasn’t Forum, but the Renaissance Instituut [the party’s research institute] that went public with it. They aren’t concerned with potential political repercussions.”
Segers: “I doubt that, considering the people who work there. They aren’t innocent or naive. Also, it was quite clear on Twitter that this was about more than just teaching materials.” Segers does appreciate attention being paid to the importance of education. “Of examining every day whether your study programme and you as a teacher are open to other points of view and judge them fairly.” But the way the hotline took shape, no, Segers won’t waste any more words on that. OK, fine, just a few: “Whether it was framing or not, it’s a very improper way which is slowly revealing itself to be a caricature – and a toxic one at that, as they’re compiling watchlists.” Burlet thinks he’s going too far. “When the VVD launched a similar hotline [in 2006] it wasn’t described as toxic.”
Why did Forum for Democracy win so many votes in the States-Provincial elections last March? Does Professor Mathieu Segers know why? “Throughout Europe, people haven’t felt represented by politics for years. Voter turnout is a good indicator of this: the turnout in the previous European Parliamentary elections in Slovakia was 16 per cent, 23 per cent in Poland.”
There’s a certain sense of alienation, which, according to Segers, is because feeling has disappeared from politics. “Everything is about rules, policy, bureaucracy, purchasing power forecasts. At the same time, there’s a great need to bring feeling back into politics, and Forum for Democracy is a manifestation of that need. It makes sense, but you have to be careful with it. Wild, emotion-driven democracy may also degenerate. Like we do now, the Weimar Republic but also France had many parties, a lot of direct democratic influence and heated ideological debate. And eventually everything became politicised, everything framed in ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.”
According to Segers, that’s what happened with the hotline. “If you start ideologizing everything, you put everyone in camps.”
Burlet: “That wasn’t our approach at all.”
Segers: “I believe you right away, but that’s how it appeared in the news. And it fits with the times. Just look at Zwarte Piet demonstrations, or anything else – everyone immediately goes all in.”
It’s time for our discussion statements.
Own currency, own borders: everything used to be better.
“Not everything used to be better”, replies Burlet. “You can call it a nostalgic feeling, but that isn’t how our position is intended. It’s about the fact that Dutch citizens have no say in anything anymore – not in the money that flows from north to south, not in the money that goes to banks to save them. Brussels has gone too far on so many fronts, blind and deaf to what citizens think. It’s a very sore point. People see Forum as an anchor in the progress, against an ever-closer union.”
According to Segers, there’s no such thing as an ever-closer union, “a flawed English translation of ‘an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe’ in the original language of the treaty”. Moreover, “A step back was taken, with the signing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007. The position of the European Council became much stronger and the Council consists of the member states.”
Burlet: “It was mainly Germany and France making the decisions, with the Netherlands as a lap dog.”
Segers: “Not as a lap dog.”
Burlet: “Time for some populist talk! We said: not a single euro to Greece! And what happened? Money went to Greece anyway.”
Segers: “So hold [Dutch Prime Minister] Rutte accountable.”
Burlet: “That’s exactly what we’re trying to do. We don’t want even more power to go to Europe.”
Segers is unable to convince Burlet. According to the leader of Forum in Limburg, it’s mainly “a nice theory” that member states have been given more control. It’s more difficult in practice, he thinks.
See what’s happening with Brexit? No one is even considering a Nexit anymore.
“Brexit still hasn’t happened”, says Burlet. “No decisions were made for three years. If a country says, ‘I’m out’, they should get out as quickly as possible. Don’t spend ages messing around.”
Before and during the States-Provincial elections, Forum for Democracy tried to win over voters with a Nexit, Dutch withdrawal from the EU. “As a party, we’ve agreed that we’re allowed to have different opinions on this. A Nexit would be much more complex than a Brexit, but I’d threaten Brussels with one if it means opening their eyes.”
In fact, he’d be in favour of a Nexit if the EU spins out of control. “Suppose Greece collapses, or Italy. Everyone will have to look out for each other, even to a point where it’s impossible. Countries will automatically drop out. Germany isn’t in a great place financially speaking; the same goes for the Netherlands. I’d rather everything didn’t collapse, because if we’re talking about ‘what isn’t good for the Netherlands’, it’s Europe collapsing.”
“Do you hear what he says? He’s saying what isn’t good for the Netherlands is Europe collapsing!” emphasises Segers. “So there’s a Dutch responsibility to be critical and constructive. And we’ve always been good at that. That’s why I find it very strange that you’re saying the Netherlands is just a follower.”
Burlet: “You have a very positive view of this.”
A Nexit would be “a very bad idea”, according to Segers; it would mean breaking with post-war history. “The Netherlands is built on the gas field near Slochteren and the European internal market. The latter financed the reconstruction. Leaving the EU would be an economic disaster.” At the same time, he thinks it’s “equally ill-advised” to pretend a Nexit isn’t an option at all. “There’s always a choice. The good thing about Brexit is that alternatives are becoming visible.”
In the Netherlands, EU membership can currently count on the most support, according to recent surveys – paradoxical as this may sound. “We’re too fixated on Forum, which I think is a form of provincialism, by the way. We’re interested in a person who has read books and quotes them selectively. But that aside. You see other EU member states becoming much more aware of what they have and what they want because of the whole Brexit situation, too.”
Eastern Europe is behaving most ungratefully, first benefiting from EU subsidies and then flouting Western values.
Both men shake their heads. Burlet does see that Eastern European countries have become more critical. “They’re countries that have freed themselves from communist structures. I was in Montenegro recently, the people there are very proud of their country, happy with their newly acquired sovereignty. It startles them when Brussels imposes things on them.”
Contrary to popular belief, taking in immigrants wasn’t an obligation, says Segers. “Immigration policy is up to the member states. The Commission did propose a quota system, like the quotas for cod and milk. Rather Kafkaesque, and quite misguided, but how could this happen? Because the member states, or the heads of state, were butting heads and not taking responsibility.”
Burlet: “A Kafkaesque policy indeed. Over-the-top bureaucracy. But it does determine the image citizens have of the EU. We in the West are no strangers to immigration, with Indonesians who came to the Netherlands back in the fifties. Eastern European countries aren’t used to this. They feel, I don’t know if this is a good word: pure.”
Segers: “Seems like a bad word to me.”
Burlet: “But they do see it that way. And they feel threatened when they suddenly have to let in thousands of immigrants. Strictly speaking it wasn’t an obligation, that’s true, but that’s how those countries experienced it.”
The conversation turns to Poland and Hungary, countries that are violating EU core values. What to do about this? “There’s little point in lecturing these countries”, says Segers. “But it is important to keep pointing out that lines are being crossed here. I think it’s exciting that people in Hungary, Poland and Romania have been taking to the streets to protest for months now. EU institutions are an anchor and a source of hope for these protestors. The Commission should support these people by denouncing these abuses, identifying them and influencing politics that way. That’s also the power of EU institutions: the fact that they exist. Spain and Portugal are no longer dictatorships – that’s the beauty of European integration.”
Burlet: “At the same time, the EU should take more of a background role, as interference from Brussels, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, is the greatest source of irritation.” A little later: “Just look at how the EU Civil Service is churning out an enormous number of rules in different areas. It’s so stifling, also considering the restrictions on free trade.”
It’s a typical dilemma, says Segers. “You can only trade with each other if you trust each other. We don’t, hence the rules. It’s interesting that the internal market can also have a corrective effect. Western companies have recently begun to take measures against Poland because they’re concerned about the rights of their expatriate employees.”
Towards the end of the conversation, the Nexit discussion flares up again. Burlet thinks the advantages of the EU should constantly be weighed against the disadvantages, and that Forum forces people to do so.
Segers, sharply: “Be careful not to turn it into a laughing matter, because it’s too serious for that. You create too many caricatures.”
Burlet: “Sometimes you have to pull the emergency brake to open people’s eyes.”
Segers: “That often leads to the twisting of historical facts. European integration is a decision of the member states themselves; they choose to integrate because it makes them stronger. You pretend they don’t. And I don’t like that, pretending.”
Burlet: “We’re not pretending. We think the cons outweigh the pros.” A little later: “During the elections, you’ll see people in many countries indicate they want ‘less Europe’.”
These elections are different from usual, says Segers. “So much has happened: Crimea, Bataclan, Brexit, the migrant crisis. Add in all the protestors in Eastern Europe, but also the yellow vests movement, and you have to conclude these elections are about really important issues: a social Europe, safety, climate policy, human rights. For me, the big question is: are people going to vote? Is their need great enough for them to go out and cast their ballots? In other words, will they put their hope in the parties in the European Parliament?”
Wendy Degens, Maurice Timmermans