A Dutchman in Bulgaria: We Must Vote for Party Programmes not for Cute Faces
Ralitsa Kovacheva, 3 October 2012
The concrete occasion to meet Rene Boesten was the Dutch elections, but my interest in him was provoked also by the fact that he is a Dutchman who has been living in Bulgaria for a long time. Rene Boesten has a master degree in environmental sciences. He is a consultant on environment legislation, who has been working in Central and Eastern Europe since 1993. From this perspective, I was curious to hear his views on topical European issues, seen both through the eyes of Dutchmen and Bulgarians. Although we meet three weeks after the elections in the Netherlands, the coalition negotiations are still ongoing and no government is formed. That will take two months at least, Rene Boesten predicted.
euinside: Why does it take so long to form a government, given that the two major parties are clear, as well as the smaller ones?
Rene Boesten: Coalition agreements in the Netherlands take a long time because it is not only the numerical deal. The election results show that basically only two serious coalitions are possible - one is a two-party coalition and the other is a five-party coalition. Those are the numbers. But what happens is that it takes very long time, because a coalition agreement is usually a very detailed agreement. All issues are discussed, all issues are more or less agreed upon - from substantial budget management, budget cuts, spending, to whether school books are given for free, instead of been paid. All these things. It's a very detailed process. It is close to a contract. The coalition agreement is the bible for the for-year period. Deviation from the coalition agreement is only possible in very substantially outside changes, like the previous cabinet had a coalition agreement, but due to unexpected necessity to cut very substantially the government's spending this had to be renegotiated. And that failed, because one of the parties didn't want to support the result of the negotiations.
euinside: As an example, how detailed is the coalition agreement, you had a 'Bulgarian clause' in the previous one - that Bulgaria (and Romania) should not enter Schengen without demonstrating results in terms of the fight against corruption and legal reform, as required under the CVM.
Rene Boesten: Yes, indeed. But this is not an issue at the moment. But those things are agreed well in advance and are more or less fixed, so deviation from that is close to impossible. That's why this is a very long process. Compare it to Greece, where the legislation says that the coalition has to be made within three days, for us as Dutch this is totally not understandable. How can you agree on a four-year or five-year government term in which you have to make a bunch of compromises because that is a coalition - it is a trade off, you get your promise to your part of the election programme that you campaign for and in return we get this part.
euinside: You are traders, the Dutchmen.
Rene Boesten (laughingly): Yes, we are traders, also we do this at politics.
euinside: I believe this is a good approach. Was the result somehow surprising?
Rene Boesten: Anyway, it was surprising. The two major surprises that came up were that a month before the election the Socialist party, which is still a very real socialist party, was on something like 36 seats in the opinion pools and the Social Democrats were basically still at a minus, compared to what they had at the previous elections. Within a month it turned entirely upside down. The Socialist party stayed on 15 seats. The Social Democrats just exploded in the opinion polls and in the end came up with this result.
euinside: What was the reason for that explosion of the Social Democrats, some said it was their leader?
Rene Boesten: It’s a mix of things. The leader of the Social Democrats appeared to be a very good debater and he gave himself a very good image of a moderate politician, statesman. The leader of the Socialist party was classified as not a very good debater, didn’t present his ideas very well, made a few what was classified by the media as mistakes during the TV debates. I am not really sure about voters' motivation. A lot of people were just pissed off and still are. We are stuck in the financial crisis, but we don’t see solutions that address the main cause of the financial crisis, which is to a very large extent due to the mismanagement, to call it politely mismanagement, in the banking system, in the financial sector. Gambling, speculation, over-speculation, extreme risk-taking have resulted partially in this financial crisis.
euinside: What should be done, according to you and the people in the Netherlands?
Rene Boesten: What I think should be done, and this is something that was said already a few months ago, is that we need to substantially readdress the way the banking system and the financial sector works. Some people go up to the level where they propose a split in the banking system, where you get sort of general purpose banks and investment banks, they call them utility banks and casino banks. Even people from the banking sector are saying 'we have proved not to be capable of decent management of our own system, so someone from the outside needs to force us to behave more appropriately'. But it was not an issue in the Dutch election or hardly an issue. Only the Socialist party and the Greens made very clear statements saying the banking system needs to be chopped up in pieces, because it is totally unreliable.
euinside: Are you telling me that the main concern of the people was not an issue in the campaign?
Rene Boesten: Not so much. The fact that the root cause of the crisis was not addressed by the politicians resulted in that many people moved for voting for the Socialist party, because they were very clear about what needs to be done. In parallel to that, a discussion came about the position of the Netherlands in the European Union and the eurozone, where Mr Wilders and his party, though he is the party, said 'we have to leave the EU' and go back to trade agreements with the different member states. Many people found that very stupid. That is why they lost so many votes.
Many people are not very happy with the way the EU works, but getting out of the EU is not an option. The Netherlands cannot exist outside the EU. It doesn’t mean that people support what is gong on in the EU at the moment, the way the European Commission works, the lack of democracy in the establishment of the EC, the lack of transparency in what they are doing. That is something that irritates a lot of people and that's why there is an anti-European sentiment. The EC is not an elected body like the Council of Ministers in the Netherlands or in Bulgaria, which is elected by the parliament. The Commission consists of people appointed by the member states. That is one of the deficiencies in the EU. It is about time and luckily proposals have been tabled in this direction, so things need to be changed.
euinside: However, the real decision maker is the Council, the European Council or the Council of Ministers, where the participants are democratically elected representatives of the member states.
Rene Boesten: I find that extremely naïve. The Council of Ministers, or a minister, is absolutely nothing without their massive staff. A ministry is run by a minister for political decisions. But if a minister says 'we are going all in direction A' and the entire staff of the ministry has to do that. They make the legislative proposals, they make the policy plans, they communicate with the stakeholders. The minister is only the cherry on the pie. He sets the main guidelines. Saying that the Council of Ministers has a decision power is ignoring the entire body of civil servants that woks underneath. The European Commission is not very large, but has all the people doing the actual work. Much of the negotiation process before the Council of Ministers is done by the ambassadors and their staff. The ministers only go to the last step when the negotiating process is basically done. They decide on the final hot potatoes, but all the agreements have been made before that by the civil servants.
euinside: You have been in the Netherlands for two weeks, during the election. Are people there debating these issues, are they interested in European issues?
Rene Boesten: (hesitatingly) Yes …, although this time the election campaign was extremely dominated by way too many debates on the television, often of an extremely low quality, discussing type of campaigning. That was not a campaign about what we should do, it was a debate about how are we doing the campaign. Many people are concerned about the Netherlands' place in the EU, this losing influence in the EU, which is in a way not surprising. For the rest of the people the debate was very much on the budget cuts - OK, we need budget cuts, but how and where and who, who is going to suffer and who is getting the biggest piece of the cake?
euinside: The immigration?
Rene Boesten: No, not really an issue. Immigration was put on the agenda by Pim Fortuyn ten years ago. Mr Wilders made it a big agenda, but as soon as he saw that nobody cares anymore, he switched from anti-Islam and anti-immigration to anti-Europe. He just wants to be 'anti'. But there is something that I see also in Bulgaria and across Europe. Elections are more and more about persons and about vague ideas and not about grand philosophies, ideologies - what do we, as political parties, stand for. Now Mr Samsom [leader of the Social Democrats] said we have to go back to our ideological roots, he made that part of his campaign, we go back to solidarity, to jointly working together - the typical Social Democrat statements. Mr Rutte [outgoing prime minister and Liberal leader] went very much in two directions - one is the neo liberal roots of the party and also he came up with warnings against socialism. So we are moving a bit backwards.
A lot of people are seeking their roots, because now we have politicians, who don’t represent anything, we don’t know what they represent, we want to go back to people that have a view, a vision of what should be done. And when we elect them, we elect them based on a party programme and not a cute face. So that we can make sure that what we vote for is what we get. I think it's swinging back a little bit in that direction. Parties again will have to win the elections only based on real programmes and real proposals.
euinside: Do you expect the Netherlands' stance on major European issues to change after the new coalition is formed, sooner or later?
Rene Boesten: One of the things that surprised me in the election campaign is that in the end of the campaign, 2-3 weeks before the elections, Ms Merkel produced a very substantial piece about reform of the EU, she tabled even a proposal for a treaty change.
euinside: And even for a new treaty.
Rene Boesten:That has not been a discussion issue in the dutch elections. However, this thing addresses exactly many of the concerns Dutch people have about the lack of democracy in the EU. But this didn't show up anywhere. What I was worried about is that, with the present qualities of the Dutch negotiators in this proses, at some point they would say 'Ha! What happened here? A proposal for a new treaty? Where were we? We didn't pay attention!' And that would not be the first time.
euinside: In Bulgaria is the same, I thought we were the only one.
Rene Boesten: No, no! It's not the first time that the Netherlands is more or less taken by surprise by the proposals for things in the EU. And I am afraid this is going to happen again. I think Merkel's proposal is a good proposal.
euinside: Yes, but you have blocked the project for a European constitution, so a new treaty might be blocked again by the Netherlands, whatever it is, only because it is a new treaty.
Rene Boesten: I don't think that anyone is going to make the mistake of having another referendum in the Netherlands, since the referendum is not regulated in the Dutch legislation.
euinside: So, do you think that eventual new treaty will pass?
Rene Boesten:Yes. Because everybody realises that the present way the system works is insufficient. The transfer of control of the banking system, going from the national banks to the ECB, which is now basically agreed. There will be four or five steps more of these steps coming in the coming months. But the reform of these institutions will happen. It might go in one big treaty or it might go in piecemeal steps, which don’t require a full revision of the treaty. But it was not only the Netherlands that voted against the convention, it was also France. Also in France they don't want to have this happened again.
euinside: They don't want to give away any sovereignty in any way.
Rene Boesten: Yes, that is the political statement. I don’t want to say this is a non-issue, but what means to have national sovereignty in the countries in the EU, which is a fully open economy; where people move all over the place; where economic, financial, labour and social systems are becoming more and more the same. National sovereignty is something very nice when we talk about languages, school systems, maybe pension funds, but the economic interactions are so huge, so there isn't much national sovereignty.
euinside: Yes, but politically it is a hot topic, a very manipulative issue, so politicians are using it.
Rene Boesten: Look at the numbers. The Netherlands needs to go for a budget cut of 18 billion euro. Is that a lot? It is less than 2% of GDP. Spain needs to go for a budget cut of 45 billion euro. It is about 3% of its GDP. People go to the street and make a lot of noise. But apparently the influence of a government on its national budget is limited in 3 to 5%, the rest is fixed. What do you mean - national sovereignty? Politicians have an extremely small margin to manoeuvre with their budgets and their policies. The other thing is, if I would be a prime minister, yes, I would vote against transferring sovereignty to somebody else, because it will degrade my own position. In a political union the prime minister of the Netherlands will have the sort of power as the mayor of an average city. Transferring sovereignty for politicians means losing their job. I haven't seen many people in my career that on purpose make a policy in a company or an organisation that kills their own job.
euinside: As a Dutchman living in Bulgaria how do you see Bulgaria as a member of the EU?
Rene Boesten: Bulgaria is a very small country, economically, and as a number of people, so it has by definition very little influence. But what matters is not so much the numbers, but personalities. Get very well qualified, well trained people who take part in this negotiation process - that is more effective than the numbers. If you can convince others to vote for your position, you have more votes. I don't think the full potential of Bulgaria has been achieved in that, if I say this very politely. Bulgaria is still a young member of the EU, still a lot of things need to be done. But that is not surprisingly for a country that basically started its reform process in 1998, has gone through a very deep economic crisis, has seen most of its industry collapsed, a lot of its agriculture at the moment collapsing. There is a lot that needs to be changed, that is part of this process.
euinside: And as a mentality?
Rene Boesten: As a mentality, most of the people in Bulgaria are in favour of the EU, because they don't trust their own leaders.
euinside: Yes, they hope the EU will come with a big purse to give them money and a big stick for the politicians.
Rene Boesten: And - surprise, surprise! Both of them are here - the big money and the big stick.
euinside: But do we have the mentality needed to reform ourselves, to change, to go ahead?
Rene Boesten: Under pressure everything becomes liquid. But I am surprised how little people actually protest against whatever goes on.
euinside: And why is that, according to you?
Rene Boesten: That is an interesting question. When I discuss this with people they describe the situation in their institution of university or whatever as a total chaos, as a total mess; they describe policies of their ministers as totally stupid. And then when I ask 'are you the only one of that opinion' they say 'no, a lot of people think so'. Then why don’t you organise a decent protest?! Oh, that wouldn't help. Elections, petitions and protests are the three instruments we, citizens, have to influence policies, use them! I am surprised to see how much people swallow and accept.
euinside: Moreover, Bulgarians are sort of proud of that, of being capable to swallow more and more and to stay quiet.
Rene Boesten (laughingly): You said that.