Politiek met passie

Ook vorig jaar mocht ik het jaarlijkse debat op het Barlaeus Gymnasium openen. Het was een half jaar na de Brexit en het overlijden van de Britse parlementariër Jo Cox wilde ik niet laten passeren.  Hieronder de woorden die ik spraak.

Dear members of the board, delegates, officials, Reinier and Margriet,

Thank you very much for inviting me to open this year’s session of the BYP. Normally I would have cracked a few jokes and shown you one or two of the Who wants to be second videos, probably those from Denmark and Slovenia. But that seems rather inappropriate in a year in which Europe was not only at the centre of political debate (what’s new) but in which a politician was murdered because she believed in Europe and was ardently opposed to the Brexit. I would like to start this year’s session with a video of two women on their first day as Members of Parliament, Andrea Jenkins and the – at the time – 40 year old Jo Cox.

(short video, Andrea Jenkins and Jo Cox on their first day as MPs in 2015)

During last year’s Brexit campaign Jo Cox was murdered by Thomas Mair. On the 16th of June Mair shot her three times; once in the chest, twice in the head. After that, he stabbed Cox fifteen times with a knife. Cox died shortly after the attack. In November, Mair was sentenced to life imprisonment with a whole life order (meaning that there is no possibility of parole). He is supposed to have shouted “Britain first” when he killed Cox. Police investigation has shown that Mair was obsessed with Nazi Germany, had far right-wing sympathies and was a white supremacist. A week after the death of Jo Cox, England voted to leave the European Union.

This year’s session of BYP then is a special edition because something fundamental has changed over the course of the last year. There has of course always been debate about the future of the European Union. And at the core of its very existence is a constant and perpetual tug of war between federalists who want a more unified Europe with a political, social and military agenda of its own and nationalists who want to keep Europe as small as possible and who strive to restrict its operations to the economic realm. That debate was always part and parcel of the European tradition as it evolved from the 1950s onwards. After Brexit, after the decision of a majority of the English people to leave the European Union, the nature of that debate has changed. Membership is no longer the self-evident background against which countries and political parties deliberate about Europe. The conviction that a unified Europe was important, maybe even necessary for peace and prosperity no longer stands as an undisputed truth. The debate about the future of Europe is no longer about its direction – federalist or nationalist – but has become one about its very existence. With this year’s national elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany and the rise of populist politicians Geert Wilders, Marine le Pen and Frauke Petry the stakes have changed. The election of Donald Trump in the United States of America has given new fuel for worries about the future of the European project.

European politicians have reacted in different ways to the rise of populism and the election of Trump. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council and the closest thing we have to an European prime minister wrote an urgent letter to his colleagues two weeks ago. In it he warned against the changed geopolitical situation and against the rise of anti-EU, nationalist and increasingly xenophobic sentiment in Europe itself. A third threat was, he wrote, the state of mind of the pro-European elites. Their lukewarm support for the EU has to be countered with European pride, a defence of the dignity and the values of Europe. Let me just briefly quote Tusk:

“Today we must stand up very clearly for our dignity, the dignity of a united Europe – regardless of whether we are talking to Russia, China, the US or Turkey. Therefore, let us have the courage to be proud of our own achievements, which have made our continent the best place on Earth. Let us have the courage to oppose the rhetoric of demagogues, who claim that European integration is beneficial only to the elites, that ordinary people have only suffered as its result, and that countries will cope better on their own, rather than together.”

Tusk’s passionate plea for Europe was praised by many. And maybe rightly so. I am sceptical nevertheless. To explain why, you have to recall the ingredients which make an argument convincing, according to a tradition which dates back to Aristotle. First of all, you have to convince your audience with arguments, logos. Secondly, you have to appeal to the emotions of your audience (pathos). And finally, the audience has to be convinced of the authority and the credibility of the person who is uttering the speech, what the ancients called ethos or character. It is this final ingredient which is missing in the case of Tusk. His letter was an invitation to the European summit in Malta 10 days ago. There the European leaders discussed  a more intensive cooperation with the Libian coastguard to keep African refugees out of Europe, a cooperation which is in direct contradiction with the values he so passionately defends in his letter. For that reason, I have a hard time believing the sincerity of Tusk and thus his plea for Europe. It is that quality or the lack of it, which distinguishes him from Jo Cox, with whom I started my opening today. Jo Cox was a young and promising MP, a passionate politician who believed in the European ideal and spoke out in favour of it. She had the ethos which Tusk lacks. We urgently need more politicians like her, who combine logos, pathos and ethos.

That brings me to you. Today your general assembly will debate about a number of resolutions in which you request, urge or encourage the European Commission, member States of the EU or European companies to establish a European Climate Adaption Fund, to introduce a quota-trading mechanism for refugees and to improve factory and living standards in sweatshops, to mention just a few of the wide range of topics which you will be discussing. I hope that you will argue your case with logos and pathos, with logic and feeling. But never forget that without a sincere belief in your convictions your plea will lack ethos and thus will fail.

Thank you very much and enjoy your debate!



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