It was a quiet Sunday evening, where a group of mostly young people speaking many different languages - predominantly Dutch and English, but Spanish, Greek and German could be heard in the tendrils of conversation - assembled at Amsterdam’s Paradiso to hear about the ideas of the New European Deal. Paradiso is an old church turned concert venue, and I was used to seeing it with the lights down and music blaring, but today, the stark house lights were on. Underneath them was not only Mr. Varoufakis himself, who for most of the evening sat to the side, but also four Dutch politicians from the four political parties that can be defined as the left. The Socialistische Partij (Socialist Party, SP), Democraten 66 (D66), Partij van de Arbeid (The Labour Party, PvdA) and GroenLinks (Green Left) each had a representative there.
As the Emcee began, it was clear the intention was to emphasise unity among the factional left and oppose the threat of what DieM25 refers to as the “Nationalist International”, a sort of theoretical Communist International for right wing populists, of which we have seen a lot of lately. The message was on point as the Netherlands will be going to the polls in a couple weeks, and the slick-back blonde haired Dutch nationalist Geert Wilders is projected to take the most seats of any party.
The spectre of Wilders hung thick above us as the evening progressed - it was clear that the crowd was uneasy at his projected gains, and understandably so. The nice thing in the Dutch parliamentary system is that in order to rule, the Prime Minister needs to take 76 of the 150 seats, and this usually happens via a coalition (Het Financieele Dagblad has a great resource to map out the way coalitions could work this time around). Wilders is projected to get around 25 seats, and would need to make up the rest of other parties. Well, the other major parties have refused to work with him (not just the left but also the centrists and conservatives), or at least so go their pre-election promises.
But as the politicians took the stage, this cohesion began to drift apart. It felt like they were all in campaign mode as they rambled and rambled. Their lofty over-practiced sales pitches began to assert themselves, and several times self-serving statements of personal or party accomplishments began to creep in. I suppose they cannot help themselves, and it’s true that at the very moment they were speaking, their party leaders were busy debating in the biggest debate so far, but one that the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte and populist Geert Wilders both refused to attend. The shame of it is that questions asked of the four went unanswered, or worse answered in the kind of Kafka-meets-Bulgakov roundabout way politicians manage. They danced and danced, and frequently would not answer the question.
A great example of this came at the end, where they were all asked, point blank, which of DieM25’s New Deal blueprint their parties supported. Perhaps most of them simply did not even bother to read the document, or maybe they simply did not want to commit, but there were very few concrete answers to come out of such a simple question.
Transparency, being a central tenet of the plan, did manage to come up, and to give credit where credit is due, the GroenLinks representative, Kathalijne Buitenweg, picked up on an earlier comment by D66’s Alexander Rinnooij Kan and spoke of turning the Council of European Union into a legislative body in a bicameral structure reminiscent of the United States’ two houses - this was a policy all seemed to agree on. Further, the idea of creating a true and transparent registry for lobbyists was also a popular concept, but something that made me wonder why the EU does not have this in place already.
Between those two moments of agreement, the rest of the time given to answer the question was spent on posturing. D66’s Mr. Rinnooij Kan spent three quarters of his allotted time thanking Mr. Varoufakis on the energy, courage and vision he displays in trying to fix Europe. He followed this up with a somewhat uninformed critique of how DieM25 seeks a more federalised model of power, which Mr. Varoufakis rebuked. SP’s Renske Leijten simply confused everyone with her vague stabs at the crisis of housing in Groningen (and something about Bulgarians), but those stabs never pierced meat, as they floundered with no direct tie to either the subject matter of the evening or any clue as to how Bulgarians relate to the problem. PvdA’s Marit Maij listed off more countries that she’s lived in or has visited.
I did not go there to see those politicians, I came to show my support for DieM25 and to see Yanis Varoufakis speak. The moments he spoke lit up the room with a newfound energy. His vision is clear, and he lays it out well. He spoke of the technicalities of some of his proposed economic policies and issues such as the Piketty-like problem of the investment vs. savings gap, and when the question of the EU-Turkey agreement to deal with migrants from Africa and the Middle East came up, offered an impassioned anecdote and a burst of raw emotion uncharacteristic of the evening. He also made several extremely oscillating arguments for people not as interested in the economically focused raison d’être of DieM25.
The first was that we should not demonise the voters who put the Trumps of the world in power and who kicked the United Kingdom out of the Union. He quite rightly pointed out that they are just like us, the concerned and disillusioned who are not happy with the status quo. It is our job as DieM25 members or indeed leftists of the world to help them see a way past populism and see the positives of European integration.
The second important point he had was that change needs to come in gradual steps, small things we can do today and tomorrow, not just on March 15th at the polls and beyond. If we want to change the European Union to something a little more sustainable, transparent and democratic, we need to utilise existing treaties, power structures and channels to do it. We should avoid utopian thinking and remain grounded in pragmatism.
And lastly, he spoke of his campaigning against Brexit, and how difficult he said it was for him to counter the brexiteer slogan “take our country back”. To explain what is wrong with that point of view is to launch into complex topics of economics, politics and philosophy, and the populist merely needs to say that sharp, practiced catchphrase which rings true in many disenfranchised voters’ hearts. And there he touched on our problem as the left - we seek to solve problems with logic and reason, not reactive impulsivity. It takes time to explain why neoliberal economics are ruining the European Union (or indeed the world through the rule of the Washington Consensus policies furthered by the IMF and World Bank), but it takes a second to spew something like “make America great again” and instantly touch a person’s nerve. And this is where we fail, and that statement was one of the most important moments of the night for me, that admission of failure to communicate at a visceral level.
Overall, I was inspired by the overall vision of the organisation, of the evening and of Mr. Varoufakis but I found the useful idiot politicians (I use that term, which has an obvious negative connotation, but what I mean is they can be useful to the movement to further our goals without them realising it) not to my tastes.
By the way, you can watch a recorded live stream of the event here, which included more on the programme than just what I discussed.