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Speech Frans Timmermans, PvdA party conference, ‘s-Hertogenbosch, 19.01.2019


21 Jan 2019


In Den Bosch, in the Netherlands, the Dutch Labour Party adopted yesterday its candidate list for the European elections. The Party confirmed Frans Timmermans as the head of the national list. Timmermans will also represent the Party of European Socialists as our political family’s common candidate to be the next President of the European Commission.
In a speech to over 1000 party members and international guests, Timmermans set out the core values which will drive his campaign at national and European level, and some of the policy areas which he will prioritise.
You can find here the English translation of the speech, delivered in Dutch by Frans Timmermans.
Speech Frans Timmermans:
We’re facing a major challenge, and I’m here today with you because we had to take some important decisions about two elections this year. If we hadn’t had this appointment, I wouldn’t be here today, but rather 1,100 kilometres to the east. Because that’s where the funeral is taking place today of someone who represented the values that we stand for. The mayor of Gdansk.
He withstood all the nationalistic, conservative storms. For 20 years he managed to win every election, time and time again, by refusing to sing the same tune as his opponents. If there was a hate campaign against homosexuals, he would organise his own gay rights march. If there was a campaign to incite hatred against Muslims or refugees, he’d gather fellow mayors together and send a letter saying “send the immigrants to us.” He always said “I’m a European. I come from Gdansk. I’m a Pole. I stand for European values.”
At the beginning of my speech, I’d like to ask you to remember this great European, this great humanist, and give him a round of applause for everything he did for us [*applause*]. They can hear your applause in Gdansk! And it’s a demonstration of just how indivisible our European society is.
I don’t want to discuss the murder’s motives, and how matters escalated so far. But one thing I would like to say is that our society is one in which so many people feel insecure, and where it has become much too easy to incite hatred. We need to realise that freedom of speech is a considerable asset. But we must also realise that the origins of terror and violence are words that are then transformed into deeds. We are seeing this too with the jihadist violence by European youth, who are inspired by what they read and see on the internet and then resort to action. So, we need to choose our words carefully. Because words do have an effect. Of course, we may say that intelligent people won’t be taken in. But not everyone is intelligent. And some see a call to physical violence as an emotional cry for physical violence. The use of physical violence as justification for physical violence.
Politicians needs to realise this and to take account of it. I’m saying this because across the entire continent of Europe and in our European Union I see how easy it is to incite division.
Just look at the United Kingdom. The Brexit debate that has been going on for 2½ years. The division that this has caused has had a crippling effect on British society. And other major issues that need addressing - such as the health service that needs reform, the education system that requires attention, industry that’s in need of modernization - everything is on hold because society is divided into two camps that are still as far apart as ever.
And today, I’d like to say to the British: we’re waiting patiently - but no longer that patiently - for you to give us an indication of how you want to resolve this situation. As members of Parliament you need to find consensus or come up with an idea that could lead to a solution. You will then find in Brussels and in the capitals of the other member states people who are willing to work with you to find a solution.
No-one wants a ‘no deal’ Brexit! No-one!
A ‘no deal’ is bad for the United Kingdom and it’s bad for the rest of Europe. Bad for the Netherlands. So, we have a collective responsibility to find a solution together. But the shape that this solution will take needs to be found by the British themselves. And, as far as I´m concerned, we are ruling nothing out. Except anything that could lead to conflict developing in Northern Ireland, or could lead to the splitting up of things that are fundamental to us in the European Union, such as the four freedoms. This is something we couldn´t do. But if the British – even though the chance is small – would like to stay within Europe after all, then I’d put the flag out. They are and they will always be welcome in this family.
Over the past 40 years, the British have helped shape the European Union. And they have made a valuable contribution. On occasions they have also put the brakes on. At times they were right to do so. And sometimes they weren’t. But we always managed to find a compromise that worked. And I want to stress this. Because if there’s one thing that really threatens our society, it’s politics that’s based on excluding others. Saying, ‘My opponent is no longer my opponent, but my enemy. I’m not going to talk to them anymore. I no longer recognise them. And if my opponent doesn’t do what I want them to do, then I’m going to forget them completely.’ When a political opponent becomes an enemy, comprise is seen as defeat. Even though, as social democrats, we know that a society as diverse as ours can only make progress if we’re prepared to make compromises. Finding solutions by taking the other’s needs into consideration. This is not a sign of defeat, but rather of victory!
Everywhere we’re witnessing the rise of similar movements. Whether it’s the governing parties in Poland, in Hungary, one of the ruling parties in Italy, possibly both, or some other movements, the opposition is always the enemy, with whom they can’t collaborate, and need to exclude.
The nationalists are particularly good at destroying things. Just like an unhinged toddler destroys toys. What they’re unable to do is to create something, to actually build something. And, sooner or later, the people will see this. And then what’s their approach? They then say it’s not their fault. They blame Brussels, or Muslims, or Jews, or homosexuals. They always manage to find someone to blame. Politics based on such a principle, excluding others and always finding someone else to blame. We’ve seen that kind of politics in European history. And this form of politics leads to disaster and, as social democrats, it is a form of politics that we reject.
I am optimistic about the opportunities we have to convince people. We reject this form of politics, but we will never, ever reject people who think they can realise their goals through this form of politics. These people are still our people, even though they don’t vote for us at present. I hope that we will be able to confront them with policies that will bring them back to us.
This is the essence of social democratic politics: bridging differences and fighting for the whole of society. Making sure no-one falls overboard. Ensuring that, even on a European scale, we still consider everyone.
If we look at the challenges facing us: climate change; an American President, who for first time in post-war history, genuinely appears to believe that a divided and weak Europe is better for the United States than a strong Europe. How dumb is that? In that respect, he has the same agenda as the Russian president. An agenda based on an assumption that we will be stronger if the Europeans are weak and divided. I don’t believe in such contradictions. International politics is not a game. It’s not a simple transaction for building a block of flats. International politics is about giving others space, respecting each other’s differences. But still fighting for your values and ensuring your kind of society has a future.
If you look at the challenge coming out of America and Russia. And if you see how China is continuously trying to gain the upper hand in global affairs. And if you can see the magnitude of the challenge facing us with climate change. And if we look at the seriousness of the migration challenge. Then, there is only one thing we can do as Europeans: we need to work together with other Europeans to come up with a positive response to all of these challenges. This is the only way forward.
The attraction of many of these nationalist parties in Europe is because people are disappointed in us. Disappointed in a political system that has insufficiently resulted in everyone feeling they have an equal part in society. And then the nationalists’ proposition is: ‘We will take you back to a glorious past. And it is in that past that our future lies. It’s a past in which the white male was the boss, the wife was in the kitchen, and the whole world danced to the tune of a small European group of people. If this world did exist, it has little to offer us from the perspective of our social democratic tradition.
We are one of the oldest political movements in the Western world. A 150-year-old movement. But we should not forget the essence of social democracy: progress. Not forgetting means knowing your past. Because, otherwise, the nationalists will be able to tell us anything and convince us that the past really was glorious. It also means not dwelling in the past, because this will prevent you from moving forwards.
To quote Jean Jaurès: “It is in flowing to the sea that a river remains true to its source.” And this is the essence of social democracy. We need to shape the future, not live in the past!
We will only be given the mandate to shape this future if everyone is able to see a fair share for themselves in it. This is also how I see sustainability and the climate issue. I do not believe for one minute that people reject this because they don’t know that the transformation is necessary. People are well aware that there is no other option.
It is not only in the Netherlands, also the yellow vests in France. And not just in the Netherlands and France. In lots of countries, people are rejecting things because they feel that the share that they have to carry is unfair. And as long as business is not being taxed fairly as well, and citizens are seeing that they are carrying the burden of taxation, then they will reject it.
And I don’t agree with the notion that ‘Just because the people don’t want something right now, we won’t do it’. Or we need to delay it, as Frits Bolkestein suggests. But we must not be under any illusion that the Netherlands is the best kid on the block. There are several areas where the Netherlands is behind others in Europe when it comes to sustainability. We’ve got a lot to do to catch up. And, if we want to catch up, we’ll need to get everyone on board. And that’s why I say, if you look at sustainability, as social democrats, we put social sustainability at the top of the list. Because, social sustainability will enable us to get the largest possible group of people on board when it comes to all the other sustainability issues.
And what do I mean by ‘social sustainability’? I mean that – for once and for all in Europe – we will stipulate that a 16-year-old pizza delivery boy, with a rucksack on his back, is not an entrepreneur when he’s simply delivering pizza to someone’s home. And that, if he falls, he’s also entitled to protection. And that he should be treated as a normal employee. The courts in the Netherlands have taken steps to prevent this, but this is by no means the case everywhere in Europe. We still need to do this. And I want a minimum wage in Europe. This is not the same minimum wage everywhere, but in line with the average per country. Everywhere! Why? Because we cannot expect someone to work for €2 an hour. Nowhere in Europe!
As I said, the nationalist movements want to take us back to the past. And who are the greatest victims in this scenario? There are two groups:
The first is women, of course. Maybe they’re allowed to keep the vote, but that’s all. I hope that, just as in the United States, we will finally realise across Europe that the first and most important victims of this neoconservative belief will be women. We need to realise this. And this is why we urgently need to get rid of the gender pay gap.
I want to work with some of our friends in the European Parliament to ensure that by the end of the next Parliament the gender pay gap will be no more. The pension gap between men and women in Europe is 40%, which is unacceptable. This is due to the various breaks in women’s employment record. But also, the fact that the burden and the benefits are not shared equally. I want us to go much further with parental leave. If there’s one thing I’ve seen with young fathers and young men it is that they welcome the idea of being able to be more of a dad than was possible in the past. And that’s good for men and for women.
I also want an urgent action plan to combat the incredible levels of violence against women. Some countries in Europe use all kinds of false arguments to justify not ratifying the Istanbul Convention, which is intended to eradicate violence against women. Unacceptable! Violence against women, be it sexual violence or just physical violence is based on exercising power. It is a weapon based on power and this power must be broken.
Equality between men and women is only possible when the physical power men have over women is not used to oppress women. Perpetrators must be severely punished. That’s a promise! One I intend to keep.
I want us to work urgently on legislation. We’ve tried a friendly approach. We’ve let them try to do it themselves. To no avail. So, now we need to legislate how many women are on the board of large companies. We now need to force this diversity, this equality. We have no time to lose. We can’t allow 50% of our brainpower to stay in the kitchen. That’s unacceptable.
Imagine that women get inspired by what we’ve just said - I think we’re on the verge of this happening in Europe – and they take the trouble to vote in the coming two elections. This will be reflected in the results. We will see a huge difference.
The second group I’m concerned about and that I want to mobilise is standing right behind me. And I think that this is the best part of my job. The fact that there are so many young people on the stage behind me. It gives me great strength and energy.
I’d like to say to everyone here of my age, those a bit older and a bit younger, because there are quite a few here in the hall: you need to realise that these are the first elections in which people will be entitled to vote who were born in this millennium. And for those who were born in this millennium, I say: you should realise that if you fail to take the opportunity to vote, then it will be people who were born in the last millennium who will in fact determine what will happen. You should realise that your vote is just like your phone credit: you don’t give it to someone else. Because that person may use it on your behalf, but perhaps not in your interest. You should realise what’s at risk: your future!
And we, as a movement, with our tradition and background, must realise that what we are talking about now is the future for our children and our grandchildren, and that when it comes to sustainability, international security, social equality, justice, the rights of minorities, we’re doing this because we want to leave behind a society that is better than the current one. And we’re doing this together with those who will be the owners of this society. We are making the Netherlands better. We are making Europe better.
And just one final point that I need to make: if there is one thing that defines us as Europeans, it is our values. If there is one thing that is consistent in our history as Europeans, it is that when we lose sight of our values, we will suffer the consequences. If there’s one thing that has taught me that there is good and evil in every individual, and that it is our choice as individuals and as society to decide whether to put that good or evil first, that is European history over the past 150 years.
Next week, I’m going to Auschwitz. And I’ll visit the place where the agents of a very highly developed society had no problem at all in carrying out the industrial elimination of fellow human beings. This is not something that simply comes about overnight. There was an entire process that preceded these events. It’s a process that gradually removes bits of humanity from others. Hitler did precisely this between 1933, when he came to power, and 1938 - Kristallnacht. That’s when he knew he had succeeded; he had removed the humanity from the Jews to such an extent that he would be able to eliminate them.
I realise that I’m ending on a very serious note, But, in recent years in the European Commission, in dealing with the refugee crisis I have noticed that, as Europeans, if we don’t lose sight of the fact that the refugees and immigrants are fellow human beings, even those who are not entitled to asylum, then we can find a solution to this problem. However, if, out of fear for our own future, or fear that we will be overrun with immigrants, or for fear of losing our own identity, we take away a small part of their humanity, bit by bit, then, sooner or later, we cease to be interested in their fate.
As Europeans, we must never allow things to get so far. European solidarity is key to solving this problem for our future. Because taking away the humanity of others will in fact be at the expense of our own humanity. And I don’t want this for us, nor for our children, or our grandchildren. And this is something the Labour Party will always continue to fight for!