Not many will know: The Netherlands was the European host of the second global Summit for Democracy on 29 and 30 March. The Summit for Democracy is an initiative of US President Joe Biden, in response to the questionable state of democracy worldwide. The aim of this summit for heads of government is to highlight and strengthen democratic values.
What many of us will know: also in the Netherlands, democracy has been under pressure for years. The affair on allowances, undermining crime, the report on Groningen are just a few examples that show that the Dutch democracy does not work for everyone, resulting in a crisis of confidence. Decisive action with an extra commitment to democracy is therefore needed. A Minister for Democracy, whose task must be to defend our democracy, improve it and link it to international efforts, can play an important coordinating role in this.
Democracy is not for free
How come the Summit for Democracy passed by the Netherlands almost silently? It is hard to find any information about it. Our prime minister recently stated in an article in the NRC-newspaper that democracy – literally – is not free, referring to the war in Ukraine and the necessary increase in the defense budget. But more money for defense alone is not going to save democracy. Money for democracy is also needed – abroad, but also in the Netherlands itself.
Around 30% of the population feels politically unrepresented, trust in the government is at an all-time low, anti-democratic forces are strong and Dutch people have little faith in the problem-solving ability of the government and the parliament. It also shows that 42% of Dutch people feel that decisions are made by a small elite group that only looks after itself. All red flags indicating overdue democratic maintenance. This calls for urgent repair.
Engaged citizens working for democracy
A series of activities we organised with the Dutch coalition Democracy under Pressure during the last two weeks of March indicates that many in the Netherlands – young and old, in Groningen, Amsterdam Southeast, all over the country, theoretically and practically educated – are not only concerned about democracy but also want to engage in democracy as active citizens. The government and the various ministries (Foreign Affairs, Interior and Kingdom Relations, Security and Justice and Social Affairs and Employment) feel somewhat urgency in themselves. This is evident from the government’s involvement in last week’s well-organised livestream meeting dedicated entirely to media freedom.
Unfortunately, at the same time, we do not see the urgency to strengthen the foundation of democracy sufficiently reflected in political priorities and available resources. This is suprising, because since last year, our Constitution has been prefaced by the words: ‘The Constitution guarantees fundamental rights and the democratic rule of law’. That makes democracy a task for the government. Something you have to do. And something we have committed to in various UN treaties: they oblige the Netherlands to work on the foundations of democracy. But how do we do that? As organisations committed to democracy, at home and abroad, we advocate additional efforts along three lines.
Recovery through three Vs
In the turbulent period we find ourselves in as a country, nurturing our democracy with mere words is insufficient. That is why we call for a Minister for Democracy and an adequately filled and independent democracy fund. Because the necessary recovery requires central coordination, go-to power and a separate budget.
- The first task for the cabinet minister must be defence of democracy. This already starts with the familiar call for more support for MPs, who are so outnumbered by the cabinet that they hardly get around to their monitoring task. But neither have transparency, accountability, anti-corruption, responsiveness and reliability been hallmarks of the culture of governance of successive cabinets in recent years. A government that sees democracy as something necessary organises institutionalised democratic dissent: watchdogs that counterbalance its own actions and permanently critically question institutions on its democratic stance.
- We summarise the second task as improving democracy. Policy outcomes increasingly bear the preference of the theoretically educated and politically active citizen, and the disapproval of its opposite. Substantially improving co-determination in all tiers of government through, for instance, elected citizens’ councils, is therefore a priority. Moreover, people who do not feel represented are often in favour of more direct democracy, such as plebiscites. So the group we need to get back on board for democratic legitimacy. Digitalisation – once a democratic promise – is also currently manifesting itself mainly as a threat to our rights and freedoms. Yet there are plenty of ideas to harness it precisely for greater engagement and participation. A minister for democracy should take it upon himself to research the various forms, start pilots and map the consequences for legislation, regardless of the political squabbling. Not as a replacement for the classical democratic process, but as a legitimising addition.
- Third and finally, it is up to the minister to connect our democracy to the rest of the world. This is much needed in a world where the number of authoritarian regimes is growing, disinformation is increasingly widespread and effective, and human rights violations are widespread. Many countries do not respect the treaties they have signed on this subject, and the brave people who risk their lives for democracy and the rule of law deserve our support. We must continue to support them. The ways in which we currently do so should also be critically examined ourselves. Democratisation can take shape along many lines, and for a lasting positive result it is important that citizens and governments themselves remain in charge.
Democratic decline is not only detrimental to itself. The Netherlands thrives best in a broad international democratic rule of law. And that goes a lot further than increasing the defence budget. It is good that the Netherlands played a central role in this democratic summit but noblesse oblige: now there must also be plan of action with accompanying investment.
The ball is not only in the government’s court. We, citizens and civil society, also have a responsibility – to strengthen our commitment to democracy ourselves and to seek active cooperation with our national and local governments. There is work to be done!
- Defend Democracy
- Foundation Max van der Stoel
- Meer Democratie
- Nederlands Helsinki-Comité
- Nederlands Instituut voor Meerpartijen Democratie (NIMD)
- The Hague Academy for Local Governance
- Transparency International Nederland