Ladies and Gentlemen, Madames et Messieurs, bonjour! Thank you.
It is wonderful to see all of you, and I want to begin with a special thanks to our friends from En Marche. Ever since La Republique En Marche entered the stage and shook up the political landscape in France, you have worked tirelessly towards a reformed, stronger and more vigorous French republic.
It is no secret D66 admires the fresh energy En Marche has given France. We admire the badly needed leadership Emmanuel Macron now provides for all of Europe. It is also no secret that over the course of the past months you have managed to build quite a following.
In fact, I heard that in every place a representative of En Marche show up, a large group of people in yellow vests follow their tracks. Now, this is a beautiful hall of fine arts, but quite a small one. I haven’t seen any yellow vests around Bozar as yet, so I think En Marche decided to leave their friends at home today. And for that, I say: merci!
Citoyens de l’Europe, ladies and gentlemen, Democraten, young people,
I want to begin with a story from my youth. Many, many moons ago I was 25 years old, settling into my first serious job for a railway agency. I lived in Nijmegen as I do still, a proud but quiet medieval town near the German border.
News had reached the eastern provinces of the Netherlands that David Cameron was due to make a high-impact announcement in Amsterdam. He cancelled at the last moment, relocating to the Bloomberg offices in London. And what he said there, I will never forget. Cameron announced an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership. In the course of his speech he promised there would be time for – and I quote – “a proper, reasoned debate”. And here we are now. Six years later this week.
We know what utter nonsense this was and continues to be. You will all remember how the debate unfolded. You will all remember how the nationalists gained their narrow victory. And how, after the referendum, they hurried off the stage like nervous high school actors who lost the plot. Not that there was a plot to begin with. This was improvised theatre from the get-go.
Theatre designed to swindle a generation of young British Europeans out of their futures. Theatre designed to end badly. Britain, as we’ve been able to observe these past few weeks, is on a collision course with reality. What Theresa May calls “the promise of Brexit” is more than a fallacy. It is lunacy.
It is an Alice in Wonderland-like turnaround. It can only make sense once you are on the other side of the looking glass. Once you start believing in fairy tales, you can simply deny reality. Populist denial has had just one result: Britain is crashing out of the European Union without any clear plans for finding a new role. There is no one in Europe who will not be affected by Brexit. But for millions, this is much worse.
They don’t know if they can even stay in the cities and the towns where the live, work and love after midnight, March 29th. It is for those people that my colleague Sjoerd Sjoerdsma has drafted emergency legislation to ensure that their citizenship is not limited to the borders of the Netherlands alone. We are Europeans. And we will never let that be taken away from us.
On a personal level, I myself found a new role a little over a hundred days ago. Having grappled with the realities of local politics for nearly a decade, I was elected to the Dutch parliament at the last election. And then, before I knew it, I was entrusted the daunting task of succeeding our illustrious former leader, the great European Alexander Pechtold. So I’m speaking here today from a national perspective. And I’m trying to draw lessons from the Brexit disaster.
Why is it that more people turned out to vote leave than those who voted remain? The roots of Cameron’s spectacular Brexit-failure are deep in the grounds of British politics. And, yes, those roots have equally taken hold on this side of the channel. Why is it that people stopped believing in the ideal of European unity?
It is because no politician of the main political parties stood to make a positive case. No politician endowed with the power of the platform stood to make the case for a European future.
No politician was willing to tell a story to believe in. To inspire. To defend the essence of what is still the most successful invention of peaceful cooperation in human history: our European Union. Lazy politicians of left and right turned to scare tactics. Facts and figures. Their heart was never in it. They advocated staying on a train whose direction they hated. No wonder young people didn’t turn out to vote. No wonder the Brexiteers won the battle for the heart, which in politics as in life is still much stronger than the mind.
How do we now win the battle for the heart? I believe the key is to do something risky. Something different. To tell a story of where we came from, who we are, and where we want to go. Overlooking the history of Europe after the war, one thing stands out to me like a firefly in the dark. The unity of European countries is no longer a dream of the few.
It is, as Konrad Adenauer said: Eine Hoffnung für viele. Eine Notwendigkeit für uns alle. A hope for the many. A necessity for all. It is imperfect and unfinished. But it is reality. Our reality.
We haggle over financial responsibilities. We quibble over the rules of our market. We are seriously divided over the burdens of migration. And we are frustrated with the bureaucracy knelling our democracy. But never in the last 70 years have Europeans shot each other in a war of EU member states. Never.
The achievements of constitutional democracy, industry, science and the arts have brought prosperity beyond imagination. The European Union has become the second-largest democracy and the second-largest economy in the world.
This is the world I was born into in 1987. The year of the Single European Act, which introduced the single largest integrated market in the world. This is the world my generation has always taken for granted. And this is our challenge.
We do not know anything else than to be living in the most progressive and peaceful era in human history. But just as it could hardly get better, we are confronted with the dark forces of the past. Nationalism, xenophobia, and even anti-Semitism are growing stronger by the day.
They are a mortal danger to our open society and the future of Europe. What will be our answer? Will we be guided by fear? Will we attempt to be fashionable and join the populist desire to break the institutions we took so long to build? Will we copy the policies of the nationalists, playing to the crowd?
My answer is clear. Call me the man of stainless steel robotics, be my guest, but I will repeat with the Iron Lady: No. No. No. Our answer is one of old-fashioned hope. “Hope,” wrote Vaclav Havel, “is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Given the history of our continent, we take confidence in our ability to shape our own destiny. But we cannot be sure how something turns out. We can do our best. Do our duty. Our duty – now as before – is to do something that makes sense. And at this dark hour nothing makes more sense than to resist the demagogues shaking the foundations of our precious Union. To build and not break. To trust and not fear. To create and not destruct. To love and not hate.
If you love Europe, you have come to the right place. If you want to fight for Europe, you have come to the right place. If you want to vote for Europe, you have come to the right party. And I urge you to think about your friends whose party loyalties normally lie elsewhere. Social-democrats, greens, conservatives. They will have their reasons to vote as they do in national elections. But this election is different.
This is about the future of Europe. About democracy itself. Our conservative friends belittle these elections. The Dutch Prime Minister even went on television, saying he thinks these elections are – and I quote — ‘not so relevant’. Well, I’ve got news for him: his young voters will find their way to the only party that has always found European elections relevant: D66!
We think these European elections are the most important in modern history. History teaches us that when freedom and autocracy rival for dominance, we must choose freedom. Without any reservation. I have the privilege to lead the one party in the Netherlands that has always worked to improve Europe. To deliver on the European promise of a balance between freedom and equality. An ever-closer union ready to meet the great challenges of our time. And ready we will be.
If we were able to become this prosperous, we can create a market that works for all. If we were able to win the Nobel Peace Prize, we can provide shelter to human beings fleeing war and persecution. If we were able to wrest democracy from the claws of tyranny, we can give the people of Europe the power to define their future at the ballot box. And if we were able to bring an end to the violence of nations, we can protect our planet from the violence of nature.
Friends, this is not a time for self-congratulation. This is not a time to sit still. More than ever before, we are in need of the light that a living flame of progress can spread. And so I ask you, and especially all of the young people here today: stand up and be counted. Light a fire.
You don’t need to become a member of D66 to defend an ideal. Join this movement for Europe as one of its supporters. Go online and sign up to join the team. And then go out and spread hope for the future to your friends and neighbors.
The future of Europe is on the line.
Thank you. Merci. Dankuwel!