When politicians use the word ‘you’ in the plenary hall of the House of Representatives, an improvement often follows. You should only say that to the chairman: the MPs never address each other directly in debates. But on Tuesday it was often about you, and there was no correction, because suddenly the presidency of Vera Bergkamp took center stage.
Bergkamp (D66), elected chairman last year, hardly intervened when PVV leader Geert Wilders spoke harshly about other MPs and journalists in the debate on the government statement of the new Rutte IV cabinet. This came under fierce criticism from a large part of the House of Representatives. Wilders’ tone was not new, but that of the rest of the Chamber was.
This made the concern of many MPs, and their fear, about growing mistrust and increasing threats from politicians, journalists and others visible. If there was anywhere they could influence the tone and atmosphere of the social debate, it was here. Why didn’t Bergkamp act hard?
“You are a referee, you are not a process supervisor in this Chamber,” said independent MP Pieter Omtzigt. “This is a border and I appeal to you to maintain it,” said Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) to her, after Wilders denounced journalists as “lackeys of power” who helped to “destroy” the Netherlands. Sylvana Simons of Bij1 “begged” Bergkamp to make it safer for MPs.
Wilders had specifically targeted the MPs Fonda Sahla (D66) and Kauthar Bouchallikht (GroenLinks), both of whom wear headscarves. He also mentioned Soumaya Sahla, Fonda’s sister, who is a VVD member and part of a party network club. Soumaya was previously convicted of weapons possession and membership of the terrorist Hofstad group. Wilders called them “Islamic radicals and terrorists” and said they made him feel “extremely uncomfortable and unsafe”.
Bergkamp found the reference to the headscarf “disrespectful” and called on Wilders not to refer to people who were not in the room and therefore unable to defend themselves, but let him continue. She had “standardized” enough with her appeal, she thought, when one party leader after another called on her to take a tougher approach to Wilders. This, she said, was a topic “that needs to be debated, where you can be a little sharp and exchange ideas.”
It fits with Bergkamp’s style as chairman. She does not draw a line resolutely and of her own accord, but prefers to act as a neutral arbitrator who represents the will of the entire House and waits for consensus to be reached before taking action.
Also read about the start of Vera Bergkamp as chairman: She needs to practice on the names
Until recently, politicians in The Hague were all so hesitant when it came to each other’s words. When Wilders speaks of ‘cowardly African and Arab packs’, as he did on Tuesday, he is usually addressed, but rarely does anyone say that he is not allowed to say it. That is sensitive in the House, where freedom of expression extends further than on the street. Perhaps they had also been “all too soft” to Wilders, Klaver said.
But something has changed noticeably. The unrest on the street due to the corona measures. The increasingly serious threats against politicians and journalists. The man with the torch in the street of Kaag. The threat in the debate room of the House of Representatives itself, from an FVD member, that “tribunals” will be set up. MPs are less and less afraid to link the words of politicians to what happens online and on the street.
New rules of procedure make it possible for the chairman to warn a member of parliament and remove them from the room, but Bergkamp has not yet made use of this. “If a football referee constantly says ‘phew, whoops, you can’t kick your ankles’, but doesn’t intervene with yellow and red cards, nothing will happen,” said Omtzigt. “That’s what you’re doing.”
Bergkamp himself started to look more and more uncomfortable, but he persisted: Wilders had to be able to finish his story. Manners, she repeated, will soon be discussed separately. That is ‘a conversation with almost all groups’. Only the PVV refuses to join.
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A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 19, 2022