This blog originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of student magazine Mosaïek, which was fully dedicated to research and writing. The current version was adapted for online publication and can also be read on the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog.
“Learning how to do research is one of the most important tasks at the university. It is also one of the most challenging.”
(Murtonen & Lehtinen, ‘Learning to be a researcher’, in Academic research and researchers)
Academic research and writing are at the core of university studies. Luckily, whether you are a BA student writing you first research paper or a PhD student working on your dissertation, there is a whole world out there full of articles, blogs and books with hands-on advice. For instance, a few years ago, university newspaper Observant published a great piece with ten tips for writing your BA or MA thesis. Likewise, Gerald Schneider provides advice on “how to avoid the seven deadly sins of academic writing”. And many of you will have encountered The Craft of Research during your studies at our faculty. No doubt, your tutors and supervisor usually also bombard you with all kinds of advice. Here, I would like to highlight four underestimated ways to become a better academic writer.
1. Read a lot
Yes, surprise: reading is key to research and writing. You need to embed your work in a broader literature. Have other scholars written about similar topics? How do you position yourself vis-à-vis their work? What contribution does your work make? But reading also helps to get a better insight into structure and vocabulary used in the field. Reading inspires (I wish my contribution to this issue of Mosaïek was as elegant and erudite as John Harbord’s!). By reading other people’s work – academic, but also non-academic work, including blogs, novels and poetry – you also get a feel of what writing you like and how you can use it to develop your own style.
2. Cherish feedback opportunities
This may sound obvious to you, but is it really? In a course that I taught recently, of the 14 students whose paper I failed, only 2 attended my feedback open office hours. Colleagues had a similar experience, hence it came as no surprise that 50% did not pass the resit. Seeking or creating feedback opportunities is key to academic research and writing. This is why your tutors and supervisors present their work at conferences. Note that feedback is not only useful when you fail, but also when you pass. As you progress through your studies, expectations increase. For instance, did you know that students sometimes fail their thesis, simply because they assume that it is just another paper?
3. Use formal requirements to your advantage
Like you, I too regularly get stuck when working on my research. When I do, I do not just lie back and wait for some magic to happen. Instead, I check the formal requirements of the publisher or journal that I would like to publish my research with. When applying these requirements to my text, I often bump into mistakes or incomprehensible writing, simply because I look at the text from a different perspective. So, while APA may be a pain, use it to your advantage – and mind you: when we try to publish, we nearly always encounter different requirements, so you should actually consider yourself lucky to just have to work with APA.
4. Use PBL to the fullest
I see you wondering: “What does PBL have to do with research and writing?” Well, PBL is all about research! Those annoying 7 steps actually replicate common steps of a research process: you start with a puzzle, determine what you know and what you do not know about the topic, and develop one or more research questions to guide your research. Studying different sources will help you to answer those questions and come to a conclusion. I know that this research process is not always replicated in every course – in fact, scholars have referred to an “erosion” of PBL. But you play a role in this yourself by following those steps and by asking your tutors to do so as well.
To round off, you may think that this is all very useful for all the academic papers that we have you write at FASoS, but other than that, why should you bother? Well, did you know that most FASoS alumni end up in jobs where they have to judge existing research and need to engage in research and writing themselves? It is likely that you end up writing reports for art institutions, governmental bodies or companies (e.g. ). Or maybe you become a journalist, like former Arts and Culture student Marcia Luyten and former European Studies student Melle Garschagen. So, keep on practicing your research and writing skills!
This blog is co-authored with Afke Groen and was originally published by Active Learning in Political Science on 20 September 2018.
We have been following the ALPS-blog discussion on students’ participation between Amanda and Simon with great interest. The situations they discuss are very familiar.
In Maastricht, learning takes place according to the principles of problem-based learning (PBL); through active participation and discussions in tutorials.
In the programmes that we teach in, we can grade students’ participation with a +0.5 on top of the exam grade for exceptionally good participation or a -0.5 for insufficient participation – a system introduced following discussions about the problem of ‘free-riders’.
We too see students who remain silent. We train students, encourage participation and discuss group dynamics, but students may not feel comfortable or skilled to live up to our expectations – certainly not in their first weeks at university.
Indeed, in the discussion between Simon and Amanda, the “problem” seems to be students who do not talk. Teaching is about “getting students to talk” and about “[getting] them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them”.
But to what extent is not talking a problem? Why doesn’t a student talk? And if it’s a problem, who’s problem is it?
The emphasis on active participation actually represents a new way of thinking about student learning, one that may even be alien to some students. As Louisa Remedios, David Clarke and Lesleyanne Hawthorneexplain, “[t]here has been a recent shift of instructional paradigm from valuing and encouraging students to be silent so as to actively listen and learn from a more knowledgeable other (teacher), to becoming knowledgeable by speaking and elaborating on content knowledge.”
The value of silence
In our experience, most students who don’t talk, aren’t actually ‘free-riding’. They prepare for tutorials, have extensive notes and are clearly paying attention to what’s being discussed. In addition, PBL extends beyond the classroom, with some students feeling much more comfortable to discuss readings with fellow students when preparing for tutorials.
We also witness various productive forms of “silence”. Just like Jun Jin, we see that silence is used to look at notes, think about what has been said and recall prior knowledge.
As such, silence may be positive for knowledge construction and group learning. Moreover, a silent student may also be a student who is good at (active!) listening: it often requires silence to understand group discussions and dynamics.
We can also strategically use silence as teachers – beyond increasing “wait time” to get someone to fill an awkward silence.
Sure, there are problematic cases of silence. The ‘free-rider’ tends to be easily recognisable: she or he comes to class unprepared, does not contribute to discussions or does so in a non-productive way.
Yet, other students feel scared, shy or uncomfortable to contribute to classroom discussions.
So how can we tell the difference between these students and those who are ‘productively’ silent?
Research shows that tutors in PBL have a good insight into students’ chances of becoming successful in their studies. We can act based on these insights. Observing silent students and talking to them is important; putting pressure on them surely will not help.
Instead, a tutor’s role is to facilitate group learning and coach students to become better learners. As Simon writes: “[we] might not be at the centre of the classroom, but that doesn’t mean [we] don’t shape, contribute, encourage and support.”
In short, students’ silence is not always a problem. Instead, we should appreciate silence as an inherent element in learning and find other ways in which to coach silent learners without identifying by default them as problematic learners or even ‘free-riders’.
This post was originally published by the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog on 30 May 2018. Co-authored with Mirko Reithler.
Problem-based learning (PBL) is at the heart of teaching at Maastricht University and at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS). It is a student-centred approach to learning: students encounter problems that contextualise a learning process that emphasises the importance of self-directed, collaborative and constructive learning. But there is theory and there is practice. 12 years ago, Jos Moust, Henk van Berkel and Henk Schmidt published an article entitled ‘Signs of erosion: Reflections on three decades of problem-based learning at Maastricht University’. They give an excellent overview of the original premises of PBL, but also of the challenges to implement PBL. Last year, these challenges were discussed in university newspaper Observant, with interviews with Henk Schmidt (a key figure in the development of PBL in Maastricht and beyond and a guest at our faculty two years ago), Virginie Servant (a researcher at Rotterdam University) and Walter Jansen (from EdLab, the university’s education lab).
Why is this discussion important? Simple: Maastricht University prides itself on using PBL, yet at the same time many of the core ideas of this approach to teaching and learning have come under pressure. We have both been involved in several PBL-related initiatives, from the Leading in Learning project ‘Updating PBL at FASoS’ to the EdLab project on PBL and research skills, and of course the University Teaching Qualification. Based on our experience, and taking into account the aforementioned article, we believe that there are at least three key PBL challenges that we should discuss at FASoS:
These are just three points that we feel that should and can be tackled. We would like to start this discussion by inviting you to join in. Do you agree with our diagnosis? Maybe you have some solutions to offer? Or maybe you have additional points that you would like to address? So, react to this blog, by commenting below or by drafting your own post.
This post was originally published by E-International Relations and Law Blogs Maastricht on 20 April 2018. Co-authored with Mark T. Kawakami of the university's Law Faculty.
While the EU proudly proclaims its motto to be “United in Diversity”, it is difficult to ignore the reality that various attempts at European harmonization have also engendered animosities and frustration between the EU Member States. Brexit is the most obvious manifestation of this tension. The divorce negotiations between Britain and the EU, which just have entered into their second year, are almost a self-fulfilling prophecy predicted back in the 1970s. While pointing to Brexit may seem too easy of an example to substantiate the statement above, there are some fundamental differences between the Brits and the Continental Europeans that not only have made their relationship increasingly difficult, but may make their divorce even more acrimonious.
From the start of the European integration process, Britain has been, in the words of Stephen George, an “awkward partner”, with warm feelings for European integration only present among pockets of society. Whether Britain is the only “awkward partner”, may be open to debate, but from the moment the European Communities were formed in the 1950s, the British position towards European integration has mostly been lukewarm. Joining the European Communities did not even appear to be an option at first; as their focus was primarily on the Commonwealth and the country’s “special relationship” with the United States.
Yet, as the British Empire dwindled and European integration got off to a successful start, the Brits changed their tune and applied for membership in 1961. Due to the French opposition, however, it was not until 1973 that Britain officially joined the Communities. It did not take long before problems arose, as the UK Labour party quickly pledged to renegotiate the membership deal; something that was accepted by the other Member States (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). On 5 June 1975, the British people overwhelmingly voted in favor of continued membership (with a turnout rate of 64.62%, of which 67.23% voted in favor of continued membership).
So, the Anglo-European marriage did not start off well and it certainly wasn’t a marriage based on true love. From the get go, there has been a rather widely shared feeling that the British islands were somehow different from “the continent”. In his book, A Cultural History of British Euroscepticism, Menno Spiering refers to a cultural divide that lies at the heart of the British position towards the EU and argues “that over the years Homo Britannicus has branched off from Homo Europaeus.”The controversial issue of the British relations with “the continent” has cut through society and politics, with both major parties housing fierce opponents and convinced proponents of European integration.
Myths and stereotypes came to play an important role in British debates about Europe. From the decision to classify Kilts as women’s wear to the infamous curved bananas, the representation of the European Commission in Britain even offers a “Euromyth A-Z index”! In light of these realities, it should not come as a surprise that the now widely used (and abused) term Euroscepticism originates in Britain. It was first used by the British press during the 1980s to describe Margaret Thatcher’s strained position towards European integration. In fact, according to Nick Startin, the sceptic stance of large parts of the British media towards the EU has played a key role in a process that eventually resulted in the Brexit vote on 23 June 2016.
Specifically in the field of law, this difference between the Brits and Continental Europeans visibly manifests itself in the debate over the principle of good faith. In civil law jurisdictions (from the Continental lawyer’s perspective), the principle of good faith requires that the parties to a contract treat one another fairly and reasonably, even in adversarial situations. The doctrine of good faith applies even in pre- and post-contractual situations, when the parties are negotiating over the terms of contract or discussing damages after the contract has been breached. For example, in a sales contract, the principle of good faith attaches various information duties on the seller, who must provide all relevant information to the buyer that could potentially affect the buyer’s decision to purchase the good or not.
In the UK (from a common lawyer’s perspective), however, the principle of good faith – for the most part – is something strange and alien, if not something frowned upon. In the words of Lord Ackner in Walford v. Miles (1992), “the concept of a duty to carry on negotiations in good faith is inherently repugnant to the adversarial position of the parties involved in negotiations.” Rather, most common lawyers adhere to the principle of caveat emptor, or buyer beware, which is to suggest that it is the responsibility of the parties to investigate and figure out for themselves what they are getting themselves into. The other party to the contract is NOT expected to conduct themselves in a reasonable or fair manner. Even the esteemed English commercial lawyer, Roy Goode, spoke very critically against the principle of good faith, stating that “[t]he predictability of the legal outcome of a case is more important than absolute justice” and requiring courts and businesses to consider “vague concepts of fairness” within the context of commercial transactions is something that is undesirable because it would “make judicial decisions unpredictable…”
These two legal cultures were happily minding their own business, until the formation of the European Union. In attempting to harmonize the laws of its members, the EU implemented various Directives and Regulations with the aim of merging and marrying two distinct systems of law. The European legislatures’ decision to preserve the principle of good faith in many of the European legal instruments (thus forcing it down the throats of many Brits) was always a source of awkward tension. Now that the UK is ejecting itself from the confines of the EU what interest would they have to keep the principle of good faith within their legislations? And perhaps more interestingly, what incentive – if any – does the British politicians and negotiators have to negotiate their exit in a fair and reasonable manner?
This post was originally published on the FASoS Teaching & Learning Blog on 19 March 2018. Co-authored with colleague Sven Schaepkens.
FASoS teaching staff sometimes informally meet to share experience. One such event took place on 7 November 2017. A group of new and experienced staff watched the UM DVD Problem based learning: Tips from experienced tutors, as well as the (in)famous FASoS PBL video. There is a lot going on in the latter that defies what PBL should be like, but there were some surprised faces when the following was raised.
Sven (S): I’m surprised to see that the whiteboard is used during the post-discussion. This must be an exceptional case. Isn’t the whiteboard primarily a tool for the pre-discussion?
Patrick (P): You don’t use the whiteboard during the post-discussion?
S: I believe that the ideal moment to use the whiteboard is during pre-discussions, because the post-discussion facilitates something else. As a philosophy teacher, I have become acquainted with the Socratic method, which, in my view, aligns well with the spirit of PBL, especially during the post-discussion. The Socratic method assumes that groups acquire a shared understanding of an issue by repeating and summarising each other’s answers. The group members calibrate their understanding by letting various comments circulate in this ‘echo chamber’ and by asking additional questions aimed at clarification.
P: I too encourage students to keep on asking and answering questions to further their learning. Yet, I want them to keep track of their discussions on the whiteboard, so that we can go back to points raised before. Why does the Socratic method exclude the use of the whiteboard?
S: Don’t get me wrong: good whiteboarding is helpful to structure a brainstorm, and students are truly capable of effective whiteboard use. They support the discussion by making schemes, drawing time lines, grouping certain concepts together, and highlighting relations and similarities. When all of the above more or less happens, I´m a happy tutor!
P: That’s indeed what good whiteboarding is about. But even the far from ideal jotting down of terms serves as a – very basic – means of support for the group process. Why can’t this be supportive to the post-discussion too?
S: Generally, whiteboarding stalls the PBL process. Where the Socratic dialogue has an inherently open nature, students in tutorials seem to desire closure: “Did we answer the learning objective? What am I supposed to know for the exam?” They use the whiteboard for attaining closure. What’s on the whiteboard is the ‘the proper answer’, and we can all stop talking, cease thinking, and move to the next learning goal.
P: I have experienced this too. That’s why I encourage discussion leaders to keep on asking questions; why I keep on asking questions. But having those concepts on the whiteboard also allows us to draw links between them and, quite often, address contradictions. Without the whiteboard students may do so in their own notes, but then the closure happens there. I’d rather have them focus on the discussion than on their notes. I believe that the use of the whiteboard allows this and, hence, actually fosters openness.
S: I don’t think that students attain closure through their own notes when they don’t use the whiteboard. The individual notes can be a form of personal closure, but that’s different from mutual understanding at group level. The notes on the whiteboard are there for all to see and latch onto, whereas personal notes that aim at closure need to be verbalised in the group´s echo chamber. This verbal exercise moving from private to group closure is for me the goal in post-discussions.
P: During EU Politics I regularly take my groups outside, the weather generally being really nice during period 5. They always struggle without the whiteboard. This applies to all group members, including the person who takes notes to share through the electronic learning environment. They still focus on the ‘right’ answer and even more do than before.
S: But this observation supports my intuition: Careful listening by summarising and asking questions is not practiced enough! The whiteboard is perceived as a safety net. Will a group member engage in the same way when things will eventually appear on the whiteboard, opposed to the situation where it all depends on one’s own listening and verbalisation skills?
P: I don’t agree that the whiteboard is just a safety net. Instead, I agree with Terry Barrett and Sarah Moore, who, in a chapter in an interesting volume on PBL, argue that using the whiteboard is key in shaping the “shared learning environment” required to foster “dialogic knowledge”.
We still haven’t reached a conclusion… But maybe you can help? Please let us know your thoughts by dropping your comments below! There is also the big elephant in the room: maybe the general erosion of PBL needs to be addressed, rather than whether or not to use the whiteboard?
This post was originally published by E-International Relations on 17 February 2018. Co-authored with Russell Foster (King's College London).
Readers of the ‘Brexit: A European Perspective Blog’, we owe you an apology. During the last couple of months, it has been rather quiet from our side. We could come up with all kinds of excuses for this, but there really is no good excuse. Mea culpa!
But we are going to make things up to you! We are in the process of planning a whole year of Brexit blogging, with forthcoming posts on military cooperation between Britain and her neighbours, upcoming elections across Europe, the impact of Brexit on non-EU countries, and of course, the ongoing saga of Brexit itself. Because it is going to be another turbulent and exciting year in European politics, we will focus on predicted issues and events as they occur. A new German government appears to be just around the corner, one which is certain to fuel new discussions about the future role of Germany in the Union and the very future of the EU itself. Italian elections will offer another litmus test of public sentiment towards the status quo. New Eurosceptic governments in Austria and Czechia will face the harsh realities of government. And campaigning will begin for a new President of the European Commission. Where is the EU heading, and what kind of reforms – if any – can we expect to see in Brussels? Will we see a strengthened Eurozone, with a European Monetary Fund, a European Treasury, and perhaps even an EU minister for finances? And what can we expect from initiatives to strengthen EU military cooperation?
In 2018 Brexit negotiations enter their second year. The debate about a – hopefully – amical divorce continues on issues such as the financial settlement and future of EU-UK relations. While positive outcomes were agreed in late 2017, tensions between the UK and EU are emerging again. Questions have arisen over the likelihood that negotiations will be concluded within two years – a problem which is not helped by the growing possibility of Theresa May’s besieged government calling yet another UK General Election in 2018. Calls for second referendum in the UK are growing louder, drawing the ire of frustrated Leavers and reigniting the tensions of 2016 among a politically exhausted population. The possibility of another plebiscite, or Brexit being negotiated by a left-Eurosceptic Corbyn government, raise the Kafkaesque questions of what Brexit will look like – or whether Brexit will even happen.
Looming over the debate about the EU’s future and the Brexit negotiations are elections in several European countries, including Hungary, Italy, Russia and Sweden. The Italian elections look particularly interesting, with Beppe Grillo’s Movimento 5 Stelle promising to do well. These elections have been heralded as being potentially dangerous for the future of the Eurozone. Movimento 5 Stelle seems to have gradually softened its stance on the Euro, but Lega Nord continues to voice Euroscepticism. And in the East, Russian presidential elections again seem to heading towards a clear victory for Putin. What can we expect from Putin’s next term? And what could it mean for Europe?
Lots to consider and lots to write about. If you would like to write a post about any of the aforementioned issues or when you have an idea for another contribution, do not hesitate to get on touch through email@example.com. See the E-International Relations website for previous posts and guidelines for blogs. We look forward to an interesting year and a continued debate about Europe’s future – with or without EU!
This post was originally published by The Policy Space on 15 May 2017.
The media play an important role in democratic societies. This also applies to the European Union (EU). In times of increased criticism on the EU it is surprising to see that there has been relatively little dedicated research into media coverage and Euroscepticism. Patrick Bijsmans argues that there is a need to bridge the gap between research into media coverage of EU affairs and research on Euroscepticism.
Because the media constitute important platforms for public deliberation, there has been lots of scholarly attention for various aspects of media coverage – or the lack thereof – of EU affairs. Despite some exceptions – such as Christian Nitoiu’s study on transnational media reporting of EU climate change policy – most research focusses on both the extent and the content of EU affairs reporting by national media, which are widely believe to remain the central platforms for the so-called European public sphere. Studies have looked at several policy fields, events and Member States, as well as at EU communication policiesand journalists’ approaches towards the EU.
While coverage varies depending on types of media, Member States and policy areas, media attention for EU affairs generally has been on the increase. However, scholars have questioned the quality of that coverage, pointing at, for instance, the misrepresentation of EU policy-making and the limited attention for policy-making before actual decisions have been taken. Arguably, this complicates attempts to hold the EU accountable. Scholars such as Cécile Leconte have even argued that the misrepresentation of European affairs in national media is an important source of Euroscepticism.
Euroscepticism has increasingly become a mainstream phenomenon that has been studied from many perspectives. Commonly understood as opposition towards the EU and European integration, research has particularly focussed on party politics and public opinion. Surprisingly, there is only little research that combines perspectives of media coverage of EU affairs and Euroscepticism – for an exception see Manuela Caiani and Simona Guerra’s recently published volume. Yet, as has been argued by, for instance, Simon Usherwood and Nick Startin, there is a need to expand the scope of Euroscepticism research to other areas, including the media.
I have been working on research that aims to bridge the gap between the focus on media coverage of EU affairs and on Euroscepticism, with studies that look at both day-to-day coverage of EU affairs and media attention for specific events. Following existing academic work on the conceptualisation of Euroscepticism I have designed a framework that distinguishes between four positions on EU affairs: support for the EU; pro-EU calls for alternative approaches (Euroalternativism); soft Eurosceptic arguments for less EU; and hard Eurosceptic arguments for a complete withdrawal from the EU. For the first three I also distinguish between positions that concern polity (EU treaties, institutions, membership) and those that concern policy (for instance, whether to adhere to strict austerity policies or opt for increased spending during the Eurozone crisis).
Applying this framework to coverage by popular and quality newspapers results in a number of findings. First, media reporting displays a diversity of opinions, often concerning policies rather than polity, and generally arguing for alternative policy approaches rather than arguing against EU involvement. This is something that I found for the media in several European countries, including Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, and even the United Kingdom. This raises questions about the popular argument that Euroscepticism is on the increase. Instead, while certain aspects of the EU and its policies are criticised and alternatives are being put forward, integration as such does not appear to consistently questioned (see, for instance, the table below from a forthcoming study).
Second, at times of high-profile events the focus does shift towards a pro-con integration debate. The focus of coverage of, for instance, European elections is aimed at integration as such, even though these elections offer an opportunity to discuss the kind of policies that the EU should pursue. The intensity of related debates differs between countries, with, for instance, Euroscepticism having become more ingrained in the Dutch debate since the 2005 referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. Interestingly, in a paper that we have just submitted to a journal, Charlotte Galpin, Benjamin Leruth and I find an increasingly positive account of European integration by Dutch, French and German newspapers at the time of the Brexit referendum in the UK.
Third, and maybe most important, newspaper coverage shows that Euroscepticism has become a catch-all term, with reporting often being quite imprecise. For instance, parties that are critical of certain policies, but not of integration as such, are equalled to those that argue for a rejection of the EU. In fact, ‘Euroscepticism’, and derived words, are widely used both in and outside academia, yet their use is often imprecise. ‘Euroscepticism’ has become a ‘plastic notion’ and an ‘overly reductive term’. Or, as Robert Harmsen wrote, the use of the term Euroscepticism has ‘blurred the distinction between genuine oppositions to European integration and that which might more reasonably be regarded as a normal (and desirable) politicization of European issues within the framework of a multi-level polity.’
In sum, public discourse is often shaped in media debates and these debates appear to display a richer variety of positions towards the EU and its policies than tends to be suggested, suggesting a gradual normalisation of EU debates. At a time in which anti-European movements have become more vocal – and, simultaneously, pro-European voices are increasingly contributing to national debates – there is a need for further research into Euroscepticism and the media, taking into account this broader spectrum of opinions. Only by doing so will we be able to show how the media may contribute to people’s views and stances towards European integration.
Co-authored with Afke Groen. This post was originally published by E-International Relations on 15 March 2017 (in English) and the websites of the EU-Asia Institute of the ESSCA School of Management and Alliance Europa on 11 March (both in French).
Last year many commentators were blown away by the British vote to leave the European Union (EU) and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States. The Irish commentator and economist David McWilliams called 2016 “the year of the outsider”. Predictions are that 2017 will not be different, with important elections taking place all over Europe. Many see the Dutch elections as “the first big test” of what’s to come. The country’s leading populist politician, Geert Wilders, has already proclaimed a “patriotic spring” that may increase the pressures on an already besieged EU. We previously wrote about how Dutch politics works, and about the rise and chances of Geert Wilders in the 2017 national elections. In this blog post, we question the idea that the Dutch elections mark the start of a “patriotic spring” – that is, the idea that “the people” will regain control from “the elite” at the national and European level.
So far “Europe” hardly plays a role in the Dutch election campaign. Even Wilders seems to steer away from the issue. As Stijn van Kessel of Loughborough University elaborates, data shows that the Dutch do not want a ‘Nexit’. Moreover, other issues are prevailing in the campaign. The most dominant overarching theme is the Dutch economy, and in particular the question of what policy to pursue in times of a budget surplus and low unemployment. The economy is typically a theme that Dutch politicians like to link to the EU (“lots of red-tape”, “we are net-payers”, and “no more money to Greece”). But in this campaign, politicians have rather linked it to the question of what is important to Dutch society: should extra money mostly go to creating more jobs, reforming the health care system, investing in climate change policies, improving the educational system, and so on.
Another overarching theme is that of what constitutes Dutch identity in the wake of globalization. A “patriotic spring” presupposes debates about national identity threatened by cosmopolitan elites and outside pressures. Yet, in the current election campaign the discussion seems to be rather more nuanced, centering on how to redefine national identity without necessarily rejecting immigration and European integration. For example, leader of the Christian Democrats Sybrand Buma emphasizes national symbols; he brought up the idea of having pupils sing the national anthem at schools. Jesse Klaver, leader of the Greens, rather emphasises an inclusive culture of tolerance and diversity.
Moreover, it is quite likely that Wilders will be sidelined after 15 March. First, most parties have stated that they do not want to cooperate with him. Second, one week before the elections the latest polls also suggest that he will not gain the high number of votes that was predicted just a few weeks ago. This does not mean that Wilders’ ideas are being ignored. As has often happened in Dutch political history, mainstream parties had already adopted some of his populist and even nationalist discourse on issues such as immigration and European integration. For instance, while at face value his ideas seem to be less prominent, the fact that identity is a key issue during the current campaign can be attributed to him.
Interestingly, in the wake of the alleged “patriotic spring”, a counter movement even seems to be emerging. The “rise of the populist right” is often seen as a linear process, starting with Brexit and Trump, and continuing throughout elections on the European continent. But pitted against the populist right-wing ideas of Wilders are a set of beliefs that stress diversity and openness towards outside influences. This is most visibly illustrated by the increasing support for parties such as the social-liberal D66 and the Greens. There seems to be a similar trend in France and Germany, where, respectively, pro-European Emmanuel Macron and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz are making unexpected gains in the polls. They too emphasise ideas of openness and tolerance and the need to cooperate at the European level.
All in all, it could just as well be that the Dutch elections will not lead to the start of a “patriotic spring” of the European populist far right, but signal a rebalancing of European politics.
This post was originally published by Alliance Europa/Ideas on Europe on 6 March 2017 and is also available in French here and here).
The year 2017 is widely seen as hugely important for European politics, with general elections in key European Union member states Germany and the Netherlands – and perhaps even in Italy – and presidential elections in France. Following the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, populist parties have a real chance of dominating the campaigns in all the aforementioned countries.
The country to kick of this string of elections is the Netherlands. General elections will take place on 15 March of this year and by the looks of it they may result in further fragmentation of the Dutch political landscape. Citizens can choose between no less than 28 parties, from established parties such as the Christian Democratic CDA, the Social Democratic PvdA, and the Liberal VVD, to relative newcomers such as the Party for the Animals, Jesus Lives and, of course, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom.
The Netherlands is one of the key examples of what political scientist Arend Lijphart has called a “consensus democracy”. Consensus democracies are characterised by multi-party systems and proportionate representation, with power being shared between different societal groups. The Dutch political process is shaped by broad agreements, consensus and coalitions, which should accommodate the wishes of political minorities. The period of pillarisation, lasting from approximately 1917 until halfway through the 1960s, represented the apex of Dutch consensus politics. During this period society was divided in four pillars (Catholics, Protestants, Socialists and Liberals) which had an impact on almost every aspect of life. Yet, even during the 1960s and 1970s, a period of de-pillarisation and increased polarisation, and later phases of more manifest political competition, a consensual approach has been at the centre of Dutch politics.
To this day, cabinet-formation as well as day-to-day politics requires coalitions. Collegial cabinets are responsible to and dependent on parliament. As a result, Dutch politicians have also been reluctant to consider the option of minority governments. One of the most prominent exceptions to this rule has been the CDA-VVD government, headed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which was dependent on support by Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom. The outgoing government is a coalition of PvdA and VVD, once again with Mark Rutte. This government has had a majority in the main chamber of parliament, the House of Representatives, but required support from other parties to reach a majority in the Senate which needs to approve legislation agreed upon in the House.
Voter turnout has always been quite high in the Netherlands: above 70% since the abolition of compulsory voting in 1970. Yet, as has been the case on other countries, electoral volatility has increased as ideology, class and religion have become less important and party membership decreased. The dominance of the traditional parties has declined since the 1960s and smaller parties, such as D66 (Social Liberals) and GroenLinks (Greens), have come to play a lasting role in Dutch politics. On top of this, new parties have entered the political scene since the early-2000s, typically characterised by more radical views and populist tactics that appeal to dissatisfied voters. Some newcomers, such as Pim Fortuyn’s populist-conservative LPF party, only managed to last a short time. Yet, Geert Wilders has enjoyed more or less continuous success since the mid-2000s.
An extremely low electoral threshold of approximately 0.7% and a system of proportional representation in a single, nation-wide constituency explain why so many parties can achieve parliamentary representation. In addition, party splits and mergers have been numerous due to internal differences – since the 2012 elections, eight Members of Parliament left their party to form six new parliamentary groups, quite a few of which are now standing for election. The high number of parties with parliamentary representation is one of the main disadvantages of proportional representation, as it complicates political decision-making. Coalition governments are based on often very detailed coalition agreements. These agreements are often the result of lengthy negotiations, the longest having taken 208 days – nowhere near the Belgian record of 541 days, but still. The last one took 54 days.
This seems to make it more difficult for opposition parties to influence policymaking. Yet, they do actually have a say, for example in the drafting of legislation in parliamentary committees. Consequently, opposition parties regularly support government legislation. And even while the influence of some new parties has been modest, they may have a more lasting impact on the programmes of established political parties and on political discourse in general. This is due to the fact that throughout Dutch political history established parties often adopted the ideas of new parties. This then is the main draw of a system of proportional representation: it accommodates the views of a variety of groupings in a country that has always been one of relative minorities.
The latest polls suggest that 14 out of 28 parties may actually make it into parliament on 15 March. Polls also suggest a close race between PVV and VVD for the title of biggest party, with each now polling at approximately 17%. CDA, D66 and the Greens are all at 10-11%, followed by PvdA at approximately 8%. As nearly all parties have ruled out a coalition with Geert Wilders, it seems quite likely that the next government will be based on a coalition between 4 or more parties. So, expect to see a lengthy negotiation process in which parties with rather different programmes will have to come to an agreement. In the past Dutch politicians have proven to be able to tackle this challenge. And unless some parties withdraw on their pledges not to work with Geert Wilders, they have to.
This post was originally published by E-International Relations on 15 January 2017. Co-authored with Russell Foster (King's College London).
2016 was an eventful year for Europeans. A Dutch rejection of European Union extension, the Union’s uneasy refugee deal with Turkey, the shock of Brexit, the selection of an American president-elect whose (lack of) economic vision casts shadows over transatlantic commerce, and finally a referendum in Italy which, like its earlier counterpart in the Netherlands, seems to suggest growing popular resistance to the European project. 2016 is already being recorded as the year in which deep dissatisfactions and structural weaknesses in the EU, some traceable to the Credit Crunch of 2008 and some to the foundations of the post-war project in the 1950s, finally reached critical mass. Expansion has halted. The Eurozone is fracturing faster than the cracks can be repaired. And the second-most powerful economy in the Union has opted to withdraw into internal factionalism, inspiring movements across the continent as angry and disillusioned voters tired of the distant plutocrats of the status quo throw in their lot with anti-establishment, unashamedly anti-European parties that defy categorisation according to an obsolete left/right spectrum. Yet these events were merely an opening skirmish. The Battle for Europe has barely begun.
Welcome to 2017. A year which, as a spate of media attention suggests, will be recorded as an epochal year in European history. A year that might be used by future historians to mark the end of the long twentieth century; a year over which people might retrospectively lament the end of the post-war project. Perhaps 2017 will not be quite so bleak, and future scholars may see this year as the beginning of the European Union’s renaissance rather than its apocalypse. But one thing is for certain – 2017 is the year in which the fate of the European Union will be decided.
Elections are scheduled in countries whose commitment to, and involvement in, Europe are far more significant than the withdrawal of an archipelago nation whose support for the Union has always oscillated between lukewarm and grudging. In the EU’s core states of France, Germany and the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s Front National, Frauke Petry’s Alternative für Deutschland, and Geert Wilder’s Partij voor de Vrijheid might propel into power charismatic isolationists who will make Nigel Farage and Norbert Hoffer appear amateurish. Three elections that have the potential to change Europe as we know it. Both Le Pen and Wilders have already confirmed that, if they win, they will organise referendums on Frexit and Nexit (admit it; ‘Brexit’ at least sounds better). Petry has not dismissed European integration as such, but does want a referendum on the Eurozone. While this might appear harmless in comparison, it raises the serious question of whether the European Union can continue to exist without the Eurozone, or whether the two are now so entwined that the dismemberment of the common currency area will drag the entire European project with it. Predictions at present are unclear, but 2016 was a year of wrong predictions. “Brexit? After the fury of the Scottish schism, surely the English will come to their senses.” “Trump? That incompetent charlatan? Of course not!”
Yet here we are. If there is one thing to learn from last year, it is that we are out-of-step with our own populations.
It must be conceded that none of this may happen. In early December 2016, pundits expected that Austria would end up under an admittedly ceremonial, but powerfully symbolic right-wing populist, the first since the defeat of the New Order in 1945. Instead, the new president is to be a liberal politician and former member of the Greens. Perhaps there is hope, and perhaps further hope for popular support for the EU will come from an unlikely source – Brexit. In the summer of 2016 Europeans feared a surge in anti-Europe sentiment across the continent. This has admittedly happened. But as the shock of Brexit – whether horror or elation – dulls into banality and tedium, it is increasingly clear that Brexit is going to be an ugly, messy, mutually spiteful process. And in a dark irony, this might be the salvation of Europe. None of this may happen.
In late November last year the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, reportedly welcomed Brexit secretary Davis Davis ‘to hell’. Perhaps his words were more prescient than even he imagined, as one of the EU’s first casualties of 2017 was Great Britain’s representative to the Union, Sir Ivan Rogers. The man charged with negotiating as painless a divorce as possible left with what may transpire to be an ominous warning on “muddled thinking”. Closely following this came a statement by the British Prime Minister which seems to indicate a more bitter separation than originally imagined. Regardless of when Mrs May triggers Article 50 (“when”, not “whether”, as the latter would be at the risk of national rioting and the overnight evaporation of public faith in British democracy), neither Britain nor Europe is prepared for an exit within two years. Current indications suggest that negotiating Britain’s exit could take a decade. Assuming that there is still a European Union to leave in the mid to late 2020s, the painful, dragged-out negotiations of Brexit and the continued possibility that the first country to leave the EU will suffer severe economic decline, EU policymakers and anti-EU politicians in Europe may look to Britain and realise, respectively, that the Union needs urgent and substantial reform and that withdrawal has long-term national disadvantages which outweigh the short-term party advantages of winning a few years in office.
But in 2017, Brexit is no longer the dominant issue. While the British – whether Leave or Remain – might imagine that they are the EU’s main talking point, it is clear that in the minds of EU policymakers and administrators, the British and their internal squabbles are a sideshow. Another financial crisis, in a crumbling Eurozone which cannot be propped up forever, is not only inevitable but imminent. The shaky deal between a Union scrambling to shore up its borders and a Turkish Republic rapidly sliding towards authoritarianism appears increasingly untenable. If Recip Erdogan reneges on the deal Europe will likely experience a second Migration Crisis which, in a year of border fortifications and mutual mistrust between populations and politicians, will make 2014 pale in comparison. And while there is hope of a significant thawing in relations between the White House and the Kremlin in the wake of Mr Trump’s inauguration, a geopolitical vacuum following the imminent defeat of Islamic State and the continuing weakness of the Russian Federation’s economy present new urgencies and opportunities for Mr Putin to cling onto power through further foreign meddling. The recent arrival into Eastern Europe of large contingents of American armour indicates that Europe may face a new standoff against Russia. These are gloomy predictions, but 2016 was a gloomy year. Is there sufficient reason to believe that 2017 will be different?
All in all, much to think and write about. We aim to provide you with our own reflections, but we will strongly welcome guest contributions from others. If you are interested in writing a piece for this blog, don’t hesitate to write to us! We are interested in all aspects of Brexit, from its significance in Scotland and its fallout in EU nations, to its portrayal in media and its impact on those academic libraries on which many readers of this blog so urgently depend. 2017 will be a testing year for Europe, so make your voice heard! More details on how to submit ideas or posts are available here.
Wishing you all the best for 2017!