The negative referendum on the EU Constitution in 2005 was a lesson learned for Ivo Opstelten, mayor of Rotterdam, who launched a citizens’ initiative to put what Europe is all about into simple language. He spoke to EURACTIV about the scheme.
Ivo Opstelten has been mayor of Rotterdam since 1999. Before that, he was mayor of Utrecht for eight years.
You are popular in the Committee of the Regions and some of your colleagues call you ‘the most active mayor in Europe’. Did your initiative to launch a ‘Mission Statement for the European Union’, a very simple and short message compared to the text of the EU treaties, had something to do with this?
I think it’s very important to formulate a clear mission statement: what is the European Union, what is it for? In my political group ALDE, we formulated ten points, loud and clear, which say what Europe is for to the people, for the citizens.
I understand that you used the input of ordinary citizens to formulate these ten points, as well as your party’s platform to collect views. Can we call you the father of this mission statement?
I was the president of the team that produced the mission statement.
Was one of the points introduced based on the input of a 22-year-old female student from Hungary?
Yes, we asked the young people in all member states to give one point for the mission statement, and then we made the selection. One item was indeed formulated by a Hungarian girl, Kinga Kohari. The rest are coming from politicians all over Europe.
Isn’t it a handicap that this initiative is coming from a political group? Don’t you try to sell it as an EU-wide initiative?
We ask our colleagues in the Committee of the Regions to join us. But you know how it’s happening in the political arena. They didn’t want to support this statement exactly by saying OK, that’s a very good idea from your side, but let us also contribute. The president [of the Committee of the Regions] said: “I want a Mission Statement for the Committee of the Regions,” and four sections are now working together to have it ready in April. But that’s slightly different, because what we already produced is a Mission Statement for the EU.
The text is indeed friendlier than, say, the Lisbon Treaty. Have you read the Lisbon Treaty?
Yes, I’ve read it. But it’s too difficult for my citizens, even for CEOs of companies in my city. In my city [Rotterdam] citizens were for the EU, but these texts were too difficult for them, that’s why they said ‘no’ in majority [in the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution].
You were probably involved in the campaign for the ‘yes’ vote, back in 2005?
Can you explain why you were not successful?
The message was not clear enough. Also in my city, the majority of people said ‘no’. That’s the reason why I now feel a sense of urgency. And my motivation for launching this project. This is the lesson learned from the failed Dutch referendum. By the way, it did not prove so difficult to come up with the message. And to convey it, use the best technical means. Use You Tube, use ICT, use emails.
But often people are more receptive to negative messages, conveyed by populists, like “beware, foreigners are going to take our jobs, they are going to move production abroad,” and so on.
But we give the answer, and it’s not negative. There is a need for a stronger Europe on certain themes and priorities.
In your country, the populist leader Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002, was very successful with his messages…
Also in my city. He said two things were very important. There is a need for a more focused policy for the security of citizens in the country and in the cities.
And he was right.
He was right. And by the way, now our country has a better safety and security policy. And his second message was about the need for a debate on immigration policy, and integration policy. And he was right. And there, there is also a situation that is better today.
So the problems addressed by Fortuyn and other populists have been improved, because governments and local authorities understood the message?
Pim Fortuyn was important because of both issues I mentioned. And in both cases, the situation is better. You can see it locally and nationally.
If you were to advise the Irish in the situation where they would re-vote on the Lisbon Treaty, what would you tell them?
I don’t know the situation in Ireland. I think it’s important that they have a campaign in normal language. But I would refrain from providing advice, as I am not familiar with details of political life there.
Are you going to be involved in the European election?
I am not a candidate, but I will have to support the campaign as president of the Liberal Party of the Netherlands, yes. We will also use this mission statement and organise a very loud-and-clear campaign.