December 11, 2018

A speech for our King in Westminster Hall

By Barend ter Haar.

In the autumn of 1688, a relative of mine, William of Orange, assembled in Holland a fleet of almost 500 ships with 40.000 men aboard to invade England. In November he disembarked in Devon and in December Dutch forces entered London. For the next thirteen years William III was not only Stadtholder of Holland and Zealand, but also King of England, Scotland and Ireland.

The contrast between the arrival of William III in London and the way Queen Máxima and I are received on our State Visit is enormous. I am happy to say that in the meantime British hospitality has greatly improved (and so have, I admit, Dutch manners). However, the similarities between 1688 and 2018 are much larger that they may seem to be at first sight, because the future of democracy was at stake then and is at stake now.

In 1688 England stood before the choice between parliamentary democracy and absolute monarchy and between freedom of speech and the right of the government to decide what its subjects were allowed to say. The Glorious Revolution did not yet establish liberal democracy as we now know it, but it made big steps in that direction by recognizing the crucial importance of the rule of law and freedom of speech.

The Glorious Revolution and its Bill of Rights set an important example, first for the countries of Western Europe and North America and subsequently for the rest of the world. Nowadays, 330 years later, most countries pay at least lip service to democracy, although several of them, even in Europe, still have difficulty in accepting that the rule of law and freedom of speech are essential parts of it.

Now again the world is fascinated by what is happening in England.

During my lifetime the United Kingdom was a shining example of a country that managed to combine a strong commitment to human rights, democracy and international cooperation with a crucial role in the development of European cooperation.

I do not have to tell you that the great challenges that confront humanity, from environmental pollution and climate change to dual-use technology (that can both be used for the benefit of mankind and for its destruction), can only be addressed successfully if we cooperate regionally and globally with a determination and commitment that the world has not seen before, at least not in peacetime.

However, such international cooperation is tiresome and frustrating. Countries put their own interests first. That is perfectly understandable, but it does not mean that it is wise to ignore the interests of others. It took Europe two world wars to learn that lesson and to recognize that everybody is better of when countries take the interests of other countries into account and put common interests above individual interests.

It is no exaggeration to say that everywhere in the world the European experiment is followed with great interest. Will it succeed? Or will the temptation to deceive voters with nostalgic dreams of national independence be too strong? Will the European project break down when countries withdraw behind their borders, hoping that, at least for some time, disasters will hit others but not them? Or will the Western democracies prove able to address their problems together?
How will, in that context, the world look at the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from Europe? What does it mean for the future of democracy? Does democracy mean that a single referendum can force a government to break down the trust and solidarity that was build during half a century of cooperation? Does democracy mean that a government should blindly follow the whims of its electorate? If this is democracy, is democracy compatible with the close international cooperation that is needed to address the challenges of our time?

When the United Kingdom applied for membership of the European Communities and France vetoed it, the Netherlands did not give up. For more than ten years, the Netherlands remained the strongest advocate for British membership, because we were convinced that the United Kingdom is a crucial part of Europe and an indispensable ally in the defence of human rights, rule of law and democracy.

That is why we are so amazed and dismayed by your decision to withdraw from the European Union. Like in 1688, the future of democracy is at stake. We need you at the table in Brussels to defend freedom and democracy both within Europe and abroad.

Like fifty years ago, we will not give up until you are back were you belong, in the heart of Europe.



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