Back in March, the Netherlands elected a new Tweede Kamer — the lower house of the Dutch parliament. Soon after, Libel editors Eduardo Aviles and Krijn van Eeden interviewed Willemijn Krans. In the interview we talk about Willemijn herself, her political views and why she decided to join JOVD, the elections and JOVD’s role in the campaign, the election results and what they could mean for the Netherlands and the EU, JOVD’s work domestically, and JOVD’s and Willemijn’s ideas about international cooperation.
the interview has been lightly edited for clarity
Krijn: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Willemijn: I’m Willemijn Krans, a member of the national board of JOVD [Engl. Youth Organisation for Freedom and Democracy], the Dutch liberal youth organisation associated with the VVD [Engl. People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy]. I’m from Rotterdam, the second city of the Netherlands — the better one [i.e. better than Amsterdam]. The Manhattan on the Maas, as we call it. [She laughs.] I’m joking of course.
I study political sciences in Leiden, and became interested in politics in high school. It actually started with international politics: I had a fight with my economics teacher, because he was making these anti-feminist jokes about how there weren’t any female world leaders. (Back then I was more kind of a social-justice warrior — I’m not really like that anymore.) But because of his joke I decided to look up all the female world leaders, and then during my next economics class I told him about all of them. After that he never made anti-feminist jokes in our class again, so it was kind of a win. This then got me asking: how does that work? Because in South America, there were a lot of female leaders and in Scandinavia as well, but not so much in other parts of the world. And then I started to get interested in that. Wondering: why is that? And why is it important to also have female world leaders?
So that’s where my interest started, and it just developed during high school — mostly during my final year. I became active in JOVD during the 2017 Dutch parliamentary elections. That was the year I graduated from high school. And well, that was a lot of fun actually. I went to a school with a lot of theatre classes. So it was kind of a left-wing school, and kind of, well, the Greens [GroenLinks], but also D66 [the other, more centre-left Dutch liberal party], but more the left wing of that party. So I was kind of an outcast with my political opinion, but that just strengthened it I guess. And then I went to university, where it just developed more and more. I think we need to have change in society, you can always improve things — in the Netherlands, but also geopolitically. We need to work together and form a front against China and Russia, I think, to… well, for democracy. It makes me think: how can we establish that? I think that politics is the way to establish change. Of course, if I can find another way, I’ll do that. [laughs] But I think it hast to be politics. So that’s why I became interested in in politics. And personally, I also like the political game. I think the way it works is very interesting. The power dynamics. Not just within politics, but also within organisations. On the other hand, representation plays a big role as well. You always have to keep in mind the people you are representing. I think that’s very interesting about politics: that you don’t do it for your own sake.
Krijn: Why did you decide to join JOVD?
Willemijn: As it happens, I wasn’t sure which of the Dutch liberal youth parties to join — yes, we have two in the Netherlands. [Apart from JOVD there are also the Jonge Democraten (JD), who are affiliated with D66.] I think what pushed me towards JOVD was my belief in small government. However, I do feel I need to qualify this, because I mean small government in a Dutch context, not in the American context. I do believe it is important that you have a certain base level of support that you can rely on. For example, if you get sick, I think the government should support you. But I also feel that this needs to be limited somehow, it’s most important that you are free to make your own choices, and that the government doesn’t stop you from doing the things that you want to do. I just find that the left can be patronising. I think it’s important for everyone to make their own choices and I and also to have a smaller government than we have right now.
Krijn: Just as an example of how far left-wing governments in Europe can go: At some point in the 70s my dad was in Sweden. He told me that there was a debate going on in the Swedish parliament about how many sandwiches people should have for breakfast. That sort of that level of ‘we are going to decide as a government what is good for you’. I think Americans just have no concept of how far that can be taken in within a European sort of centre-left/left wing context.
Eduardo: Okay, yeah. Because Willemijn, you just described yourself as centre-right. Which made me think of moderate/moderate Republican. But that sounds different than what you just described.
Willemijn: I think it differs. It’s hard to compare, because the Netherlands is a much more secular country, not as religious as the United States. And I think that makes a huge difference. Because the reason that the U.S. government can be smaller (which actually it isn’t) is that you have a lot of a lot of churches and a lot of organisations that do things independent of the government. The fact that it’s much more normal to go to private school for example. With us it’s more common to have public institutions. So in that sense it’s different. Because of all of that, and of course because I’m not an American, it’s hard to say where I would be politically. I would probably be with the Democrats because I’m a liberal, but [she laughs] not with the Bernie Sanders ones.
But to get back to why I joined JOVD, what was also important for me is that I joined a secular party, and not a Christian Democratic party. That was one reason. And then I didn’t want to be with the socialists, because I find them too patronising. I feel they look down on people, and don’t recognise that individuals have their own power. They want to keep you small. So that’s why I wanted to join a liberal party. When it came to deciding between JOVD and JD for me their positions on Europe is one of the main reasons I decided to join JOVD. JD and their mother party D66 are very pro European integration, whereas I feel more critical. I think the COVID pandemic is a good example of why we do need the European Union, but I don’t want a federal state or something like that.
Krijn: That’s certainly quite a clear difference between the two Dutch liberal parties. D66/JD is far more in favour of European integration than JOVD/VVD.
Willemijn: On an international level, I would say I most agree with the UK Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher. She’s still an inspiration to me. Personally, I think she’s amazing. Although I know not everyone agrees on that. But yeah, you could best compare my stance on Europe to hers, I think.
**unfortunately, Eduardo had to leave at this point, due to work**
Krijn: How was JOVD involved in the election campaign?
That’s actually interesting, because it is different from other youth wings. JOVD was established in 1949, just after WOII, and we were actually a completely independent organization until the year 2000. Because of a change in the law, if we want to get subsidy from the interior ministry, we had to officially align with a party in parliament. We were kind of unofficially aligned with the VVD. But from then on, we had to officially align ourselves with them. So now, for 21 years, we have been officially aligned to the VVD. D66, as the second Dutch liberal party, was founded in 1966 (hence the name). But JD, their youth organisation, was only established much later. I think in the 80s. So before that, before you had the Jonge Democraten, we also had a lot of our members joining D66 and becoming politicians there. So we are very independent. And even right now, we still have members who are also members of D66. And we also have members who are members of this new centre-right party called JA21. So even though we are officially aligned with the VVD for the purpose of subsidies, we still operate independently from them. Because of that we had our own campaign, where we campaigned on our own issues. We campaigned on housing market reform — to reduce prices, which is a big issue for young people. We campaigned on the legalisation of certain drugs, like weed (which isn’t officially legal in the Netherlands but use and sale are not prosecuted under certain conditions), but also ecstasy/MDMA. In addition to that we also campaigned on sexual violence, and to improve sexual education in schools.
Krijn: Do you work together with other (political) youth organisations in the Netherlands?
Willemijn: Our president is in regular communication with other organisations, and sometimes we address certain problems together with them. Of course we organise a lot of things by ourselves as well. But sometimes if you want to bring something to the agenda, you have to cooperate. So we do work together, but it kind of depends, and we are strategic about what we choose to work together on. To give an example: sometimes I want to do something with the Jonge Democraten but also with the Young Christian Democrats. And, well, not so much with the Young Socialists or Social Democrats or Greens, but sometimes we do. For example, we created a website together, where you could fill out this questionnaire to find out which political party most aligned with your views. This then we also presented to the media together.
Krijn: Given that your mother party, VVD, has just become the biggest party in the elections, what does JOVD think the next government’s priorities should be?
Willemijn: I think the two biggest ones, especially on an international level, are climate change and migration. We think that we should have a sustainable policy on both of these issues. And also one that is internationally driven. There is no point in making the Netherlands carbon neutral if that means we just move the production of goods somewhere else and then create emissions there, so we need an international solution. With climate change, we should do more on a European level. The same goes for migration: we need to work more closely within the EU, and also just try to do things to help improve the democratic situation and education systems in the countries people migrate from, and at the same time find ways to make it clear to them that we aren’t giving away gold if you come here or something. I think it’s important that we make it clear that coming here as a refugee isn’t always in people’s best interest. That being said, of course these things are very hard to achieve, because of the corruption in many countries where people migrate from, which makes it hard to create the kind of conditions there that will stop people from coming to Europe.
On a domestic level, for young people especially, housing is a really big problem in the Netherlands. Also mental health and sexual health, where we need to focus more on education and prevention, and I also feel that trust in politics is something we need to address, but then at the same time voter turnout during the elections was around 80%, so it does seem the majority of the population still trusts the system enough to vote.
Krijn: What are your thoughts on the election results as a whole?
Willemijn: Well, we have seventeen parties in parliament right now. And even though I feel that, as a liberal, theoretically it would be great to have 150 individuals [the Dutch lower house has 150 seats] who have a mandate from voters — so they have their own ideas, and then they from majorities to pass legislation — instead of what happens now, where you have a party, and they decide what their parliamentarians should do. I think that in principle, the individual should make the party. So I think that the reason we have a lot of parties right now, is because it’s too much top-down and too little bottom-up. I think because of this, people are just like: ‘well, then I’ll start my own party’. And it works because of social media and everything.
In addition, our electoral system is quite like Israel’s. There too they have very personalised politics. I think we are kind of going in that direction, because we are taking the same steps. I think the risk of that is that the extreme right — the populists — will gain more and more territory. And that is something that this election has shown as well: twenty-five of the 150 seats went to populist parties, that is if you add up the seats won by the Freedom Party (PVV) and Forum for Democracy. Although some would, I wouldn’t include the three seats won by the party ‘JA21’, as I think they don’t quite count as populist. But that does mean that populists hold 17% of seats in the lower house. And I think they’re gaining territory, especially with COVID. So that might be something we have to watch out for in the future.
I think it’s kind of positive that the socialists, the left have lost a lot. I think that’s good. But because we don’t want to work together with the extreme right parties, the options for a coalition are shrinking. So that’s a problem. Actually, as JOVD, our position is that we should have a minority government, like they have in Scandinavia a lot and also New Zealand. And we think we should try that out with a liberal minority cabinet with just D66 and VVD. Then we could address certain problems with parliamentary support from the left wing, such as climate change problems, and then more immigration controls with support from right wing parties. D66 and VVD can make a few arrangements, and then try to get parliamentary support for their proposals. The consequence of that will be that there will be more discussion in Parliament more debates, because the legislative proposals won’t have been negotiated fully before they are submitted to parliament. And I think that’s better for our democracy and the political climate.
But despite all these challenges, it’s amazing that the liberal parties have come 1st and 2nd!
Krijn: It is! It’s a massive shift from Dutch post-war politics, where the Christian Democrats (CDA) were always the biggest, and they were in coalitions alternating with the Social Democrats (PvdA) and the Liberals (VVD). And now the two liberal parties are the biggest parties. That’s quite a dramatic shift.
What do you think the consequences of the Dutch elections will be when it comes to the position of the Netherlands in international politics?
Willemijn: Even though this is not entirely certain at the moment [Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had just won the elections as party leader of VVD, was suffering major embarrassment at the time of the interview, because of a major political issue his government had had to resign over right before the elections.], if the prime minister manages to form another government, he will be one of the most senior EU leaders, especially after Merkel will have left as German Chancellor, which she has announced she will after the German elections in September of this year. Rutte has a lot of experience, and political leaders in Europe look up to him. I think this could be very advantageous for the Netherlands.
In terms of the parties that will most likely govern, D66 is more internationally focused than VVD — actually not so much the parties, I think they’re both internationally focussed, but not the voters: D66 voters are more internationally focussed, whereas VVD voters think more nationally. And this really shows in the positions these parties take on. Because they have quite different opinions on the subjects we discussed previously: migration, climate change and European integration. Here they position themselves on opposite sides of the argument. So it will be very interesting to see what kind of a compromise will be reached there. Because we are a country of compromises.
Krijn: Yes that’s pretty interesting, because it’s pretty certain they will both be in government. So that’s really where the sausage is going to be made.
Willemijn: And they could do it a few different ways, they could just exchange on climate change and migration, so D66 gets more of what they want in terms of climate change, and VVD in terms of migration. Or they could work out some compromise on both issues. Which may end up with them doing nothing at all, because both their plans get so watered down.
Krijn: The last set of questions we have are more to do with international cooperation. What do you think JOVD’s aim is in that regard? What are you guys trying to achieve?
Willemijn: I think here again it should be about climate and migration, but also supporting liberal democracies around the world is of course very important. You see these horrific episodes of human rights violations in countries like China and Russia, and as liberals, we of course want to see human rights being guaranteed for everyone around the world. That of course is our main aim.
In JOVD we also think that military and defence are important. But this should be a strategic matter, something that you use to achieve clearly defined aims — not just an end in itself. We need to invest in this to protect Europe, and the Netherlands. And then of course there is the emerging threat of cyberwar, and perhaps also biological weapons, perhaps even a virus. We need to be prepared.
Krijn: Just as a side note, what is JOVD’s position on a European army?
Willemijn: Athough we don’t want a European army, there is some division here within JOVD. Even though no one thinks we should operate under one flag, there are members in our organisation who believe it would be a good thing to have more common standardisation between armies of EU countries. I myself have been on a study trip to a base in Lithuania. There is a joint NATO base there, staffed by Dutch, German, Czech, Americans and at the time one Icelander, because Iceland doesn’t have an army. The soldiers from these different countries operate under different rules. They have different work schedules, different amounts of alcohol they can drink, and it’s all pretty confusing. So some standardisation would be welcome, but I think that should be more a NATO than an EU thing. Doing this is hard, because it goes against national sovereignty, but it will be better for all of us if we can all move towards each other.
Krijn: We should all agree on how many beers someone can drink before they can drive a tank!
Willemijn: Yes exactly! Things like that.
Krijn: I think that’s an excellent example.
Willemijn: Generally, when it comes to international activities, JOVD has not been that active recently. I am also not just the international officer, but I also the board member for politics, so there hasn’t been that much time for me to focus on international stuff. But because of Covid, we had more time to think about what we would like to do internationally. There is a proposal right now to add another board member, who would focus exclusively on international affairs. So that’s coming up.
And of course we do attend IFLRY General Assemblies (GA) and we try to build on resolutions that get passed there. One of the resolutions we want to propose to IFLRY’s next GA is one on vaccination passports, which should make it easier to travel between countries if you are vaccinated or have a negative test result. We want this to go into effect not just for the European Union but around the world. I think it’s very important we make it easier for people to travel again. So that’s something I would say JOVD is focused on in an international context.
Krijn: What would you like to see JOVD focus on internationally in the future?
Willemijn: I would like JOVD to get defence higher on the agenda, not just in IFLRY but also in LYMEC. I would like young liberals to think more about how you could use defence to create more freedom in the world, more democracy and human rights. And then of course at the same time to focus on the dangers that militarisation poses to democracy and human rights as well.
Krijn: That certainly sounds like an interesting subject for young liberals around the world to discuss more.