“The European project has been hijacked by those who use history for their own ends.”


An inconclusive election in March has left the Netherlands temporarily unable to form a new governmental coalition. At the same election Harry van Bommel, the Socialist Party’s shadow foreign minister, stood down after almost two decades in Parliament. Spectrezine  interviewed him about the problems of being a foreign affairs specialist in an opposition party of the radical left operating in a capitalist society.


The negotiations to form a new government have been stalled for some time. The invited parties, the ones which are attempting to form a coalition, cannot find agreement. The SP has not been invited because you have made it quite clear that while you would not rule out sharing power with centrist and centre-right parties, you would not consider doing so with the ultra-neoliberal VVD, which was the bigger of the two parties – Labour having been the other one – which currently govern. Green Left has made no such commitment. What do you think of what has happened so far in these negotiations, and of the Green Left position?


Green Left may make things a little less harsh, drawing a new government not to the left, but towards the centre at least. But there is no way a centre-right or right wing coalition would be of benefit to the Netherlands. We will, as you say, not govern with the VVD, you can be assured of that.


As the SP’s translator I’m very familiar with the party’s position on foreign policy issues and EU affairs, as these are the things that it is felt will be of interest to foreigners visiting the English-language site. Looking through the press releases and other communiqués you’ve issued over the last decade or so, I’m struck by the variety of themes they cover, but also by the persistent recurrence of certain issues, one of them being the need for the Netherlands to change its approach to defence, to stop coat-tailing the US and take a more critical line on NATO. A few years ago, controversially in the eyes of a section of the SP membership, the party abandoned its longstanding policy of withdrawal from NATO. Do you consider this to have been the correct thing to do, and what do you think the SP’s line on NATO should be now? Was the change largely for electoral reasons, to attract less radical voters attracted by the party’s strong line on domestic social issues?


The policy change in 2006 wasn’t just for electoral reasons, it was also logical. We had supported the NATO’s role in Kosovo from 1999 – not the original bombing of Serbia, which we strongly opposed, but the KFOR peacekeeping mission which succeeded it. If you do that it doesn’t seem very sensible to nevertheless call for the Netherlands to withdraw from NATO. Also, at the time the then Secretary General had called for a broad and ongoing debate around the alliance’s future, its role, and we thought perhaps we could influence this debate by being at the table. Obviously this turned out to be impossible, it led to nothing, but once again as a result of President Trump’s controversial insistence that European allies don’t pay their fair share of what it costs to defend the continent, there is the possibility of a renewed debate. This has implications for the SP’s developing position on NATO. There is certainly a live debate within the party, but it’s only a small minority who are very critical of our current position and believe we should return to calling for withdrawal.  


As a socialist, and thinking of the way via MH17 and other events, the horror of terror attacks has directly touched the Netherlands, what approach do you think should be taken to terrorism? Living in France it’s easy to be critical of the state of emergency and the fact that armed soldiers patrol the streets of Paris and other cities, but it’s harder to say what you think should be done about terrorism. It’s hard enough to protect indoor gatherings where there are a limited number of entrances, but when people start blowing up open air gatherings, or driving heavy vehicles into crowds of people, it’s hard to imagine what you can do about that. What does the SP advocate as a potentially effective approach?


Clearly there are situations which it’s difficult or impossible to defend yourself against. So what is needed is prevention of radicalisation of Muslims, especially of Muslim youth. We can only improve security by developing and defending cohesion in society. But what’s happening in the Netherlands and elsewhere, for example in Germany, is that right-wing parties are doing the opposite, they are fuelling divisions, dividing societies so that even Muslims who are peaceful and politically moderate are being driven to extremes. They’re saying that we are being demonised, and that  if this is your reaction, the reaction of your society to our presence and the presence of our belief, if you say it’s my religion that’s a threat to your society, then I will also react badly to you. As in other religions there are many sects within Islam with many different views and approaches. But if you treat all Muslims with hostility, then people will start to feel like outcasts.


There are even people who aren’t Muslims at all, such as the Sikhs who were murdered in the United States some time ago by a man who said he did it because he hated Muslims. A large proportion of people who have migrated to the West from South Asia and even the Middle East  aren’t Muslims. They’re brown-skinned people and tend to get lumped together by ignorant racists, disguising their racism by claiming it’s the religion they object to. There are, for example, over 200,000 Hindus in the Netherlands, drawn for the most part from the population of Indian origin in the former Dutch colony of Surinam.


The divisions are stark. Almere has the highest proportion of Hindus in the country and it also has the highest vote for the far right PVV. There’s some evidence that Hindus vote PVV because they are frightened of Muslims.


Moving on to a different topic, and recalling our earlier discussion of the party’s evolving position on NATO, the SP is also at pains to stress that it does not support calls for a Dutch withdrawal from the EU, but that it sees this EU model as it exists now as entirely inappropriate. What would you see as a better model? When I first began to work with the SP twenty years ago it was made clear to me that my longstanding view, which as I’ve explained before on this site is best described in contemporary terms as ‘radical left Brexit’, would not win support in the Netherlands. Dutch people might well be critical of the European Union, but in 1997 calling for withdrawal would have been seen as crazy fringe politics. I accepted this and it fitted with my observations as I got to know the political scene in the Netherlands better. How do things stand now, after twenty more years of increasingly rampant Brussels-driven neoliberalism?


That’s certainly how it was, but things aren’t so clear any more. We are calling for a new treaty, or a thorough reform of the existing treaties. But the euro is doomed, sooner or later, to fail. And while we keep calling for reform that would move the EU to the left, it keeps on moving to the right. We are calling for powers to be returned to member states that have been handed over to Brussels, but in reality pressure builds for powers to move in the opposite direction, for more powers to be transferred to Brussels. So what’s happening is completely contrary to what we want to see, and sooner or later we are going to have to enter into a debate as to whether or not we can still support EU membership. As things stand when I witness discussions on the EU within our party I am struck by the fact that there are two clear positions in conflict with each other. One which says we should go back and do it all over again, that sure we should have a European Union, but it ought to be a minimum European Union, a confederation of clearly sovereign states. The other says that if we are  we are too loud about our negative view of the EU we’ll never be able to join any government. This is not my position and I’m very dissatisfied about it, but I’m afraid that this group, those who prioritise a stronger electoral position will run the debate.


Doesn’t this reflect a broader tension, between wanting to participate in governing – in governing a capitalist society – and in wanting to remain an effective radical left party? There is a view that the SP is now a social democratic party. My answer to this is that while your policies are those of left social democrats, you are saved from being a social democratic party by the fact that you do not subordinate everything to electoral success. You’re still very active beyond The Hague and the council chamber. Do you agree?


There are policy areas where there is this danger. For example, when it comes to the issue of immigration and of refugees. Our former spokeswoman on these issues, Sharon Gesthuizen, was highly frustrated when she was not allowed to publish a leaflet on the issue. The SP does not generally support demonstrations of or in defence of refugees, because it believes this will lose us votes. 


I wasn’t really aware of that, and I do remember that there have been exceptions, such as The Night of the Refugee in 2013, in which Gesthuizen was a major player and had the party’s support. I have been concerned, however, by what I see as the SP perpetuating the myth that the reactionary nature of this model of European integration began with the Maastricht Treaty, and that it was originally established to bring peace and prosperity to the continent. While it’s true that Maastricht certainly made Europe a more nakedly conservative project, it is, I would argue, entirely untrue that the original motivation behind the foundation in 1957 of the European Economic Community was a desire for peace. It was rather the Cold War need to reinforce cooperation between Europe’s capitalist powers, acting largely on behalf of US interests and to a great extent directed by Eisenhower and Dulles and cheered on by the CIA front, the American Committee for a United Europe (ACUE), chaired by former OSS agent William J. Donovan. In some years ACUE provided over half of the funds available to the European Movement. ACUE’s board featured CIA directors Walter Bedell Smith and Allen Dulles. While nobody much cares about history, at least in deciding how to vote, I would find it hard to peddle the myth of the EU’s benign, pacifistic roots. How do you see this?


Well, I agree. It might be advantageous in the short term but it’s dangerous in the long term. The  European project has been hijacked by those who use history for their own ends. It’s true that there has been no war amongst EU members, and the only war in Europe has been the Yugoslav war-


That applies only to war between countries!  This is just the same as the rest of world, where civil wars have become far more common than wars between nations. We have had plenty of armed conflict, for example in the UK with the struggle over Northern Ireland, in Spain’s Basque country, in Italy with the Years of Lead….The idea that the EU has been responsible for relative peace is in any case  I would say  at best unproven.


Economic integration does make war less likely. But the European project has always been to create a single market to make sure that companies and capitalists can do their work unhindered, so to present it as an achievement is indeed fanciful. One can only say  that it has been a positive side effect, while the EU has divided societies and divided people. And so many are left out. For example, more than twenty million unemployed.


You led the SP’s massive contribution to the defeat of the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005. Despite the fact that the EU predictably ignored the results of the Dutch and French referenda, do you look back on this, as I and many others do, as the outstanding achievement of your parliamentary career?


Well, I was the longest serving MP in the current parliament by the time I left, having spent almost nineteen years in office. I was also the SP’s longest serving MP ever.  The event to which you refer, the campaign against the European Constitution, lasted half a year, during which I put all my energy and creativity and a great deal of the party’s money into it. And it worked. We had never been able to reach out to so many people and firstly convince them to vote, second to say no, and on the basis of good solid arguments. So yes, that was an achievement. But there’s another issue which I see as a major achievement. Since I entered parliament I have opened up the debate on Dutch participation in military missions – NATO missions, EU missions, whatever. Before 1998 the Dutch parliament would usually by consensus say yes. We were the first to say no. Since then it’s happened more often and more parties have said no to a military mission. This is important because now I’ve said that sending out troops is such a responsibility and this has been widely understood. Votes on this issue should no longer be taken in party blocks, but as those of individual MPs. No secret ballot. This would help to increase the vote against.


You have taken a close interest in the Middle East, which as (in British terms) a sort of shadow foreign secretary was clearly important. You seem also to take a particularly close interest in Kurdistan and its people. What brought this about, and how did you end up having a park named after you?  


There’s a large Kurdish community from both Iraq and Turkey in the Netherlands. Most left their countries for political reasons. Many are on the left and so come to us, or Labour or the Green Left. The situation in Iraq after the 2003 war was critical, and many Kurds came knocking on our doors saying we must do something to help. But well before that they came seeking recognition of the genocide against Kurds in the 1980s. Then all of a sudden there was a gift from heaven. A Dutch journalist Arnold Karskens played a key role in getting Frans Cornelis Adrianus van Anraat convicted for selling substances for making chemical weapons to the Iraqi government, weapons which were then used against the Kurds. The crimes were committed in the 1980s but not revealed until the end of the 1990s. I went then to Iraq for the first time. I brought the subject of Van Anraat’s activities to the Dutch government and asked them what they were doing about it. The upshot in the end was that he was arrested and convicted and sentenced to 14 years.  My involvement in this was clearly appreciated in Kurdistan and that’s how I ended up having a park named after me.


As with all such history, the legacy of Dutch colonialism is painful on all sides. Tell us about what happened in the Indonesian village of Rawagedeh not long after the Second World War, and the actions you have taken in relation to this 1940s atrocity.


I was approached by some people from the Stichting Comité Nederlandse Ereschulden – the Dutch Foundation on Debts of Honour – who brought some survivors and widows to the Netherlands. Then I talked to them in Jakarta in 2007.  The Rawagedeh massacre was committed by soldiers of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army on 9 December 1947 in the village of Rawagedeh. Almost all males from the village, over 400 men, were killed in an attempt to find an Indonesian independence fighter.

When I brought the incident to the Dutch authorities I was told it was outside the Statute of Limitations and so could not be pursued. The courts, however, did not agree and some successful cases have been brought, with compensation being awarded to survivors and surviving family members. After this the government agreed to pay around €20,000 to each plaintiff without the matter going to court.


Last time I communicated with you, you seemed rather frustrated with what you felt was the low priority given to foreign policy issues by the SP. This is particularly and understandably evident in the runup to elections, as not many people vote as a result of a foreign policy which they like. However, since you stood down your successor Sadet Karabulut has made a very energetic start. What do you think the SP’s foreign policy priorities should be now, with Trump in the White House, NATO and Russia at loggerheads, and the world seemingly going to hell in a handcart? In my view there’s a lot out there that needs the SP’s critique.


Yes: Trump, Turkey, the US-Russia situation, EU-Russia, NATO’s development. There’s a lot going on, so that I hope she gets enough support from the party. There has been a great deal of attention paid to domestic issues, especially trade union issues. Our new party chair and several of our new MPs are from a trade union background and that’s where their priorities lie. In the campaign the focus was on health care, on or proposals for a national health fund, and it seemed to me way too thin. It was a very costly campaign and we didn’t get the support we expected. To take an example of where we are not doing enough, we have been absent from the climate debate. There’s a connection between climate change and armed conflict, for example, which would make it easy for the SP to enter the debate.


There’s no issue now which isn’t connected to climate change.


Exactly. And if you don’t understand that and consider climate change a purely green issue then it comes down, for instance, to increasing taxes on cars and fuel, which are no more popular with SP members than they are with other people, and the matter is not going to be dealt with in a proper way.


Harry van Bommel was talking to Spectre editor Steve McGiffen, who is also a former SP employee and acts now as the party’s English-language translator.