How not to sell Europe to a sceptical nation

Aristotle (Vienna)

Aristotle (Vienna)

Last week, I visited a Dutch town called Groningen. Although it is almost 200 kilometers from where I live, the trip was easy. We did not encounter road blocks where we had to show our passports. I cannot remember having seen soldiers, tanks, or guns. No enemy in sight. When we had arrived, our friend Simone, who is the chairwoman of the History of Jewish Groningen foundation, took us to the Folkinge Street synagogue, which is not far from the railway station. As far as we could see, the Jews were not led away to cattle cars.

This may surprise a couple of Dutch politicians. In 2005, a plebiscite was organized to answer the question whether the Netherlands could agree to a proposed European Constitution. During the campaign, the Minister of Justice, Mr. Donner, told the Dutch that if they voted against the proposal, war would be inevitable. On another occasion, the TV showed a commercial that suggested a new Holocaust. Prime Minister Balkenende made similar remarks. Perhaps Donner and Balkenende are exceptionally farsighted, but it is more likely that they were simply exaggerating in a last-minute attempt to make the Dutch vote for the proposal.

It was the sorry climax of the pro-Constitution campaign, which had started well. The Dutch cabinet and several opposition parties had agreed upon a double strategy. In the first place, the campaign was to have a positive tenor, and indeed: the campaigners stressed that European decision-making was to become easier and democratic controls were to increase. “These are improvements,” they said, “and you can confidently vote for the Constitution.” At the same time, there was a more negative approach: all arguments against the proposal were presented as irrelevant.

Of course, this was true. References to the way the Dutch were cheated when the euro was introduced, the admission of Turkey to the European Union, and the politically inspired voting during the Eurovision Song Contest were beside the point, which was European decision-making. It was true: the Constitution was a small step forward from the current treaty between the E.U. members, the Treaty of Nice. It was true: the euro, Turkey, and the Song Contest were irrelevant. But the problem is that if you want to convince someone, you need more than just truth and logic. There are irrational factors too, which the pro-Constitution campaigners ignored. The Dutch were not convinced, and the frustration of the politicians culminated in their complete loss of credibility when Mr. Donner and Mr. Balkenende started to predict wars and persecutions.

Aristotle

The first to analyze the irrational factors in the process of convincing was the Macedonian courtier, physician, psychologist,botanist, diplomat, metaphysician, moralist, researcher, critic, teacher, theologian, zoologist and philosopher Aristotle of Stagira (384-322). There is not a single field of ancient knowledge that he left uncultivated, and he single-handedly created biology and political science. Even today, students from Yale to Qom are taught Aristotelian logic. The Corpus Aristotelicum is probably not the most accessible of all ancient texts but it is a treasury of science, and one of its most splendid jewels is the treatise called Rhetoric, an analysis of the factors that make a speech convincing. Back then, speeches were far more important than today, but Aristotle’s analysis can easily be applied to all means of communication.

He discerns three aspects that one must think about if one wants to convince another: logos, pathos, and ethos. The speech (text, TV commercial, radio message…) must be logical, it must appeal to the emotions of the audience, and the speaker must be credible. The strategy of the pro-Constitution campaign focused on the first of these factors, but failed miserably on the other two points.

Logos

A convincing message must be logical, and in a political discourse this means, according to Aristotle, that a proposal must have obvious advantages compared to an alternative. The pro-Constitution campaign did indeed concentrate on the advantages of the new treaty. Quite logical. However, two remarks must be made.

In the first place: the campaigners confused “this is better” and “this is good”. Again and again, they said that the proposed Constitution was an improvement compared to the old treaty of Nice. This was true, because the European Parliament was to receive greater powers and democratic controls increased. Many people will consider these things to be improvements, and therefore, the campaigners argued, the Dutch could agree with the Constitution.

But the issue was not whether the new treaty was better for Europe; it was presented as good for Europe. And this was not the whole truth. Better is not good enough. It might be argued, for example, that no treaty could be called a “good constitution” as long as it did not give the power of initiative to the European Parliament; a beefed-up parliament without this vital power cannot be called democratic. Voters could have very sound reasons to think that this treaty was not sufficient, even though they could agree that it was better than the current treaty.

In the second place: what is logic? Not everybody considers the same appeals to be valid. Here is an argument that was really mentioned: “The Eastern Europeans do not support the Dutch during the Eurovision Song Contest, so we will not support a treaty that is benefical to Eastern Europe.” It is understandable that many people thought that this was really irrelevant, but there were people who thought that it was perfectly logical. It was rather tactless of the Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Bot, to declare that the Song Contest argument was “holding things upside down”, and equally tactless was his suggestion that people should stay away from the polling stations if they did not understand what the treaty was about.

Not only were these remarks tactless, they also disregarded the nature of democracy. If the best policy could be deduced logically, we could give supreme power to a group of philosophers and live happily ever after. We do not do this, because even the greatest sages make mistakes. In fact, all wisdom begins with the understanding that we are capable of error. To compensate for the misjudgments of highly educated politicians, we allow other people to express their opinion too, even if their arguments seem to be illogical.

Several politicians said that a united Europe was necessary to prevent war. This is why the European project was born and this argument still has some persuasiveness. But even though this sounds more convincing than the Song Contest argument, the simple truth is that people first choose which type of argument they find convincing. There are limits to logic and these limits are not always rational. Aristotle recognized this when he introduced the other two factors: pathos and ethos.

Pathos

Pathos is the appeal to emotions. The writer of a speech or the maker of a commercial can try to arouse pity or anger, encourage the audience, or threaten it. The pro-Constitution campaign preferred the latter. Minister Donner predicted war, Minister Brinkhorst announced an economic crisis, and Prime Minister Balkenende mentioned Auschwitz.

These arguments turned on their proponents like a boomerang. The voters refused to be impressed. If the constitutional treaty were rejected, the treaty of Nice remained in force. There was no war in 2005, the European economy was not doing too bad, and the Jews were safe. Europe, the anti-Constitutionalists said, could easily continue without a new treaty. (Isn’t it beautifully ironic that the refusal to be scared proves how successful the European unification has been?)

The only emotion that the pro-Constitution campaigners were able to arouse, was anger, but the anger was directed against themselves. Stating in public that you’re unhappy with a plebiscite because the people can not understand the issues or suggesting that people should stay at home is counterproductive. If campaigners base their strategy on pathos, they must know very well what they are doing. It appears that the ministers did not realize that insulting the electorate was bad for their credibility.

Ethos

Credibility is the cornerstone of politics. It is at this point that the pro-Constitution campaign faced its greatest problems. The present cabinet is considered by many people to be a demolition firm; the Prime Minister is widely considered to be a dunce; and the united Europe has a very bad reputation since the euro was introduced. (The president of the Dutch National Bank announced that life would not become more expensive, while he already knew that this was untrue.)

Faced with this situation, the pro-Constitutionalists argued that earlier European projects were not the current issue. This argument, however, betrays a narrow, too logical view on communication. The Dutch have been cheated by their politicians in the past and have grown suspicious. Campaigners can not ignore this.

Actually, the problem was not just behavior in the past. Only a couple of people believed that their present government had defended the fundamental social rights during the constitutional negotatiations. Or to take a look at the financial section of the treaty: the Minister of Finance, Mr. Zalm, insisted that the Constitution would contain guarantees for financial stability, but they are absent. The minister negotiated away something that he had called a vital interest. Mr. Zalm had lost his credibility.

Nor is the unpopularity of Mr. Balkenende irrelevant. The popular joke that when he favors something, it is best to be against it, betrays a deeply felt resentment of a man who was elected on a program of moral values and simply does not have a mandate to pursue his present pro-business economic policy. This resentment may be irrational, but it exists, and a prudent campaigner thinks about it.

It must be said that the pro-Constitutionalists did realize their mistake and tried to correct it. They invited the former Prime Minister, Mr. Kok, and the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Fischer, to give their opinion about the treaty. These men had greater credibility. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Balkenende and Mr. Bot deserved this humiliation, but it is a fact that they are despised and that their replacement in the pro-Constitution campaign means that their political mandate has been terminated.

Alternatives

We don’t need an Aristotle to offer the above analysis. Much of what has been said is self-evident. And that is exactly the problem. The pro-Constitution campaigners have made the most elementary mistakes. The ministers were ignorant of the fact that the Dutch are no longer afraid of war; they insulted the people they wanted to convince; they underestimated their own unpopularity. This betrays a complete lack of understanding, an utter tactlessness, and a limited self-knowledge. Of course the absence of these qualities is not a crime, but it is not a recommendation either.

It must be noted that the disastrous result of the pro-Constitution campaign was not inevitable. The ministers ought to have acknowledged that they were unpopular and they should have stayed out of the spotlights. However, they choose to play a role and as a corollary they attached their own image to Europe. This was a serious mistake, but things were not lost yet.

What was needed, was an excuse for the way the European project had been executed so far. Of course, apologies are never easy, and there would have been a serious investigation of the introduction of the euro. Probably the president of the Dutch National Bank would have lost his position, but a pro-Constitution campaign would have been possible after making a clean sweep. Not showing the will to do things differently was the second mistake.

The third mistake was exaggeration. The pro-Constitutionalists should have presented the new treaty as the modest improvement it really is. That would have opened opportunities to agree with critics and gain support on the many points that were not criticised.The cabinet should have said: “Sorry, we have made serious mistakes, but we want to do it better. Therefore, we created this treaty. It is not perfect, but there are twenty-five nations and this is the best compromise we could obtain. For this simple proposal, we request your support, so that we can do our job better in the future.”

However, the campaigners choose to present the Constitution as a good treaty. The result was an all-or-nothing campaign without debate. Having said that the treaty was perfect, the only way to speak to the opponents was to qualify them as cynical or stupid. In other words, by making the logical error of confusing “something better” with “something good”, it became impossible to arouse positive emotions (pathos), and the only arguments that remained (“so you want another Holocaust”) were devastating for the credibility of the campaigners (ethos).

Postscript (2006)

This article was originally published in June 2005, two days after the plebiscite. A couple of days before, the French had rejected the European Constitution too. The British chairmanship permitted the treaty to die a quiet death.

The anti-European sentiments were investigated by a TV show called NOVA in the weeks before the plebiscite (“Political Barometer”). Several arguments appear to have played a role.

  1. People did not fully understand the complex text;
  2. It was unclear why it was necessary;
  3. The proposed system of voting by classified majority would reduce Dutch influence;
  4. Europe threatened the Dutch national identity.

Almost a year later, the last point still plays a role in the national debate. The first three factors have disappeared with the Constitution’s quiet death.

Neither during the campaign, nor in the autumn of 2005 and spring of 2006, did the financial aspect play an important role. However, Prime Minister Balkenende explained the Dutch ‘no’ as a purely financial matter. This argument did indeed play a role in the weeks after the plebiscite, when Mr. Balkenende had offered his interpretation of the mene tekel. However, this argument was never mentioned during the campaign, and disappeared from the debate in the autumn of 2006. On 5 May 2006, the results were published of an E.U. poll, which showed that the financial matters were a reason for complaint for only 15% of the Dutch citizens.

The Dutch ministers have a serious problem. They are unable to listen to the voters, and when a ‘no’ becomes so loud that they can no longer ignore it, they create an explanation that convinces only themselves.

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