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Countervailing Power

April 27, 2021 by

A good politician isn’t necessarily a good writer, as a new book by Dutch parlementarian Pieter Omtzigt shows.

Omtzigt has become a symbol  in the Netherlands of the countervailing power of parliament against the government, mainly because of his tenacity to get to the bottom of things in an affair around childcare allowances in which hundreds, maybe thousands of citizens have been treated horrendously by several governmental institutions. In January 2021 the Dutch cabinet had to resign as a consequence.

Omtzigt sets the bar high with this book, but unfortunately he doesn’t meet his own standard. He claims that the rule of law has failed in the Netherlands, not only regarding the childcare allowances but also in other areas, and that therefore a new social contract is required. In his view this contract should repair the rule of law and restore trust between government and citizens.

The book seems to have been written in a hurry, without taking the time to think things through. It starts with an unbalanced interview with co-author Welmoed Vlieger that provides an incoherent mix of an overview of his career and his private life, focusing on some files without really getting to the core.

Consecutive chapters are about Europe, the abuse of economic models in the Netherlands and the childcare allowances affair. They all suffer from the same flaws. Omtzigt brings up some interesting observations, throws in some accusations and provides a few suggestions for improvements, without any of those elements coming to fruition. One small example: Omtzigt writes that citizens should participate more actively in the political debate in the EU. Nobody will disagree, but how to get there? One of his solutions is that the debate should be conducted in a common language. He doesn’t say which language and I don’t think the Germans, French, Italians and Spanish will readily agree with him. And even if all European debates would be in Dutch, I doubt they would draw millions of Omtzigt’s fellow citizens.

The book concludes with Omtzigt’s suggestions for a new social contract, including setting up a Constitutional Court (which the Netherlands doesn’t have yet), renewing the electoral system by introducing constituencies, less rotation of top civil servants, decreasing the use of economic models and making those models openly accessible. He may be right in some or even many of his suggestions but I find it hard to judge because his elaboration is rather sketchy. He definitely doesn’t provide a format for that new social contract.

I read this book as a cry for help of a parlementarian who has taken his job of controlling the government very seriously, worked very hard and diligently, really tried to understand his files, and whose life has become very difficult by keep rowing against the tide. Perhaps we would be blessed by having more Pieter Omtzigts in parliament but they should think twice before writing a book.

Pieter Omtzigt. Een nieuw sociaal contract. Prometheus, 2021