Voor of tegen Europa? Wat een onzin

Iedereen die verder kijkt dan ideologische vereenvoudigingen van de werkelijkheid zal moeten bekennen dat de EU niet alleen veel voordelen heeft gebracht voor veel (maar niet alle) inwoners van de lidstaten, maar ook heel veel nog onopgeloste problemen heeft veroorzaakt. De invoering van de Euro – een politiek gemotiveerd maar economisch weinig doordacht experiment – heeft bijvoorbeeld heel veel ellende gebracht voor mensen in landen als Griekenland en Spanje. In de Europese verkiezingen heb ik D66 gestemd, een partij die de noodzaak van goede Europese samenwerking in het vaandel heeft geschreven. Toch heb ik me nogal geërgerd aan de verkiezingsleus “Vóór Europa!”. Daarmee spiegelt deze partij met een even simplistische leus de simplistische leuzen van de rechtse of linkse populisten, allerlei variates op “Tegen Europa!”: de SP met “Laat Brussel niet de Baas zijn” en de Nexit-leuzen van Wilders.

Als we de slogans van de politici willen geloven, gaat het er dus om vóór of tegen Europa te zijn. Maar wat betekent dat eigenlijk, voor of tegen Europa zijn? Ik zou het niet weten. Ook ik ben niet enthousiast over alles wat er in Brussel gebeurt, maar een Europa zonder EU lijkt me een heel gevaarlijk scenario. Als we de EU slopen, dan is er nog steeds een Europa, hoe zeer wij ook “tegen Europa” zijn. En ik vermoed dat dit Europa armer, gevaarlijker en onrechtvaardiger zal zijn dan het huidige Europa. Toen ik onlangs het hokje D66 met mijn potlood rood maakte, was dat niet omdat ik zo enthousiast ben over Europa. Dat ben ik echt niet, maar dat is geen reden om voor de Europese zelfmoord met PVV, SP en Forum voor Democratie te kiezen.



The Brexit Mess is in the UK’s political genes

Brexit Negotiation Errors

A Harvard Professor

In December 2018, Deepak Malhotra, a Harvard Business professor and expert on negotiation, wrote an interesting article in the New York Times opinion section: “I’m an expert on Negotations and I Have Some Advice for Theresa May”. He quoted his own article, written in 2016 not long after the Brexit Referendum, in which he addressed basic negotation errors and predicted what could happen next as a result:

“The EU might come to the conclusion that since any deal is going to fall short of the extreme promises made in the UK, it is not worth giving any special concessions at all. I hate to say it, but this is precisely where we are today.” [1]

His prediction was 100% accurate. In his 2018 letter to the editor he addresses May’s basic negotation errors: ignoring the ‘red lines’of her negotiations counterpart and “her refusal to manage expectations from the beginning”. Rather optimistically Malhotra concludes: “It may not be too late for the prime minister to rescue the negotiation process. But to do so, she must first stop negotiating like an agent and start negotiating like a mediator.” [1]

Winning is the Game – Losing is the Result

I tend to fully agree with Malhotra on this conclusion, but only on one condition: it only makes sense in case May and her government really want to negotiate based on a clear understanding of the need for negotiating. I am afraid this understanding is completely absent. Nothing in the development between the 2016 referendum and today is pointing at even the slightest sign of a willingness to negotiate. All the games point at one thing: winning. May has been fighting on many fronts: UK versus EU, Conservatives against Labour, May against hardliner Brexiteers, May against her Ministers and finally Government against Parliament. She has lost 99% of all fights, but still it is difficult to discover any real trend towards negotiation and consensus building.

My Dissertation (1987): I could not believe what I heard

Of course this is nothing unexpected. Reading about the unbelievable Brexit tragedy, I had to think about my dissertation (1987) for which I studied policy processes in both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It was about the formation of energy policy, the use of technical and economic information and styles of negotiation. After studying our Dutch debates on nuclear energy, energy saving and low energy scenarios, I took the ferry to Harwich and travelled through the UK to interview key people in policy debates and policy formulation during the early 1980s. The questions in the UK policy debate were not too different from the questions discussed in the Netherlands. My ‘zero hypothesis’ for my UK interviews was that I would find processes in the UK similar to those in the Netherlands. No hypothesis could have been more naïve. In many interviews, I could not believe what I was hearing. Whereas in the Dutch debates there were continuous attempts at bridging divergent views and interpretations, the UK landscape of positions remained fragmented. In the Netherlands, relevant minority positions were taken seriously. In the UK, minority positions simply lost against majority positions.

British Style Majority Rule

In my dissertation, I wrote about the forecasts in the low energy debate:

“The British style in the low-energy debate caused a relatively fast institutinal reassessment of energy forecasts. … .. …. (T)he debate was highly effective. It could be effective because it did not entail extensive negotiation procedures involving powerful minorities, such as were seen in the Netherlands and in Western Germany. In this respect, the energy forecasting case is just an example of the effectiveness of majority rule politics versus the time-consuming procedures in countries which organize their political decision making on the basis of the proportionality principle.
On a different level however, this British style may prove highly ineffective, as it does not solve any of the underlying societal conflicts.” [2]

Negotiation Skills Deficiency Genes

Today, 32 years after I defended my dissertation, not too much has changed in the UK policy tradition. Governing by simple majorities is still in the UK’s political genes. It may still work in certain situations to a certain extent, but its limits are becoming painfully visible, not only because of the gradual breakdown of the UK two party system and the imminent crisis in the conservative party. Governing by simple majorities was not any realistic option after the Government lost its majority in parliament after May failed to win the 2017 elections, which were meant to strengthen her political basis.

Majority rule politics does not provide solutions for the UK’s complex policy issues today that intrinsically require superior negotiation skills, including skills for creating majorities in an increasingly fragmented political landscape. Such skills are scarce among the current elite.

Moreover, in the area of trade relations, skills that may have existed before the UK joined the EU are completely gone.  At the time of the Brexit decision, the UK did not have any trade negotiator. Already in 2017, the Norwegian prime minister said:

“We do feel that sometimes when we are discussing with Britain, that their speed is limited by the fact that it is such a long time since they have negotiated.” [3]

The UK has a political culture that does not foster negotiation skills. The present political elite is therefore completely incompetent to deal with their huge tasks ahead. In principle, the problem could be solved by sending all top politicians to a 10 day course with professor Malhotra at Harvard. But so long as the absence of elementary negotiation skills is not being recognized as a problem, this will remain sheer phantasy.

May 24: Exit May

Finally on May 24, May announced her exit. It was not surprise at all. Another scenario would not have been possible. It was clear from the outset, on the basis of a very small set of parameters that her strategy was bound to fail. In her own party, she did not have any majority of any plan that could have been accepted by other parties that were essential to create a majority. By moving into the direction of the radical Brexiteers, she would lose support from Labour and others. By moving into the direction of less radical voices in Labour and elsewhere, she would lose support in her own party. There was no other scenario possible. She should have resigned right after the 2017 elections or she should have chosen a completely different role from that moment on, a mediating role (see above) in which all responsibilities for the outcome of the negotations should have been transferred to the political parties. But,  in the UK context, this may be a far-fetched illusion.


[1] Deepak Malhotra, I’m an Expert on Negotiations, and I Have Some Advice for Theresa May. Maybe there’s still hope. NYT 20 Dec. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/opinion/brexit-theresa-may-negotiations.html

[2] R. de Man, Energy Forecasting and the Organization of the Policy Process, Disertation, Amsterdam 1987  https://rdeman.nl/oldsite/download/dissertatie1.pdf

[3] Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg says long membership of EU has left Britain without key skills for successful trade talks. The Guardian, 5 Jan. 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/05/uks-lack-of-negotiating-experience-may-lead-to-very-hard-brexit


Onze eerste Etrog

Wat heeft u ermee gemaakt??

Wij hebben een bio-groentenabonnement. Dat wil zeggen dat elke donderdag een grijze bestelbus de straat in komt rijden. De bestuurder zet dan een papieren zak voor onze deur, belt kort aan en rijdt meteen weer weg. Hij lijkt niet geïnteresseerd te zijn in onze reacties, hoewel die soms best de moeite waard zijn. De laatste keer zat er een veel te grote langwerpige bleke citroen in de bruine zak. Op het begeleidende schrijven stond dat ik een ‘cedar’ had gekregen, maar ik vond geen duidelijke beschrijving op internet. Dus de bio-boer uit Katwijk maar even een foto gemaild met de intelligente vraag “Wat is dit nu?”. Het keurige antwoord bevatte de voor mij al bekende maar nog steeds onbegrijpelijke informatie “Je hebt een cedar ontvangen.”

Een rare citroen ….

Gelukkig zat er een bijlage bij de e-mail, waarin stond dat het om een etrog ging, een verre voorouder van de citroen. De vrucht bestaat voornamelijk uit schil, maar gelukkig schijn je daarmee van alles te kunnen doen. Stukjes schil met olijfolie in de salade was één suggestie. Onze leverancier leek het ook niet allemaal zo precies te weten. Anders had die niet het volgende verzoek meegestuurd: Wellicht dat u ons nog een berichtje wilt sturen over wat u ermee gemaakt heeft en uw ervaring.

Het voelde een beetje alsof je een fiets koopt en de fietsenmaker stuurt je een mailtje: Wij zijn benieuwd wat u eigenlijk met die Gazelle bent gaan doen.


Zwaaien met lulav en etrog

Het zoekwoord “Etrog” gaf ons meer aanknopingspunten dan het woord “cedar”. Na een half uurtje zoeken op websites en youtube-filmpjes kwamen we in de wonderlijke wereld van Joodse rituelen terecht.

Lulav en etrog

De Etrog speelt een belangrijke rol in de rituelen van het Loofhuttenfeest (Soekot). Een belangrijk element daarvan is het zwaaien met de lulav en de etrog, symbolen van de oogst. De lulav is een palmblad, waaraan twee stel andere takken zijn bevestigd, twee wilgentakken en drie takken van de myrthe. De lulav wordt in de rechterhand en de etrog in de linkerhand gehouden, waarbij ze elkaar moeten raken. De lulav wordt tijdens het ritueel in zes richtingen bewogen in de juiste volgorde: naar voren, naar rechts, naar achteren, naar links, naar boven en naar onderen.

Deze kost wel 1000 dollar!

Er worden hoge eisen gesteld aan de kwaliteit van een koshere etrog: hij moet niet alleen van een echte etrogplant afkomstig zijn (herkenbaar aan de vorm van de vrucht, het steeltje en de zaden), hij moet ook mooi en helemaal gaaf zijn. Voor een perfecte etrog wordt in de Verenigde Staten duizend dollar neergeteld. Een niet perfecte maar nog acceptabele etrog krijg je wel voor minder, voor 40 tot 150 dollar.

Een heerlijke cake


De cake en wat er van de etrog overbleef

Als de etrog zijn rituele functie heeft vervuld, kan hij nog nuttig zijn in de keuken. De meeste etrog-recepten staan op Joodse websites onder titels als “wat doen we met de etrog na Soekot?”. Onze etrog had waarschijnlijk de test voor ritueel gebruik niet kunnen doorstaan, maar het was wel een echte etrog voor keukengebruik. Van de website http://www.joyofkosher.com haalde Petra een uitstekend recept voor een cake waarin geraspte etrog-schil en etrog-sap wordt verwerkt. Het grootste deel van de vrucht – vruchtvlees, pitten, het meeste van de schil – belandde gewoon in de vuilnisbak. Het resultaat viel zeker niet tegen. De cake was heerlijk. Een smakelijk bijproduct van het Joodse feest dat wij niet gevierd hadden op basis van een rare vrucht uit ons groentenpakket. Zoiets verzin je niet.


Smakelijk eten!



De Kievit – het verst in biologisch

Wie ook in een biologisch groentenpakket is geïnteresseerd verwijs ik naar de website van De Kievit.

Bullet Point Stammering – the verb as endangered species

People, Planet, Profit and more simplifications

Ask a manager in the corporate social reponsibility department (CSR) of a large corporation a few questions and you will get something like the following answers. Question: “What is CSR all about?” Answer:  building corporate trust capital,  managing public risk issues, issue-based stakeholder management, value-based communication!”, probably with a few more exclamation signs. Now that we know what CSR means, we then ask: “What actually do you mean by sustainability?”. The manager will probably try to inform you about the most essential building blocks of sustainability and say: “Planet, People, Profit”. Maybe that sounds a bit vague to you and you ask: “Can you explain a bit more? I don’t have a clue what you are talking about!”. He may then try to clarify his PPP formula  by adding: “The company’s sweet spot in the triangle of economic, social and ecological values.” Similar conversations can be held about any interesting subject, for example about biodiversity. “What is important for protecting biodiversity?”. The biodiversity manager or public servant, if he speaks Dutch, may try to impress you by shouting: “It is about the three centrally important Vs: “Veiligheid, Voortplanting en Voedsel” (safety, reproduction and food). Complex realities are easily reduced to a small number of single words.

The absence of verbs

I have been presenting at many congresses, workshops and trainings and every time I am struck by the absence of verbs in answers to my questions. For example, I ask something about the climate problem and I am bombarded by lists of words like: 1.5 degrees, CO2 emissions, IPCC models, tradeable certificates, reduction and adaptation strategies. People talk in bullet-point lists and almost  never I hear a sentence like  “the continued emission of X billion tons of CO2 is most probably leading to an average temperature increase of y degrees Celsius, leading to the following damage to the economy, etc.”

PowerPoint Poverty

Lazy Presentations

We should not blame our audience too much for their poor language, as we, the consultants, experts, gurus and facilitators, are continuously teaching in that sort of terrible language. Instead of using the strength of our language (in terms of richness in words, grammatical constructions, etc.) to evoke lively pictures of what mean, we use boring pictures and poor language in our poor PowerPoint presentations. We often prepare PowerPoints before we have a clue what we want to say and how we want to say it instead of preparing a good speech and then decide how we could possibly use a PowerPoint of a Pretzi to support our argument.

Disastrous Dogmas

Current PowerPoint culture is based on a small number of disastrous dogmas, such as:

  1. Pictures always tell more than text.
  2. Never use more than three of four lines of text on a slide. Never use a slide with text only.
  3. Complete sentences on a PowerPoint sheet can never work. Use bullet-points.

There are many contexts where such rules do make sense, but as a dogma they lead us exactly into the wrong direction. It is certainly true that pictures often tell more than text. They easily appeal to emotions and if that is what you want, use them. But they are also a perfect instrument for evoking emotions that we do not want or for telling lies. Language provides for logical tools that pictures can’t (see also my earlier blog, in German). The advice not to use too much text makes sense, but there are certainly issues for which texts, spoken or written, cannot be missed. Sometimes we do need longer texts.

Stripping the Verbs

misleading simplicity

The third advice is the most dangerous one. It strips verbs from sentences. When we do that, we do not realise that the verb is often the most important word in a sentence. It just cannot be missed.

Compare a triangle with “economic, social and ecological” at the corners and “sustainability” in the middle to the following sentence:

text only – needed for serious discussion

“we call an economic activity sustainable if that activity is not only creating economic and social value the society, but does not harm the ecological system on which the longer term viability of that economic activity eventually depends.”

If you really want to explain “sustainability”, use one slide with only this longer text and, if this helps, some sort of triangle as a background. As the example pictures on this page show, the text version looks, at first sight, more boring, but is much more useful for explaining the issue.

Misleading simplicity

By using the triangle instead of the text version, we can easily allow for conclusions that are logically invalid. Pictures can free us from the discipline of logic. A common, but false, interpretation of sustainability is that it is about finding an equilibrium between social, economic and ecological goals. The triangle suggests that we can trade a bit more economy against a bit less ecology. That is wrong: keeping well-functioning ecosystems is a condition for generating economic and social values. By drawing a triangle, we are visually suggesting that the three elements are equal, but logically they aren’t.

The Verb – an endangered species

In principle, there is nothing wrong with use bullet point lists or simple triangles, but if the list (or the triangle) is the only element the reader (and the presenter!) is eventually able to memorise, we create people who not only write bullet-point language, but also speak bullet-point, and think in terms of bullet-points.

This is not weird theory. This is reality. Many people I meet perfectly know, for example, the bullet points People/Profit/Planet, but do not have a clue how these connect to each other. They know the building blocks, but they do not have the glue – the verbs – to connect them.

Perhaps we need a new Charity: the Society for the Protection of the Endangered Verb.



In an earlier publication, I wrote about the limitations of visual communication. I wrote (in German):

….  fragte sich: „Was können Bilder, was Wörter nicht können?“. Seine Schlussfolgerungen hätten ein wenig anders ausgesehen, wenn er auch eine zweite Frage gestellt hätte: „Was können Wörter, was Bilder nicht können?“ Dann hätte er vielleicht die Gefahren einer rein auf (emotional ansprechenden) Bildern stützenden Definition der Wirklichkeit entdeckt.


… asked: “What can we express by pictures that cannot be expressed by words?”. His conclusion would have looked a bit different if he had asked a second question as well: “What can be expressed by words that cannot be expressed by pictures?” In that case he might have discovered the dangers of defining reality only on the basis of emotionally attractive pictures.

Finding Happiness – Losing Control

Finding your passion …

For many people today, it’s not enough to say that they like or love something. About things that are really important, you should be passionate. They should be your passion. Apart from the fact that I am not familiar with that sort of language, I ask myself: what could it possibly mean to be passionate or to have found your passion. A short google exercise reveals that many people think that knowing and practicing your passions is key to a rewarding life. Many confessions suggest how life after discovering the power of passions has made a qualitative turn for the better. “Too many people live lives of quiet desperation not understanding what their passion is.”  “Almost three decades of my life had passed before I discovered the power of passions.”   It is often assumed that “passion” is something hiding deep in your inner self, waiting to be discovered. There are entire websites devoted to ‘discovering your passion’  or even to discover that you are pursuing ‘passions’ that appear to be no passions at all.

Passions of the authentic self …

I could fill more than twenty pages with quotes like this: “Your passions can only be uncovered from your own unique story. There are things inside of you that you may have not tapped into yet because of fear. It’s scary because when you find your passion, it pushes your limits and calls you out to levels you thought you were never capable of reaching.”

The popular idea is that passions are the expression of deep desires of the authentic self, often still  blocked by fears or conventions, ready to be freed by a mixture of honesty and courage. The message is: deep inside you have tons of unrealised potential to become the person you deserve to be and develop amazing insights and skills  you have long only dreamed about. The remarkable thing is that following or developing your passions is mainly a question of letting go: removing the blockades that have been making your life mediocre or even miserable. This should not be a surprise, as passion literally  means: being passive.

Spinoza:  ‘agere’ and ‘pati’

Many people today use the word ‘passion’ to show how they follow their deepest desires and try to be their most authentic self. However, ‘passion’ still is the opposite of ‘action’. Our great Dutch philosopher Spinoza formulated this nicely in his Ethica. In the Latin language, the difference is between agere (to act) and pati (to suffer).

“I say that we take action [agere] when something comes to pass, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause, that is, when something in us or outside us follows from our nature, which can be clearly and distinctly understood through it alone. On the other hand, I say that we suffer [pati] when something comes to pass in us, or something follows from our nature, of which we are only a partial cause.”
from http://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3599&context=gradschool_dissertations

Passionate people, passive people

In personnel recruitment advertising, the word “passion” is a fixed ingredient: “Is Inspiring Transformation for Businesses one of Your Passions? If so, learn how you can earn substantial income as a certified Passion Test for Business Consultant.”  It’s part of the empty business language on corporate websites:  “We are … …. To us, growth is more than a target. It’s a passion.”

The modern use of ‘passion’ appears to deny Spinoza’s clear distinction between ‘take action’ (agere)  and ‘suffer’ (pati) or ‘be passive’. People who blindly follow the (irrational) impulses of their passions are not active at all. They surrender to forces they hardly understand. If Spinoza were still alive, he would be very surprised (and worried) about the ubiquitous enthusiasm for suffering instead of taking action. He would be very surprised when hearing someone say: “violin playing is my passion”. Maybe he would say: “Do I understand well that you are not playing the violin, but that the violin is playing you?”. The same with: “Being a PWC Cyber Security consultant, is my passion”.  “Have you been converted into a PWC slave now that your work has become your passion?”.

Take reponsibility. Be active …

I don’t have the illusion that the fashionable use of the word “passion” can be eradicated. Nevertheless, it could be useful for many people to realise that, not only in the original meaning as elucidated by Spinoza, but also in its vulgarised disguise as used by amateur psychologists and management gurus, ‘passion’ means ‘being passive’ or even ‘avoiding responsibility’. Perhaps some people will change their language from “my passion is playing the violin”, into “I am working like hell to master this extremely difficult instrument.”