“We should do whatever it takes to protect our democracies!”
Christian Democrat Wopke Hoekstra (47) has held the office of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands since January 2022. He was previously Minister of Finance in the third Rutte cabinet. Sven Lilienström, founder of the Faces of Democracy Initiative, spoke with Wopke Hoekstra about democracy, fake news and the radicalization of right-wing groups in the Netherlands.
Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you so much for making time for this interview. The very first thing we would like to ask you is: How significant are democracy and democratic values to you personally?
Wopke Hoekstra: Democracy forms the very foundation upon which the freedoms, rule of law and prosperity that we know are built.
Democracy as we know it is under attack. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is part of a broader reality that will remain for years!
But democracy as we know it is under attack. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is part of a broader reality that will remain for years, perhaps decades to come. Our way of life, our view of the world, our view of peace, security, civil rights, democracy, free press, and multilateral institutions have been fundamentally contested for several years now. We are dealing with a situation in which the question arises whether we accept that human rights are being watered down, or whether we believe that they are universal and should always apply.
I am convinced that we should do whatever it takes to protect our democracies, as it is at the very core of all we believe in.
Essentially, it is about what we think the 21st century should look like. Which values should predominate. As we can see around the world, maintaining and defending democratic systems requires continuous hard work, at home and abroad. Especially now in Europe, the importance of actively defending our democracies is all the clearer, now that they are under threat. I am convinced that we should do whatever it takes to protect our democracies, as it is at the very core of all we believe in.
According to the Democracy Index 2021, ten of the twenty top democracies are parliamentary monarchies. This next question may appear somewhat provocative: Are parliamentary monarchies – as in the Netherlands – “better” democracies?
Wopke Hoekstra: Every democracy builds its system in a way that fits its peoples’ history and society. What truly matters in that regard is that decision makers are chosen through free and open elections. This is the essential backbone of any democracy. Next to that, a well-functioning democracy also needs solid institutional checks and balances. It needs to be a system that serves its people.
US President Joe Biden recently warned that the future of democracy is at risk. What shape is US democracy in? To what extent does the state of democracy in America represent a barometer for Europe?
Wopke Hoekstra: All democracies, including our own and the US’s, face internal and external pressure on their system and values. For example, the public sphere has to respond and adjust continuously to matters such as the increasing availability of information, social media, rising populism and authoritarianism, and the lingering effects of the pandemic. Within that context of ongoing change, it is important that we continue demonstrating how transparent and accountable governance remains the best way to deliver lasting prosperity, peace and justice. The trans-Atlantic cooperation between the Netherlands and the United States in that regard is very strong.
All democracies, including our own and the US’s, face internal and external pressure on their system and values!
To address these challenges, we are co-hosting the second edition of the Summit for Democracy together with the with the governments of the United States, Costa Rica, the Republic of Korea, and the Republic of Zambia. Building on the first Summit for Democracy held in December 2021, this gathering will discuss how democracies deliver for their citizens and are best equipped to address the world’s most pressing challenges.
The Netherlands was the first EU country to order China to close its overseas police stations with “immediate effect”. How important is a firm reaction as a message directed to the Chinese leadership?
Wopke Hoekstra: It is indeed important to be firm when our sovereignty is concerned.
We have rules about what governments can or cannot do in our country and those rules apply to everyone!
We have rules about what governments can or cannot do in our country and those rules apply to everyone. According to the Chinese authorities, these so-called overseas police service stations offered Chinese administrative and consular services on behalf of Chinese local authorities. Those services would be considered consular services and require explicit consent by the Netherlands as host nation. As no such request had been made, the stations had no right to operate here. The Chinese embassy has by now confirmed that the centers have been closed.
Keyword “fake news”: The rise of populism is closely linked to the term “fake news”. However, the targeted spread of disinformation already existed before the age of social media. Do you think that lies can be considered part of democracy?
Wopke Hoekstra: Conflicting opinions are inherently part of the political debate, or any other debate, in open and free societies. It is however important to stick to the facts.
Fake news as we know it today spreads through social media at a speed we have never seen before.
Fake news as we know it today spreads through social media at a speed we have never seen before. Moreover, algorithms stimulate that we only get to see those messages that confirm our opinions and beliefs, hindering an open discussion. This is of great concern to me, as it undermines trust in democratic institutions and our elected representatives.
I believe that we as politicians have a duty to respect facts – however uncomfortable they sometimes are!
Countering disinformation requires a joint effort from all actors involved, such as internet services, civil society organizations, and the media. I do believe there is a role here for citizens as well, to value the origin of the information they take in. And I believe that we as politicians have a duty to respect facts – however uncomfortable they sometimes are – and to discuss, based on these facts, the different political and ideological views on the way forward. Voters are smart. Ultimately, they will always reward those ideas that offer concrete solutions to real life problems.
The AIVD recently warned of the radicalization of right-wing groups in the Netherlands – the risk of terrorist acts perpetrated by the right-wing is growing and developing into a threat to democracy. Is your government doing enough to combat right-wing propaganda?
Wopke Hoekstra: Right-wing extremism, or indeed any extremism, is unacceptable. In the Netherlands, anyone can express criticism, concern or anger, but when the law is broken or when others are called to use violence or break the law in any way, we absolutely have to draw a hard line.
There is a certain mixture of right-wing extremism, conspiracy thinking and anti-government sentiment in the Netherlands.
That’s why this topic remains top of the agenda. The recent developments in Germany have once again proved the necessity for this. Although of a different order, there is a certain mixture of right-wing extremism, conspiracy thinking and anti-government sentiment in the Netherlands. This is also apparent from the most recent report from the National Coordinator for Security and Counterterrorism, the Terrorism Threat Assessment. We are monitoring the developments very closely and are continuously working on updating our strategies to combat extremism in any way.
Mr. Foreign Minister, our seventh question is always a personal one: How do you most like spending your leisure time and what goals have you set yourself for your term as Foreign Minister of the Netherlands?
Wopke Hoekstra: Challenges of the 21st century know no borders, and we live in a very different world than we used to. In this world, it is important to reduce strategic dependencies, strengthen ties with allies and also enter into new partnerships.
It is crucial that we continue to support Ukraine!
At the same time, it is crucial that we continue to support Ukraine. That we continue to assess where we can do more to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s aggression.
During my term as Minister of Foreign Affairs, I strive to do anything I can to contribute to developing long term answers for these challenges.
In short, there is a lot of work still laying ahead of us. During my term as Minister of Foreign Affairs, I strive to do anything I can to contribute to developing long term answers for these challenges. That requires perseverance and hard work. And to give my all and my best to that effort, it is also important that I sometimes take a break from work, take off that tie and spend time with my family, go for a run or read a good book.