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Donner warns against a weak European Union

The refugee crisis and terror threats call for better European cooperation, was the message from Piet Hein Donner in his Cleveringa lecture on 26 November in the Academy Building. ‘Opting for an open and pluriform community takes courage.’

How to go forward after the Paris attacks

'What do we think is normal behaviour in our society? When our norms are violated, do we then go for closed borders and treating foreigners with suspicion?’ Donner, Vice-President of the Dutch Council of State, referred in his lecture to the message expressed by Professor Cleveringa in his protest lecture. Precisely 75 years ago on the very same spot in the Academy Building Cleveringa protested against the dismissal of his Jewish colleagues. The Dean of Law said: ‘We hoped we might have been spared this.’ Donner recalled that Cleveringa was warning his listeners against blindly accepting disturbing developments. After the attacks in Paris, we are again faced with the question of how to deal with extremely worrying developments.

EU in danger

Over the past 70 years we have anchored freedom, justice and responsibility in a European legal order within a context of intensive European cooperation. This cooperation is now under threat from growing resistance, for example against the approach taken to the Greek debt crisis and the influx of refugees, Donner explained. The image of a powerless Europe is dangerous because it undermines European cooperation in protecting freedom, justice and responsibility. Both the Union as a joint body and the individual member states will lack power at a point in time when we really need it.

Member states weaker

Donner believes it is dangerous for member states to assume they have more influence outside the EU than inside. The unifying capability of national states has, in his view, diminished over recent decades. Increasing digitisation and internationalisation mean that national borders are becoming blurred. At the same time, some countries, like Scotland and Belgium, seem to be working towards a division or split.

Winners and losers

Left, the daughter of Rudolph Cleveringa. Right, the procession headed by Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker with Piet Hein Donner immediately behind him. In the audience is Jan-Peter Balkenende, former President of the Netherlands.
Left, the daughter of Rudolph Cleveringa. Right, the procession headed by Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker with Piet Hein Donner immediately behind him. In the audience is Jan-Peter Balkenende, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

Reverting to a system of more autonomous national states within the EU or withdrawing altogether is, in Donner’s opinion, not the solution for issues currently facing society. The Cleveringa professor warns that more autonomy will weaken the possibilities for presenting an adequate response to present-day problems. The approach to the refugee crisis is just one example of such issues. The fierce debate about the EU – that is often presented as a choice between leaving or giving the EU even greater powers – simply polarises the different parties. That approach is based on an assumption that there are winners and losers. 

Challenges of the modern state

Donner explained his view that a ‘win-lose' debate fails to recognise the unique, cooperative nature of European collaboration and the opportunities that this brings with it. This cooperation stands or falls with the self-control and goodwill of the individual states because these are the only option if the member states and the Union want to find shared solutions to the challenges of the modern state; challenges such as how diversity and unity can exist side by side.

It takes courage

A large contingent of students also attended the lecture.
A large contingent of students also attended the lecture.

Donner concluded that the choices we make in the aftermath of Paris are crucial. ‘Do we opt for the reality of fear, suspicion and increasing exclusion? Or do we hold on to the normality of an open society, a pluriform community and mutual trust?’ This was the choice facing Cleveringa when he delivered his protest speech 75 years ago. Cleveringa opted for the latter. That took courage, and courage is what is being asked of our citizens again today, Donner told his audience.

(26 november 2015 - LvP/photography: Monique Shaw)

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The Dean of the Law Faculty Rudolph Cleveringa was arrested on the day after he gave his lecture. This led to a strike and the University was closed down. After the war, Cleveringa and his Jewish tutor Eduard Meijers returned to the University. The Cleveringa chair is a one-year professorship; the holder engages with issues in the area of justice, freedom and responsibility.

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