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Michiel and Jort: best friends, political rivals

With the Dutch general elections just around the corner, it’s not always easy when political differences exist within your circle of friends. How do you not lose sight of each other in political discussions? We asked best friends Jort Schaafsma and Michiel van der Velde, both students at Leiden Law School. Jort: 'If this was the Cold War, you'd be a capitalist and I'd be a communist.'

Are you following the elections?

Michiel: ‘My day always starts with first checking the news: NOS, the Financieele Dagblad, the Volkskrant. And I also like watching some of the debates between the party leaders.’

Jort: ‘I like reading the news, but sometimes I get the idea it’s all about clickbait, just focused on popularity. I prefer to read the Groene Amsterdammer or the Correspondent: well-written, balanced background information.’

And the debates?

Jort: ‘They’re entertaining. But, of course, they’re also just political games’.

Michiel: ‘These political games are inherent in our current system and the elections, but if you look beyond the content, I think it’s entertaining. You have to read between the lines. With these elections, it’s good to see how politicians want to connect and find common ground.’

Jort: ‘Yes, I thought you’d like that. But you don’t gain much from it. They make these big promises and then I often think: yes, but show us the results first.’

How do you see yourself on the political spectrum?

Michiel: ‘I’m a progressive liberal.’

Jort: ‘Hm … let me think? An attic socialist? No, that’s something else …’

Michiel: ‘If I were to describe you, I’d say you were an ideologist’.

Jort: ‘Yes, that sounds right! Put it like this: if this was the Cold War, you’d be a capitalist and I’d be a communist.’

What’s your stance in these elections? What are the key themes for you?

Jort: ‘For me, climate is top priority. I’m also active at Extinction Rebellion (XR). You see that on the one hand it’s taken seriously, but then time and again also put to one side – “cause we all want to keep having barbeques”. We need to take a much more serious approach to this problem. One of XR’s demands is that the government is transparent. What can we expect worldwide, in the Netherlands, in villages and cities? And what are reasonable steps to achieve our goals? Drastic measures are what is needed. And then I think, how can politicians be so short-sighted that they keep putting this off?’

Jort Schaafsma (left) and Michiel van der Velde (right)

Would you call yourself radical?

Jort, laughing: ‘Well, what’s radical? You know what was once radical? Women’s suffrage. Abolishing slavery was once radical.’

Michiel: ‘That’s all very well Jort, but you have to put it in today’s perspective, don’t you?’

Jort: ‘Well … But would you say those were bad choices in retrospect? If you think radical is “striving for radical changes”, then yes, I think that’s what is needed right now.’

Michiel: ‘Jort, let me first say I agree with you that we are on a “sinking ship” as far as the state of the Earth's climate is concerned. But the way to approach this issue is where I don't always agree with you. I believe you need to create support first. Politicians can take very drastic measures now, but if only 5% of the population support them and everything around them collapses as a result, that measure will only be short-lived. If you solve problems like polarisation and distrust in politics, I think support for taking climate measures, for instance, will automatically emerge'.

Do you trust politicians?

Michiel: ‘Certainly. I agree with Jort’s feeling that lots of promises are made, but that’s all part of the elections and helps voters to make a distinction between the parties. You can then create support for realistic changes.’

And you, Jort?

Jort laughs: ‘There’s no simple answer to that question. I do have faith in certain politicians, but if you look at the overall picture, you see that there has been an incredible amount of lobbying going on over the past decades on “interests” which in my view shouldn’t count in politics. That’s damaged my trust.’

Michiel: ‘I think it’s a great pity that many people have lost faith in the politicians in The Hague. It undermines democracy. That only works if you can trust that all those involved in politics do so with the conviction that they want what is best for the country.’

Jort: ‘The single fact that a person wants what’s best for the country doesn’t mean they have my faith. That’s surely something you have to prove?’

Michiel: ‘I think you can trust a person without agreeing with all their views ... I have faith in you as a person, but sometimes when it comes to the views you hold, I think, that’s not such a good idea. But I do trust you.’

Jort: ‘Okay, but would you trust me with the country? That’s an interesting question. Would you trust me if I was a minister? Would you then say, he’s a great guy, I know he’ll do the right thing.’

Michiel: ‘…’

Jort: ‘You trust me as a person, that’s something quite different. Of course, I’m not saying that all ministers in the past decade are bad people. It’s about faith in governing the country. That’s quite a responsibility, and one that must be properly fulfilled. And I’ve seen many instances when that didn’t happen. So yes, in the end, you then lose my trust.’

It’s clear you don’t agree on this, do you often have discussions like this?

Michiel: ‘Definitely. And sometimes tensions run high, especially with Jort. But that’s because he’s passionate about certain topics, whereas I’m less so. Maybe that explains why I’m more positive when reading the news.’

How do you make sure you still get on with each other?

Jort: ‘We’re both reasonably tolerant. So I separate the discussion from the person. It’s not going to help you if you reject a person because of their ideas. I think it’s really important to keep having discussions together.’

Michiel: ‘I learn the most from people who don’t agree with me. For one thing, I learn more about my own point of view and how to defend it, but I also learn far more about Jort’s views. So, we both learn from each other.’

Text: Mireille van der Stoep

Photos: Iris Kamphuis

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