Rarely has the call for the resignation of a chairman of the House of Representatives been heard as loudly as in recent weeks. “Chairman”, said PVV Geert Wilders on October 4 in the plenary hall in the face of Vera Bergkamp. “I had expected that you yourself would have resigned in the past few days. It’s disappointing that you didn’t.” Last week the PVV tried to formally submit this wish. In vain, because the request received no support from other political groups.
Nevertheless, Bergkamp’s (D66) position was under extreme pressure for weeks. At the end of September leaked through NRC explains that the Presidium of the Chamber had unanimously decided to launch an external investigation into reports of an unsafe working environment under her predecessor Khadija Arib (PvdA). That led to a change in public opinion on the very day itself. It was not Arib’s performance that came into question, but Bergkamp’s.
A fierce reaction from Arib via Twitter gave the impetus. She qualified the decision of the House of Representatives to initiate the external investigation as ‘an ‘anonymous’, political stab in the back’. She demanded Bergkamp “a statement about this working method. This is at odds with due care and a socially safe working environment.”
Not much later, Arib announced that he wanted to step down after 24 years of parliamentary membership. At the end of last week, the entire official management team of the Chamber also resigned – including the clerk, the highest official.
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The state of affairs surrounding the proposed investigation into Arib is mainly attributed to Bergkamp as President of the House by part of the House. How is it possible that sensitive information discussed in the presidency was leaked? The executive board of the House of Representatives, which consists of eight MPs, is a politically neutral body. The deliberations are secret. Leaking from it is an official crime – Bergkamp has since filed a report at the request of the House and the National Criminal Investigation Department is investigating this.
And how could it be that Arib was not informed about the investigation into her at the end of September, but via a telephone call from NRC should have heard? Why do employees of the House of Representatives say, even openly now and then, that they still do not feel safe in their work? Why has this precarious process gone so carelessly so far? In short, where is the direction of chairman Bergkamp?
Doubt about election
Criticism of Vera Bergkamp is not new. She has been regularly under fire since the day she was elected, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. Her victory – with 74 votes she defeated her opponents Arib and PVV member Martin Bosma in the first round – was questioned by many. There would have been a silent agreement between the two largest factions in the Chamber, VVD and D66, to go for Bergkamp and not for the incumbent chairman Arib, who is popular in the Chamber. This as a means of exchange for keeping VVD leader Mark Rutte afloat. A week earlier he had come out of the debate politically battered about the way in which CDA MP Pieter Omtzigt (‘function elsewhere’) had been discussed in the formation.
D66 leader Sigrid Kaag should have acknowledged that she and Rutte had called Rutte about Bergkamp’s candidacy. “This case stinks,” concluded PVV member Gidi Markuszower. “You don’t want to be appointed this way, do you?”
Bergkamp has always denied the alleged political agreement. “It’s not right,” she repeated last summer in a long interview at Room for Discussion at the University of Amsterdam. “I have done everything in my life on my own.” She continued, she did suffer from “the political game that is being played on the other side”. The image that her victory has been punctured “still stuck. And so I have to work harder to brush away that image of ‘it must be’.”
None of her critics will deny that Bergkamp works harder, but that also did not go smoothly in the first year and a half of her presidency. It is precisely in the most visible part of her work, leading debates, that a lot goes wrong. In the current fragmented House of Representatives, there is a lot to do about polarization, the coarsening of the debate and personal attacks. Apart from criticism of MPs who behave in an ‘unparliamentary’ way, this criticism mainly applies to the chairman who derails debates.
During the recent General Political Reflections, Bergkamp only silenced FVD leader Thierry Baudet after the entire cabinet had risen demonstratively from Section K and left the Chamber.
Baudet had presented a conspiracy theory about the university education of Deputy Prime Minister Kaag; he referred to her as a former student at a “spy college” in Oxford. Bergkamp hesitated, initially did not intervene and finally decided to block Baudet from speaking after a suspension in which she consulted with Prime Minister Rutte behind the scenes. It led to a sneer from SGP leader Kees van der Staaij. “I believe it is important that the chairman determines the order and that the members of the cabinet do not determine what can or cannot be said by MPs.”
In January, the debate on the Government Declaration got out of hand after allegations by Geert Wilders against politicians with an Islamic background. Several party chairmen demanded that chairman Bergkamp intervene. “The chairman also has the opportunity to ask politicians here to take back their words,” said GroenLinks leader Jesse Klaver, for example. “And if they don’t, you can cut them off.” Bergkamp did not.
When she had to admit a little later that it was not about “undesirable qualifications from colleagues back and forth” but only from the mouth of Wilders, the PVV leader reacted precisely with that accusation that has bothered Bergkamp from the start. “You just take sides!”
Thanks to the often critical Chamber nestor Van der Staaij, Vera Bergkamp managed to win some credit with the Chamber this week and thus some air in the difficult Arib issue. Bergkamp temporarily chaired the scheduled meeting of the Commission for the working method by the SGP leader. The previous meeting, where ‘Arib’ was on the agenda, had completely derailed under Bergkamp’s leadership. Van der Staaij led this meeting businesslike and skillfully – with a clever trick he managed to neutralize Bergkamp’s biggest critic. PVV member Markuszower was not the first to speak, while he had reported for it, but last.
With the exception of the PVV, Bergkamp eventually received widespread support for the way in which the presidium wants to have the external investigation into Arib carried out. The House does want the researchers to also look at how members of the then presidium dealt with alarming signals from House employees about Khadija Arib’s management style. Vera Bergkamp was also a member of this committee at that time.
Bergkamp sometimes seems to take criticism from MPs to heart. In the interview with Room for Discussion, she described the role of Chamber President as “the referee who stands above the parties”. That metaphor came from the mouth of Pieter Omtzigt in the derailed debate about the Government Declaration. But in a slightly different context. “If a referee at the football game constantly says ‘poo, foo, you are not allowed to step on the ankles’, but does not intervene with yellow and red cards, nothing will happen. That is what you are doing.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of November 19, 2022