Montesquieu Institute: from science to society

Background

On May 9th, 2007, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ronald Plasterk, and former Mayor of The Hague, Wim Deetman, opened the Montesquieu Institute in The Hague. Read more about the opening.

The idea to set up the Montesquieu Institute occurred in November 2005, when three university institutes in the Netherlands, stimulated by the ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the former chairperson of the VSNU (association of universities), E.M. d'Hondt LL.M., signed a cooperation agreement. These three university institutes focus explicitly on the political history in general and on the political history of the Parliament and the political parties in the Netherlands in particular.

The institutes are: the Centre for Parliamentary History (Dutch abbreviation CPG) in Nijmegen, the Documentation Centre for Dutch Political Parties (Dutch abbreviation DNPP) in Groningen, and the Parliamentary Documentation Centre (Dutch abbreviation PDC) in The Hague. In the meantime, Campus The Hague of Leiden University and the Capacity Group of Public Law of Maastricht University have joined the consortium.

1.

The social climate around the question of 'Europe'

There is a great deal of interest in 'the European question'. Developments such as the recent enlargement of the European Union, and the further enlargement planned for the future, bring new opportunities but also give rise to a certain degree of resistance in the original Member States. The decisive 'No' votes of the Netherlands and France in the referenda on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, despite the largely positive attitude taken by most political parties and non-government organizations in the run-up to the referenda, made it clear that the wide support for European cooperation traditionally displayed in both countries for many years was not so deep-rooted as had been thought.

Although the draft European Constitution was precisely intended to meet the criticism that had been expressed, and aimed at helping the European Union to function more effectively and democratically without imposing too many curbs on national identity, this message did not get across clearly to the majority of the Dutch and French population.

2.

The problem: a lack of accessible information that is regarded as reliable

Analysis of the results of the referendum has shown that the lack of accessible information that is regarded as reliable has fed distrust of the European ideal and scepticism concerning the European Constitution.

The lack of meaningful information had already weakened the alertness and inventiveness of politicians, the media and large parts of the business world and NGOs with respect to events in 'Europe'. This has caused chances to be missed unnecessarily while many people feel repeatedly under attack by initiatives from Brussels that had actually been announced long ago. All this has led to erosion of the support for European cooperation.

The referenda in France and the Netherlands have brought the constitutional development of an effective and democratic European level of government and its balanced integration in the parliamentary systems of the Member States to an impasse. The governments and parliaments concerned have not yet come up with a solution.

The academic world has also not yet been sufficiently alert and well-equipped to help to find a way out of the impasse. The European dimension still receives insufficient attention in many disciplines. This applies particularly to the field of parliamentary history, which is so important as a source of insights into the history of the creation of the constitutional state, the parliamentary system and democracy.

For example, little systematic attention has been paid so far to comparative study of the parliamentary systems of Europe, to study of the organs of the European Union, the integration of European decision-making in the national parliamentary systems and an independent historiography of the European parliamentary system. This is not just a matter where one or two countries are at fault: of the 25 European Member States, only a quarter have a centre for parliamentary history.

It is consequently extremely difficult to gain a good insight into the Parliamentary history and constitutional development of (the various countries of) Europe. Not only because in many cases these topics have not been studied at all; but also because if they have been studied it is often impossible to find details of the investigations because no central records are kept of studies in this field and their results. Hence, it is impossible to gain an overview of the current state of affairs and the historical development of such matters as:

  • the parliamentary system (one or two chambers, and the relations between them if there are two);
  • the legislative process;
  • the formal and informal tasks, authorities and rights of the various actors;
  • the role of political groups.

In addition, there is an urgent need to have ready access to the answers to a wide variety of very practical questions such as:

  • How does decision-making take place in the European Union?
  • Are the decision-making processes sufficiently democratic?
  • What actors play a role in the European field of forces?
  • What legislation and regulations has Europe enacted so far?
  • What are the results and side-effects of this?
  • What measures are currently under preparation in Brussels?
  • What stage are they at?
  • When is the best moment to influence the decision-making?
  • How is a given constitutional issue handled in the various countries of Europe?

For example, study of the implementability of best practices and the bottlenecks in this process is constantly hindered by the fact that the relevant information is often simply not available or is not comparable, is difficult to access or is out of date. Research in such fields thus often takes unnecessarily long quite apart from the extra costs and effort involved and as a consequence the research results are often not available in time to play a significant role in the decision-making.

3.

The solution: a multifunctional centre

Knowledge of parliamentary history, both of one's own country and at a European level, and comparative study of the way other national parliaments in Europe function, can make a fundamental contribution to the functioning of one's own parliament, with regard to both national and European issues. It can moreover improve the quality of legislation.

There is thus an urgent need for a centre aimed at both providing information regarded as reliable by its users and at carrying out research on national, European and comparative parliamentary history and constitutional development. The founding of a Centre for European Parliamentary History and Constitutional Development can meet this need by:

  • 1. 
    stimulating researchers to carry out in-depth and comparative research into the different parliamentary systems in Europe, the actors in these systems and the way these actors implement European decision-making in their own national systems;
  • 2. 
    provision of lifelong learning facilities for politicians, journalists, political assistants and students, allowing them to bring their knowledge up to date and keep it permanently up to date by short refresher courses, attractive events and electronic newsletters;
  • 3. 
    supporting research and teaching with the aid of an electronic knowledge exchange network that will make basic information, best practices, research formats, research data and research results permanently available and will provide tailor-made solutions for informing users of new developments; part of this information will also have to be made available in suitable formats adapted to use by other target groups such as administrators, the media, political assistants and the man in the street.