Blog by Brechje Hessing-Puts and David Rijks, clerks of the interparliamentary conferences: “Two chambers pulling out all the stops”

Six interparliamentary conferences held during the Netherlands’ Presidency of the European Union: hundreds of international parliamentarians united in the Knight’s Hall, a state-of-the art interactive multimedia system, prominent speakers, new approaches to debates and pertinent matters under discussion.

During the first six months of 2016, the States-General are showing what they are capable of since, over this period, the Netherlands is holding the Presidency of the European Union. First and foremost, the Presidency means that the Government is responsible for efficiently guiding negotiations in the Council of the European Union. A great many meetings are being held in Amsterdam as part of this process, but the Senate and House of Representatives are also organising meetings for fellow parliamentarians from the EU member states. Particularly now that a growing number of matters are arranged at European level, effective parliamentary scrutiny is playing a major role. And that is why it is essential that national parliaments in Europe join forces and work together to allow them to fulfil their supervisory role in relation to both their own government and sometimes ‘Brussels’ to the best of their ability. Uniting representatives of the individual European parliaments, discussing shared problems and exchanging information are all important elements of this process. As part of the parliamentary dimension of the EU Presidency, the Senate and House of Representatives are organising a total of six interparliamentary conferences.

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Challenge

As Secretary-Generals working from the various parliamentary organisations, we assume responsibility for the political and substantive preparations for these conferences, as well as seeing to the overall coordination of the conferences themselves. It is a rewarding if challenging task, since the Senate and House of Representatives have set ambitious targets for themselves. The conferences must focus on the themes that the Dutch parliament considers particularly pressing, such as the energy transition, human trafficking and the rule of law. The two chambers had also decided that the conferences should be both innovative and inspiring. Hence, not simply exchanging opinions, but encouraging as much interaction and discussion as possible.

In the months leading up to the EU Presidency, small groups of MPs and Senators worked together to define the structure and substance of the conferences. A ‘political preparation group’ was appointed for each conference, composed of members of the associated parliamentary committees. They drafted the detailed programmes, invited speakers to attend and presided over the conferences. Ultimate political responsibility for the parliamentary dimension of the EU Presidency is held by a steering committee, comprised of the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House, the Presidents of the European Affairs Committees and the Secretary-Generals of both chambers.

We can already look back on five successful conferences, with one last major conference to take place in June. There is certainly an element of relief that such a substantial undertaking is nearing completion. As with all large projects, there were many hurdles along the way. From intensive rounds of harmonisation between committees, individual MPs and Senators, the steering committee and officials of the House of Representatives to last minute changes to the programme, we have been kept on our toes. In contrast to the well-trodden paths within the committees, our role brings us directly into contact with both the Senate and House of Representatives – without having a clearly defined role or practice to fall back on. After all, the previous Dutch Presidency of the European Union was back in 2004. But when it comes down to it, it has been a fantastic project to be a part of. We have actually grown very attached to it.

Pulling out all the stops

What makes our role particularly unique is that we have worked with and been the mainstay for so many different people, many of whom we hardly knew prior to commencing the project. We have both been released from our normal responsibilities in relation to committees in the Senate and House of Representatives respectively, and each been able to focus completely on the preparations for three conferences. Colleagues from both chambers have also provided substantive support, for example by drafting memos outlining the contextual background. They have enthusiastically taken on an enormous amount of additional work, alongside their regular duties. The same applies to a large number of people from other areas of the parliamentary organisations, such as the Security Department, Communications Departments, Messenger Service and the Facilities Department.

In brief, everyone has gotten involved and our colleagues have been enormously willing to lend a hand. A true team spirit is permeating all parts of the organisation. However, involvement in organising our conferences also stretches beyond the walls of parliament. For example, we have also been able to rely on the support of students studying Facility Management at The Hague University of Applied Sciences during the conferences. This enables the students themselves to gain practical experience of working on a major event and they have served as parliament’s calling card, welcoming conference participants at partner hotels and to the Hall of Knights.

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Innovation

As Secretary-Generals, we hold ultimate responsibility for achieving the objective of the political preparation groups: to ensure that the conferences are relevant, innovative and inspiring. Discussions at such conferences usually proceed rather drearily, and after completing a form to be allowed to speak once during one part of the programme, it is common for participants to simply read out a statement. The political preparation groups were keen to stimulate mutual discussion and exchange wherever possible. And so far, we have been fairly successful in doing so. For example, during the Meeting of the Chairpersons of COSAC on 7 and 8 February, we organised an interactive panel discussion led by a moderator. As part of the conference addressing Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union on 17 February in Brussels, we held a ‘catch the eye’ debate. This was extremely successful and drew many positive reactions from the participants. Prior to the conference on Human Trafficking in the Digital Age, we organised a film evening and debate. During this evening, CNN journalist Leif Coorlim presented short films on the theme of human trafficking to stimulate discussion among the participants, while providing all attendees with a penetrating insight into the human face of the problem.

An enjoyable aspect of this project is that we have been able to suggest and implement lots of our own ideas. For example, we proposed the morning run – offering the participants of some conferences the opportunity to meet for a 5km jog through the centre of The Hague before the start of the conference. This is the first time that such an event has been organised and, so far, the concept has been received extremely enthusiastically by participants. We also organised a separate meeting for the officials assisting the participating parliamentarians, in order to strengthen ties and networks with colleagues in other member states.

One more time

We now have just one more conference before us: the plenary COSAC conference on 12, 13 and 14 June 2016. Past results naturally provide no guarantee of future success, but with the strong team spirit and experience in the two chambers, we are confidently looking forward to the final event. Following the conference on human trafficking, Leif Coorlim emailed us to say: ‘Your team’s professionalism and execution was top notch – the best I’ve seen’. And that is something that we can all be proud of!

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