Conference on the Dutch Constitution

During the first week of June, IDEA held a conference to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Dutch constitution and bring together constitution builders and lawyers from around the world. Both, I think, were a resounding success.

The conference took place at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a building known locally as the "monkey rock." This building looks like another product of the most unfortunate decades for architecture, the 1970s and 1980s. Basically a giant, taupe square with balconies and ledges on every floor, and no clear front entrance, the building sits near the central train station like a boulder left behind by a retreating glacier, massive and forever immovable.

Conference participants milled about about near a security checkpoint situated at the top of some escalators. Everyone looked groggy, but very well dressed in a wide color palate of grey, blue, and black suits. Judges, law students, law professors, advocates, and IDEA employees buzzed with the quiet hum of anticipatory conversation about the day to come. After everyone checked in with security and clipped on "Visitor" badges, all conference participants followed an unnamed government employee through a short maze of brown linoleum hallways, past a bank of elevators painted in that shocking Netherlands orange, and into the conference area.

The first order of business was coffee. After gulping down several espressos, conference participants meandered towards the conference room. Shaped like an oval, the room had an similarly shaped central table designed to seat about fifty people. In front of each chair at was a microphone, small silver platters of bottle water and soft drinks were placed at every third chair. The ceiling was about two stories tall and dotted with angular skylights. The wall opposite the door was home to a dozen interpreter booths, each with tall glass windows and a sign noting the language assigned to each both. Finally, there was a podium placed at one end of the oval, from which each presenter addressed the group. Leaning forward and speaking into the microphone is a harrowing experience for the uninitiated. How loud to speak, how close to sit, how does the microphone turn off are all important questions. Still, I managed to remember his name and provide relevant information without yelling into the mic.

There were six total presentations, each of which was followed by questions and discussion from conference participants. American law professors, Dutch law professors, and Dutch PhD students covered topics from the lack of judicial review in the Dutch system to power sharing in the Netherlands constitution and government.

The first coffee break. An opportunity for participants to discuss the first two presentations. I joined a conversation with two Egyptian judges and a member of the Somali parliament. The topic of discussion: constitutional preambles. As the Dutch constitution is one of the few that has no preamble, it begs the question, are preambles necessary? From one perspective, they form the the foundation of the national narrative, the aspirational paragraph that all citizens can venerate as the national ideal. In the absence of a constitutional monarchy, or some other figurehead that represents the "State," the preamble sits above all other laws and the rest of the constitution, it is THE idea of the nation. It is the ballast that restrains extreme political action. However, as such an important part of a constitution, preambles have the potential to divide nations, should one political entity/party manage to insert divisive language against the wishes of a minority. Suddenly, the break ended and our conversation came to an abrupt halt.

Lunch was an interesting experience. As has been mentioned before, the Dutch are not, to be kind, a nation of gourmands. The "premium" lunch consisted of two types of sandwiches, each with only one topping and an excess of bread. Choice A: mysterious white cheese, it might have been a weak imitation of gouda. Choice B: red mean. It was probably roast beef, but there were no labels, making precise identification impossible. Perhaps the Dutch are blameless in this instance, as the lunch was served with Sodexo napkins. Maybe we can all blame a faceless international corporation. This might be the best outcome, or at least it allows for some questions and prevents the blame from resting entirely with the fine people of the Netherlands.

After a full day of presentation and discussion, participants were anxious to get out of the building, as anyone would be after sitting and listening to detailed presentations for eight hours, They all rapidly shuffled back out the maze of hallways, returned the Visitor badges, and emerged from the building, into the sunshine.

The next portion of the evening; cocktails, a private tour of the Mauritshuis, and dinner with the conference participants.

In the 17th century, the Mauritshuis was the home of John Maurice of Nassau, a famous member of the Dutch nobility. Now, the building is privately owned and holds the Royal Cabinet of Paintings, a collection of Dutch golden age art.

The entrance to the building is subterranean and accessed by descending a set of stairs near the front door of the building. This stairway spirals down to the stone and gloss lobby, lit by a series of square sky lights. After descending to the entry lobby, the group walked back up to the first floor of the Maruitshuis itself, into a wooden paneled parlor room with a view of the small lake which borders the building and its neighbor, Dutch parliament.

Waiters in pressed white jackets and black pants held trays full of drinks and appetizers, available immediately upon entry to the cocktail room. Conference participants slowly filtered in, exhibiting that familiar anxiety about socializing with strangers in a new social setting. I chose to stand at a table near the center of the room and was soon joined by one of the lecturers from the University of Leiden. Our discussion ranged from the lack of a heterogeneous Dutch society to the Baltic states and to the methods of postgraduate education in the United States and Europe. Soon, however, museum employees quietly entered the room and divided everyone into small tour groups and began leading us around the museum.

Works by Rembrandt and Vermeer make up a significant portion of the collection. The mysterious Girl With the Pearl Earring is the centerpiece of the entire collection and the only painting guarded by an exclusionary railing. Like the Mona Lisa, the Girl With the Pearl Earring is much smaller in person that you would imagine, about the size of a large coffee table book. Each room of the gallery has dozens of paintings, all gently lit by warm lighting that presumable provides appropriate illumination without damaging the centuries old paint.

Dinner took placed in the Maruitshuis entry area, below the streets and under the skylights. An American political scientists, a Thai political reporter, and a Libyan professor of law teaching at Leiden University were within conversational range at my table. Conversation during dinner was more casual that during the conference, perhaps everyone was too full of comparative constitutional ideas from the conference.

After 4 courses and a dinner discussion, the evening finally came to an end. Participants filtered out the glass doors and back up the entry stairs. Some went to cars, but others, like myself, chose to walk home. The streets were quiet and nearly devoid of pedestrians for my walk. Along the way, the only sounds were my shoes on the bricks and the occasional peddling of passing cyclist.