The making of Dutch foreign policy through writing comments on policy papers.
Ever since the start of the Iraq War in 2003 the decision making process concerning the political support the Dutch government gave to the unilateral British-American intervention, which finally led to the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein, was contested. Representatives of the opposition in Dutch parliament – members of left wing parties – urged about 14 times for an inquiry on the reason why this support was given. Until january 2009 Dutch government refused to agree with this inquiry. Especially prime minister Jan-Peter Balkenende blocked every proposal in this direction and even went so far that the Labour Party, which was part of his government since 2007, had to accept that an inquiry on the Dutch support to the Iraq war was out of the question.
Crucial for the end of Balkenendes resistance was the leak of a policy paper of the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was published on Saturday 17 january 2009 in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Members of several political parties, including the liberals who until then had supported the Iraq policy of former Dutch governments, raised new questions. To avoid a – probably inevitable – public inquiry by the Dutch parliament, prime minister Balkenende decided to install an independent inquiry committee, which published its report in January 2010.
In the policy paper written on 29 april 2003 the legal advisers of the ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to the minister, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, that the legal fundaments of the position of the Dutch were inadequate. According to the minister’s advisors the Netherlands even could lose a legal procedure before the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The paper never reached the minister. In a margin note written on the policy paper, secretary-general of the ministry Frank Majoor wrote: ‘Store properly in the archives for posterity, the discussion is now closed for this moment’. The legal adviser replied in his margin note: ‘The audite et alteram partem (listen to the other side) does not apply here apparently’. Not that the legal advisers had warned for the inadequate legal basis of the Iraqi invasion was news, but the fact that the cabinet and the top of the Foreign ministry ignored warnings of their legal advisors was news. The margin note of the secretary-general of the ministry eventually made pressure in favour of an inquiry on the political support of the Iraq war too high to oppose any longer.
Would the decision making process been different if minister De Hoop Scheffer have had the opportunity to read this policy paper? In an interview to the inquiry committee, former secretary-general Majoor stated that is was not necessary to send this policy paper of eight pages to the minister, because the Iraq war was already formally ended and because it was mostly old news. The minister was already aware of the debate on the legal implications of the decisions that had been taken. De Hoop Scheffer answered to the committee that he was fully aware of the vision of his legal advisers.
The margin note of secretary-general Majoor had the intention to give the policy paper a safe resting place, but – because it was leaked – turned out to be explosive. Normally, margin notes throw light on the decision making process within the civil service. You can read comments or instructions of senior officials to the minister. Researchers of diplomatic history or international relations explore the archives of Foreign ministries in order to reconstruct the decision making process. Documents from different stages in this process throw light on the role of individual civil servants and on the personal point of view of the minister. When making a meticulous reconstruction of the genesis of foreign policy it is important to understand which civil servant or minister is hiding behind an initial: who has read the policy paper and who wrote comments in the margins. Analysing these comments requires decoding different qualities (legible as well as illegible) of handwritings, but also detecting the author of the comments.
Although the practice of writing margin notes has been widespread within the civil service inside and outside the Netherlands, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs developed a sophisticated system of taking down these margin notes, with rules and procedures , including the use of different colored papers, colored pencils and initials. This system was introduced in 1950 together with an important reorganisation of the ministry. The core of the system was the use of abbreviations which denote the diverse sections of the ministry. One character stands for the top of the ministry: ‘M’ means the minister of Foreign Affairs, ‘T’ means the secretary of state, engaged with European affairs, ‘R’ means the secretary of state or minister for Development Cooperation, and ‘S’ is the secretary-general. Directors-general on the ministry as well as advisers use four characters, such as DGES, which means Director-General for European Cooperation. Directories and sections use three character codes, such as DWS, which means Directory of Western Cooperation. Finally, bureaux and units use two characters in combination with the directory code (like DWS/IE, which means Bureau Integration Europe of DWS). As a rule, a civil servant, who writes a policy paper in name of his unit, won’t use his name but his unit code. Crucial to identify the author behind a unit code are the initials written on the document.
Crucial to identify a policy document is also the colour of the paper on which the advice or remarks were written. Ministers and secretaries of state wrote their observations on a blue paper, the secretary-general did use red or pink paper, a director-general brown or orange paper and the heads, deputy heads of the directory and their unit heads green paper. Other civil servants of the ministry did use yellow paper. When you’re doing research in the archives of the ministry, you often find carbon copies of photo copies of policy papers. In such a case only the character codes give an indication of the author and the recipients of the paper.
The administrative instructions which the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs used in the 1950’s also contained instructions on the color of the pencils which had to be used to write down the initials and margin notes on the policy papers. The colors used were similar to the colors of the papers, except that civil servants, who had to write on yellow papers, were considered to use black pencils. The system of initialling and commenting policy papers functioned very well in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In the 1970’s ballpoints and markers replaced pencils as writing materials. At the same time, the instructions on the use of colored pencils fell into disuse. The only means of identifying the author of a policy paper or a margin note left were the initials and the handwriting.
In general, civil servants write policy papers directed to their seniors or the political leadership of the department. At the top you can see who has read the paper. If a head of a direction sends a policy paper to the minister, it is customary that his director-general and then the secretary-general will read the paper first. After putting their initial on the paper, they will forward it to a higher level. Once the minister has read the paper, it will descend to the author, together with remarks and instructions written in the margins.
Besides writing comments and instructions in the margins, ministers and civil servants could also use memo sheets to write down their remarks. Since the introduction of the yellow sticky notes of Post-it in 1981, it became common to put these notes on documents and to remove them after use. In many cases these notes stay glued on the documents until the moment that they lose their adhesive character and the relation between the note and the document is broken. At that moment the additional information on the yellow notes looses its context and it becomes difficult to find out on which document the note was related. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs had its own green sticky notes. They were attached to documents with staples or paperclips.
Until five years ago, I did research on Dutch development policy between 1950 and 1989. At that time, the ministry archives for the period between 1945 and 1990 were still in the cellars of the ministry. We scrutinized files within their original folders. The relation between memo sheets and the documents was clear and we could use the information on these sheets to annotate the published documents. Nowadays, most of these archives are transferred to the National Archives of the Netherlands. They are put in new archive boxes and the documents are deprived of their staples and paperclips. The effect is that the green memo sheets are deprived of their context and have become orphans. If you want to find out which memo sheet was formally related to which document, you have to compare the holes of the removed staple or the place and form of the removed paperclip.
Anyway, memo sheets can contain useful additional information. On this sheet was written: ‘This is a good, constructive story, cooperative in nature. All negotiating partners apparently can unite on this. Bravo!’ Another sheet I’ve found in the archives of Foreign Affairs, contains a negative judgement: ‘I have held this. I find it no strong story, while it is as little as clear what our ambassador should do. Furthermore, I’ve understood that also France does not wish that the five Congo basin countries should have to give preferences. The whole seems “pointless” to me.’ Again, beautiful observations, but without value, because we don’t know the context.
To demonstrate the value of margin notes written on Dutch policy papers, I want to focus on the early years of the European integration. In 1952, the independent Jan Willem Beyen became the new Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs. During his four years mandate as a minister he made an important contribution to the establishment of the European Economic Community (EEC). In December 1952 he presented his Beyen plan to the other five ministers of Foreign Affairs of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). He proposed to establish a customs union without internal tariff barriers. In his view, the proposed European Community not only had to include the ECSC and the European Defence Community which was in preparation, but also economic integration. In his view economic integration was conditional to political integration. Unfortunately, with the French refusal to ratify the EDC-treaty in august 1954, all the integration plans – including the Beyen plan – seemed to be out of sight.
Only after the resignation of the French prime minister Pierre Mendès France in February 1955, the supporters of further European unification, got new hope. The general opinion was that the most realistic way was to extend the supranational powers of the ECSC to the energy and transport sector. Even the president of the High Authority of the ECSC, Jean Monnet, was in favour of extending the ‘vertical’ integration to other economic sectors. Those who believed it was possible to realize ‘horizontal’ economic integration took the line that some form of intergovernmental cooperation was the best, or at least the most realistic goal to be aimed at. Beyen took another line. In his view it would be possible to realise a customs union as a first step towards an economic union. He proposed to take a joint Benelux initiative to realise a common market.
Not only outside the Netherlands but also within the Netherlands Beyen had to overcome scepticism, not only from other ministers in the Dutch government, but also within his own ministry. According to most of his advisors the policy of Beyen was too ambitious. It is clear that he had written his paper to the council of ministers of 24 March 1955 himself without using preliminary drafts of civil servants. The result was that his advisors could only react after the discussion in the council. In a memorandum of 5 April director-general Ernst van der Beugel denounced the new Beyen plan as unrealistic. He stated that a custom union administered by a supranational organ would not be acceptable for the other ECSC-countries, especially France. Van der Beugel feared that the Beyen proposals could be used to create a supranational organisation without any real power. Therefore it would be more realistic to join the supporters of the extension of the powers of the ECSC.
Only the head of Western Cooperation Section of the Foreign Ministry Theo Bot fully supported minister Beyen. In this memorandum of 7 April Bot stated that only in the context of a integrated community of interest the national antagonisms could be eliminated, which could give to Europe a real political and economic basis. The margin notes on this paper demonstrate that his senior official, director-general political affairs Henry Eschauzier disagreed with this view. Bots statement that only the creation of a common market could improve or at least retain the standard of living of the European population was ‘much tocategorically’. Eschauzier also doubted if it was urgent for political and economic reasons to use the favorable climate of the moment to investigate again the goals and means of European integration.
On 12 April Van der Beugel wrote a new memorandum in which he again stated that a Conference of the six ECSC-countries on general economic integration was too premature. He warned for establishing a new supranational authority without consensus on a common program. Why should we risk, when it’s possible to forward the Europe of the six through expanding the activities of the ECSC. Beyen responded in his margin note: ‘What are we actually doing? That we meet too much or too little supranationalistic enthousiasm?’ In his concluding remark he stated: ‘It’s much more than methodic. It’s indeed a fundamental change of view.’ Although Beyen was convinced of the necessity of putting the economic integration back on the agenda, this did not exclude the possibility of expanding the competences of the ECSC.
The margin notes on both policy papers illustrate disagreements concerning the Dutch foreign policy on European integration. The vision of minister Beyen became part of the Benelux initiative, which was a compromise between the sectoral approach of Jean Monnet and the Belgian minister of Foreign Affairs Paul-Henri Spaak and the general economic approach of Beyen. The conference of foreign ministers, held in Messina (Italy), on 1 and 2 june 1955, led to the establishment a committee which had to prepare proposals for relaunching European integration. Spaak became the chairman of this committee.
From the start of the European integration, Dutch policy was to persuade the United Kingdom to take part in the integration process. In 1950 the British had decided not to participate in the negotiations on the Coal and Steel Community because of the proposed supranational character of the ECSC and because of their fear for protectionism under French leadership. After Messina Beyen contacted the British again asking them to participate in new talks on European unity. The British government agreed to send a observer to the Spaak Committee. In july 1955 – the talks within the committee were just started – Beyen proposed to held a conference of the foreign ministers of the six in The Hague on 6 september 1955. Beyen’s intention was that the British should also participate in the conference. In a memorandum of 26 july secretary general of the Dutch Foreign Ministry John Tuyll van Serooskerken wrote to Beyen that Spaak agreed to invite the British but doubted if they would accept an invitation. Spaak assumed that Beyen would inform the Germans, French, Italians and Luxembourgers about inviting the British. In his margin note, written in blue, Beyen wrote: ‘We could now inform the other governments through diplomatic channels. If the others agree, than one should first inform unofficial (via Paul Mason) [the British ambassador in The Hague] whether the British are inclined to participate.’ Tuyll answered in red: ‘I’m inclined to do this in London.’
A week later, the deputy head of the Western Cooperation Section, Johan de Ranitz, informed Beyen on the proceedings of the Spaak Committee and the preparations of the proposed ministers conference. The head of the section Theo Bot reported from Brussels that the Germans wanted to postpone the conference for a week, because of lack of preparation time. Tuyll wrote in the margin that he and the director-general political affairs had the opinion that there was not yet reason to postpone the conference. ‘If the Germans find delay necessary, than the German government has to do a formal proposal’. De Ranitz made two additional remarks with a grey pencil. First that M (minister Beyen) agreed to go ‘on record’ against the British and second, that is was out of the question that the final report [of the Spaak Committee] could be ready on 1 october. ‘Besides, we won’t appreciate this.’ After returning from Brussels Bot wrote above the policy paper: ‘very much urgent’.
In many occasions you can read that a minister or a higher official agrees with the content of a policy paper. You often can find remarks like ‘Acc.’ (akkoord=agreed) of ‘Cfm.’ (conform=accordance) in the margins. Sometimes you can read that the writer of a marginalia disagees with the content. As an example, on this memorandum someone has written: ‘an equally solid as worthless paper’. On another paper throws light on disagreement concerning the Dutch position within the Spaak Committee. Where Bot was concerned about an isolated position of the Netherlands on using safeguard clauses to payments difficulties after the realisation of the common market, Van der Beugel disagreed: ‘Nonsense. Why we may never be on our own?’
In other occasions a margin note throws light on the reception of reports and letters. One of the Dutch negotiators on the EEC-treaty was Hans Linthorst Homan. Homan was a warm advocate of a federal Europe and was affiliated with the European Movement. On behalf of the Ministry of Economic Affairs he was member of the Dutch delegation in the Spaak Committee and leader of the Dutch delegation during the Brussels negotiations in 1956 which have led to the Rome Treaties. His reports often reflected his federalist approach on European integration. This approach was not very popular in The Hague. Often he had to take positions which he himself disagreed. The result was that is influence was little. ‘Everone liked him, but did not listen to him’, as another Dutch negotiator typified him. After reading a report of Homan of 11 October 1955 on the proceedings of the Spaak Committee, Beyen commented: ‘I can’t keep up this morbid twinges of conscience’. Illustrative was also the reception of a report, which Homan had sent to The Hague on 26 july 1955. Van der Beugel typified the content as interesting, but he mentioned that Homan’s report was written late in the night. In addition he wrote that the original report did not contain whiskey spots. Beyen commented: ‘The whiskey bottle was empty at the moment the typing of the report started.’
Most margin notes are too concise to throw a light on the opinions of the author of the notes. This was not the case with prime minister Willem Drees, who we nowadays would typify as ‘eurosceptic’. In the archives of the Dutch Council of Ministers and the Ministry of General Affairs I found several short policy documents of his principal advisor Cees Fock. Drees wrote detailed comments on Fock’s policy papers, like this one. Drees margins throw a bright light on his eurosceptic points of view and are in my opinion indispensable for writing his biography.
Let’s draw some conclusions. Before interpreting margin notes it’s important to understand something of the administrative rules within a ministry. You have to know the unit codes, identify the persons behind these codes and behind their initials. Then it’s important to know what color of paper is on which a minister or civil servant wrote his advise and what color of pencil he used. An important manual for identifying ministers and officials are guides and almanacs. Making a digital list of officials of a ministry could be very useful.
Investigating margin notes can throw new light on foreign policy because they give new insight in the reception of diplomatic documents. Important is to know if a minister agrees or disagrees on issues laid down in these documents. Sometimes, as I have shown, margin notes reflect an internal discussion within the ministry. If this is still the case in the new digitizing government, I don’t know. This will depend on new rules. Recent versions of word processors, like Microsoft Word, have the possibility to track text changes and writing comments in the margins. Crucial is whether these changes and comments will be saved, in particular in the pdf-versions of these documents, which will be placed in digital archives. Within some ministries rules of signing letters (and problably also commenting documents) are still vivid. Recently I saw on TV the transfer from the old minister to the new minister on the ministry of Internal Affairs. At the end of the ceremony outgoing minister Liesbeth Spies gave a red pen to her successor Ronald Plasterk, because the rule on the ministry was that the minister had to to write with a red pen.
Voordracht gehouden op de 9e conferentie van de European Society for Textual Scholarship op vrijdag 23 november 2012 in het Trippenhuis te Amsterdam.