In the first of a series of panel debates at Erasmus University College (EUC) about the upcoming municipal elections in Rotterdam (dubbed ‘The Battle for Rotterdam’), the top candidates on the rolls of DENK, NIDA and Leefbaar Rotterdam (LR) discuss ‘identity and integration’. Political philosopher Tamar de Waal and media and communication researcher Jiska Engelbert also pull up a chair – for a scholarly perspective.

Both DENK and Leefbaar Rotterdam have embraced ‘identity and integration’ as the key theme for their election campaigns – although both parties offer a markedly different interpretation. Indeed, throughout the evening their two representatives prove in fundamental disagreement, although the squabbling is occasionally interrupted by the more nuanced comments of NIDA candidate Nourdin El Ouali.

Tamar de Waal and Stephan van Baarle. Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

The battle for people’s identity

Eerdmans immediately starts attacking Van Baarle when the first topic of the evening is brought up: the Rotterdammers’ identity. “Being a ‘Rotterdammer’ means feeling at home in the Netherlands, among other things. Turks who feel Turkish first and Dutch only second belong in Istanbul rather than Rotterdam,” states Eerdmans.

“Citizenship rights as established by the state determine whether or not you’re a Rotterdammer,” retorts Van Baarle. “What’s more, Turks do feel Dutch, according to studies published in the Monitor Integratie. Eerdmans is cultivating a divide in Dutch society.”

Half way through the evening, Tamar de Waal questions the format of the debate itself. She objects to the very idea of an identity debate. “A debate that focuses on what defines a real Dutch citizen can only alienate people. And it diverts attention away from bigger social issues. Let’s focus on these problems rather than this dispute,” says De Waal. But both moderator Marianne van den Anker and the party leaders ignore her advice. After all, the theme of the evening’s debate is ‘identity and integration’.


The two candidates continue to rant and roar during the second topic of the evening, integration. Eerdmans lays on a new line: “Turks and Moroccans need to integrate and adapt to the dominant culture; however, they continue to live in parallel societies.”

At which point, El Ouali intervenes. “There’s no such thing as ‘integration’ or a ‘dominant culture’,” he says. “We’re all Dutch citizens here in the Netherlands, and we need to learn to accept each other. I’d also far prefer to talk about other issues than identity and integration [Eerdmans’ response: “Then you’re sitting at the wrong table”]; we have far bigger problems in this city that need to be solved.”

He is seconded by Jiska Engelbert, who only gets an opportunity to offer her two cents towards the end of the debate. “This dispute doesn’t actually offer us any room to identify actual problems in society,” notes Engelbert. “It’s up to you, as politicians, to break out of this polarisation and set to work on the major issues that affect each of us here in Rotterdam.” It remains to be seen whether the party leaders heed her advice.

Jiska Engelbert and Nourdin El Ouali have an issue with the very idea of an identity debate.