My goodness, we’re never going to fill the auditorium, Arjan van Amerongen thinks to himself as he looks down from the balustrade at the noisy crowd packed into the space in front of the auditorium. The live broadcast is set to air on NPO1 in just over an hour. He is responsible on behalf of the EFR board for the operational side of the debate. EenVandaag is trusting him to fill the auditorium with students. “Which means filling the auditorium is our top priority”, explains Van Amerongen, who successfully completed his bachelor’s in Economics and Business Economics last year. “We at EFR are happy with the trust, because they know we can do this professionally, but we also feel the pressure quite a bit.”

The politicians’ security is tight, particularly for Geert Wilders, who has faced threats. Consequently, roaming the campus to lure a group of students into the auditorium is not an option. Prior registration was required to ensure that everyone could be vetted. “I went back past the security staff to see whether there were any more committee members wearing wristbands and found two”, says Van Amerongen a few minutes later. “They’d been registered and vetted, so they were allowed in. When I returned, I suddenly had the opposite worry. They’ll never fit, I thought. You hear about 20 percent no-shows at all kinds of performances and conferences, but I didn’t dare sell that many extra tickets. We sold about 7 or 8 percent extra.”

Relaxed morning

There is an exceedingly quiet start to the morning. Six members of the association are at their office doors by 07:30. Evelien van Oostrom (President of EFR and until last year a student on the bachelor’s programme in Economics and Business Economics), Van Amerongen and committee member Louise Giezeman (studying Business Administration) are wide awake and evidently raring to go. The boys from the Activities Committee are still trying to kick-start their brains – the drizzle outside is not helping. “I feel a bit frazzled, but good”, says Van Amerongen whilst making coffee. Only Van Oostrom was not on campus last weekend. The rest of them were also there at 07:30 on Sunday.  The EFR Chair says that she is glad that the iconic debate has returned to the university. “We didn’t get the confirmation until after a meeting in Hilversum. We were jumping for joy once we heard that seven party leaders were going to descend on the campus.”

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Committee members Simon Maas (left), Joost van Ginkel and Lars Mackenbach first start off with a cup of coffee in the EFR office. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

With the tea and coffee ready, the trial run can get underway. They will need to make a start on installing all the cloakroom hooks soon, as committee member Simon Maas (Economics and Business Economics) suggests it will be ‘a mammoth task’. Van Amerongen is keen to get a few more banners or other branding material over to where the politicians are to be welcomed. The walkie-talkies are at the ready. The schedules are correct and double-checked, although the students know the timetable by heart. “How’s it going with the pizzas for us for this evening?”, he adds. The order is definitely being finalised, he is told. After the meeting, Van Amerongen and Lars Mackenback (Activities Committee member and student of Economics and Business Economics) take two office chairs out through the rear door. Van Amerongen felt that the condition of the chairs in the make-up room was not good enough for ‘our VIP guests’, so the students are taking their own chairs along.

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The flags at the top of the stairs make it difficult to lift out the office chairs. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

Droves of security staff

A round rostrum has been put in on the auditorium stage, giving the room the feel of an arena. Big cameras and lights are stationed on all sides. The afternoon is drawing nigh, meaning it is time for the technical rehearsal. It will be several hours until the politicians arrive, so students assume the roles of the party leaders. EFR picked students whose heights correspond to those of the politicians, which will help the TV production team set up the cameras. Van Oostrom watches from the seating area. “I’m really looking forward to it. The energy will pick up in due course.” An added bonus for her is that she will get a chance this evening to make up her mind which party she is going to vote for. “The two chairs of the parties that I’m wavering between are taking part in the debate. As co-organiser, I’d rather not say which two parties those are. My main focus right now is on the speech I’ll be delivering to the audience later on.”

The further the day progresses, the more security there seems to be on campus. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

Meanwhile, the number of security staff seems to be increasing exponentially. “They suddenly started showing up in droves”, says Van Amerongen. He is still extremely relaxed about the event, just like his association’s president. In any case, there will not be much they can do between 13:00 and 14:00, when everyone has to vacate the building for the bomb check. After that, if you want to enter the Erasmus Building, you will have to go through the security gates. From noon onwards, more and more police officers can also be seen. They drive around the campus, stand in front of and in the A-building and also walk around upstairs near the boardrooms.

Mounting tension

No bomb has been found on the campus, even if room A1-09 (the EFR board’s temporary base) looks like a bomb has hit it. At first glance, the table is covered in boxes of wine bottles. Crumpled pieces of paper litter the floor. These turn out to be from water jugs that needed to be unpacked and taken through to the auditorium. “We were in a real hurry”, explains Van Amerongen. The next trial run has just been completed, this time with presenter Pieter Jan Hagens. Which means it is time for the jugs. A couple of students are asked to tidy up, ‘as this is of course not decent enough’.

Arjan van Amerongen and the walkie-talkie are inseparable in the hours before the debate. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

“It’s starting to get a bit hectic”, says Van Amerongen. “The pace will pick up now and some people won’t be able to move around freely to get last-minute things sorted, for instance, because we’ve had the bomb check.” There is frequent bleeping from the walkie-talkie. Each bleep is accompanied by an amber flash. “This device is reducing my step count compared to what it’s been over the past few days. Now I don’t have to rush around to talk to people. I just ask them over the walkie-talkie. That said…”, he says, getting out his phone. “It’s 16:30 and I’m at 14,763 steps. I hit over 22,000 on Saturday and nearly 25,000 on Sunday.” Maas (who earlier made the comment about wardrobe hooks and who is in charge of all personal assistants ) mentions in passing that everything is going well.

Hugs and relief

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In front of a packed hall of about eight hundred people, Evelien van Oostrom took the time to thank everyone for their attendance and support. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

Even more people enter the room during Van Oostrom’s speech. The production team rearranges some rows and asks people to budge up while the EFR president is speaking. “The first edition was in 2022”, she says of the debate. “There was ample discussion of Pim Fortuyn’s victory in the local elections earlier that year.” Then it’s time to switch off all mobile phones and walkie-talkies alike. The board members get a chance to put their feet up for 45 minutes without having to answer any questions or sort anything out.

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After the debate, politicians stick around to answer questions from press, and for the occasional selfie with a student. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

They hug each other once the debate is over. Thumbs get raised in the air in celebration. “Everyone got a seat in the end”, says Van Amerongen at the drinks session. “90 percent of the tickets sold were scanned in, so it turned out fine.” Van Oostrom is ‘delighted’ and ‘extremely content’. Her job was to meet and greet the politicians shortly before the debate and take them to the rooms where they could wait. “Everybody showed up late, which was stressful. Caroline van der Plas from the Farmer-Citizen Movement was the only one to arrive early.” She says she had a good conversation with everyone. “They asked things like what I studied or I asked them whether they were looking forward to the debate.” Meanwhile, the committee members are rushing around the auditorium. There will be no rest for them as long as the drinks session is still going.

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Committee members fly back and forth during the drinks. Mackenbach goes here with bitterballs. Maas comes by a moment later with a new keg of beer. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

On the beer crate

The tables are covered in empty and half-empty beer and wine glasses, finished packs of nuts and crumbs from the fried snacks. It is 21:00 and time to leave the C Hall. A queue of security staff get into a wall-like formation to shepherd the last attendees, particularly the hungry EFR members, towards the exit. They all depart, with Van Amerongen being promised that they will all be allowed back in to tidy up in due course. The piles of pizza boxes that have just been delivered are taken ahead to the EFR office in G Building. The fifty pizzas are shared out and once everyone has had a chance to crack open a beer or take a couple of sips of wine Giezeman jumps onto the beer crate. As Chair of the Activities Committee she is eager to give a speech. The atmosphere is very lively. “No speech unless you’ve got a slice of pizza in your hand”, the audience shout.

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Pizza at last! After hours of hard work, there is some time for relaxation in the EFR office. Image credit: Thanh Nguyen

Then Van Amerongen comes into the office. “Get this guy a crate”, the EFR members yell. So he gets on one too. Everyone is thanked. Including Ilse van der Hoek, Treasurer of the Activities Committee, despite being absent today due to being on a skiing holiday with Laurentius.”She worked incredibly hard and found it very difficult not to be here today.” So a round of applause follows for her too. All trace of stress is now gone. Van Amerongen holds his beer in the air to toast the successful day. Others take to their feet to drink a beer with him. The cleaning will get done later on and tomorrow. First pizza and fun.