Leeuwarden 2018: European Capital of Exiled Governments

In Germany and in the Netherlands the Frisians are worried about the wave of referenda and separation going through Europe and the world recent years; Quebec, Scotland, Kurdistan, Catalonia, Padania and Ambazonia. The Yazidis and the Rohingya driven from their lands. In the midst of this, the city of Leeuwarden in province of Friesland in the Netherlands had to prepare itself for being the European Capital of Culture. It was an intriguing moment in time for a city of a minority to be the European Cultural Capital. Would they feel obliged to take a stand? Would they offer to be the capital of exiled governments?

Frisian nature is to stick with status quo and deny the world has changed. Even if their land partly has been washed away during great sea floods and only some islands are left, you still call it land. This also applies for the status quo achieved with the governments both in Germany and in the Netherlands. An influx of exiled governments or government officials into the Frisian regions in Germany and in the Netherlands would jeopardize things. Of course, improvements with the national governments are still being sought after locally and regionally, but it could have been much worse too. The fact the Frisian pelotte club (in Mid-Frisian language called keatse, which is a type of palm game; read our post Donkey King to learn more about this game) Moed en Volharding ‘Courage and Persistence’ from the hamlet of Dongjum stepped out of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Kaatsbond ‘Royal Dutch Pelotte Federation’ due to a conflict in October 2017, fired things up already in province of Friesland. It is testing the nerves of many Frisians to the max. The Frisians are terrified the Dongjum pelotte incident sets a precedent and causes the collapse of the status quo with the national governments.

Therefore, the Frisians were very pleased their regional parliaments (i.e. the Landesparlementen or States) of Niedersachsen (region Ostfriesland), of Schleswig-Holstein (Kreis Nordfriesland) and of province Friesland, did just that. Their regional governments did not comment on the matter of the Catalan Referendum and kept quiet. People, initially, were also pleased with the European Commission because it refrained from taking a stand as well. Alas, that did not last for long. We come back to this later.

If you are lucky enough to extract an opinion out of a Frisian on the whole issue at all (read our blog post Grassland Conversation, with an advice how to make a conservation with a Frisian in the wild) they most likely will question the legalistic approach of capital Madrid. It does not help to merely declare the obvious, namely: what is lawful and what is unlawful. People know that already, and that is exactly the issue. Neither does it help to declare a regional government incompetent in matters of self-determination. Neither does it help that a Castile King uses similar and firm language as well. Language, in fact, reminding the Frisians of the Low Countries of the time of the Plakkaat van Verlatinghe ‘Plaque of Separation’ in the sixteenth century; i.e. the statement of the republics of the Low Countries by which they chose for independence and separation from the (same) King of Spain. It all does not contribute to dialogue and the process of finding creative and much needed political solutions. The statement of the European Commission’s First Vice-President Frans Timmermans basically gave no other perspectives as just described, and therefore Timmermans too stressed the legal unlawful situation, stressed the blatant obviousness. This is what the Frisians might say to you.

And the Frisians whisper:

Can voting itself be unlawful?

Should not the act of creation of opinion be free in a democracy by definition?

The images of tough behavior of the Spanish police as spread over the internet and in the media have not helped either, according to many Frisians, although much juggling was going on with statistics on the exact number of injured people. It must be said, contrary to Frans Timmermans, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Jagland, guarding the rule of law in Europe, expressed his concern.

Former leaders of the Frisian Movement like Johann Carl Gittermann (Ostfriesland), Christian Feddersen, Harro Harring (both Nordfriesland) and Fedde Schurer (province Friesland) will turn over in their graves if they would hear about it. Netto effect: it probably has pushed more Catalan citizens into the yes-camp of independence.

Kneppelfreed / Baton Friday

Kneppelfreed inescapably comes to mind of the Frisians. This incident in province Friesland happened in 1951. Judge Wolthers in the town of Heerenveen forbade the use of the Frisian language in his court in a certain case. This inspired journalist Fedde Schurer to publish his famous article ‘The Last Man of the Black Heap’. With this, Schurer compared judge Wolters with the Saxon bandits (the Black Heap) who ransacked province Friesland on behalf of province Holland during the Late Middle Ages. Schurer was charged by the prosecutor, and had to appear for trial on Friday November 16th that same year. People started protesting in front of the court in Leeuwarden, at Zaailand sq. The demonstration was cracked down in a harsh manner by the police, including the use of batons. Hence this day is remembered as Kneppelfreed ‘Baton Friday’, but also known as the Battle of Zaailand.

The whole Kneppelfreed incident led to the so-called ‘Frisian Issue’. Distinctively dressed ministers, three in total, descended from their offices in stylish The Hague to discuss the matter locally and, of course, important and earnest committees were set up too. It led to a, though slowly and hesitant, change of approach of the central government towards the rights of the Frisian Minority, including its language. The Frisians may now use their language both in court proceedings as well as in contact with their administrations. Since this year, Mid-Frisian language may be used in contacts with the tax administration too. The sudden oath in Mid-Frisian language by a Member of Parliament during the inauguration of the new king of the Netherlands in 2013, caused just a little bit of turmoil. From a strict legal point of view it was an unlawful deed, but it did not cause an unpleasant public debate afterwards. At least the new king used no tough language like his colleague in Madrid did. He did not address the matter at all.

So, with Catalonia in the back of our minds: the use of Frisian language in court was formally unlawful in 1951 but it was unjust too, as it turned out. Meanwhile it has become just ánd lawful. What did not work back then in the Netherlands, was to look at the issue from a strict legal point of view. And, on top of that enforcing it with batons. Brave political solutions were needed instead.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of a democracy is that the majority gives minorities within its territory the unlimited freedom to separate at will. But because of mutual positive involvement and self-interest, minorities do not feel the need to do so. See here the discrepancy between the former First Vice-President’s statement and a democratic European Union filled with minorities. Promoting rights and culture of minorities in Europe is therefore also important. It is not without reason the European Charter for Regional or Minorities Languages was signed in 1992. Unfortunate, only in 2016, the Council of Europe still needed to be very critical towards the Netherlands’ Government for the fact the position of the Mid-Frisian language had deteriorated. Some Frisians whisper too that they would like to see the European Commission makes a statement also on these matters ánd with a firmness similar to that concerning the Catalan Referendum. If you say A you cannot escape from saying B.

The city of Leeuwarden was struggling with all this. It should not become one big mess in the city. The event Leeuwarden-Fryslân 2018, being the European Capital of Culture, had to be above all a happy occasion. And it was. The motto was very well and wisely chosen, even before the turmoil began at the Costa Brava. The motto of LF2018 was:

Strength by opposites. To be one single open community. More idealistic, more diverse and more powerful. Revolution Frisian Style.


Suggestion for further reading:

  • Boomsma, P.R., Kneppelfreed. Gevecht om de taal met wapenstok en waterkanon (1998)
  • Liemburg, J., Fedde Schurer, in Fryske ‘trochbrekker’ (2018)
  • Steensen, T., Nordfriesland. Menschen von A-Z (2020)

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