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Sunday, 17 February 2013

“Building Bridges in Europe” – The Dutch vision on the European Union: Pt I

During the first two months of 2013, two import European leaders presented their longawaited vision on Europe and the European Union: PM David Cameron of the United Kingdom and president François Hollande of France

Especially the speech by David Cameron had the full attention of his European counterparts, as the animosity (and sometimes even open hostility) against the EU had been on the rise in the UK lately.

Under the influence of their larger counterparts, the Dutch cabinet decided to add a couple of words. Very soon, the Dutch PM Mark Rutte will have a televised speech on the meaning of the EU for The Netherlands. Yesterday, the Dutch government already presented its “grand vision on Europe”: The State of the Union.

I have no doubts that this vision is largely written by Frans Timmermans (PvdA – Dutch labour), the learned and intelligent current Minister of Foreign Affairs. Compared to his unfortunate predecessor Uri Rosenthal, who ‘crashed and burned’ in every aspect of his difficult job, Timmermans is a very qualified and capable minister, who will definitely restore some of the prestige that The Netherlands lost during the stint of Cabinet Rutte I.  

The Cabinet's vision, although very technocratic and much too long (28 pages) to be used as a speech, has been a good and interesting read. I will discuss the most important parts of this speech, summarizing it and using translated quotes when preferable. Summarized parts of the speech will be printed italic, while my comments will be printed in straight letters.

Minister Timmermans starts with the obligatory, but justified look on the prosperity that we owe to the EU. However, he doesn’t close his eyes for the negative side-effects of the intra-EU immigration: 
  • For the Dutch workers, who have to compete with people that work for much less salary;
  • Also for the immigrants that could be victims of slum landlords and dishonest temporary employment agencies.

"An excess influx of foreign workers could cause instability and problems in the large cities.

A problem is that in the eyes of many the EU is acting like an instrument of globalization, which is threatening many people, instead of being a shield that protect people against the negative side-effects of the very quick global revolutions. The EU is seen by many citizens as a political goal, instead of as a means for prosperity and peaceful co-habitation".

Here Timmermans c.s. are abolutely right. This is of course a side-effect of the current economic crisis and the societal depression that has been both cause and effect to this crisis. However, a lot of these feelings among the European citizens are caused by the fact that the European train moved on during the last decades, without asking the passengers whether they liked the destination of the trip or not.

In the following paragraph, the Cabinet’s vision starts to bang the drum that the EU must reform and do more work for less money. Also less money should be squandered on opaque projects and “hobbies of politicians ”. This is a rude simplification of the true problem of the current EU: its poor ‘moral legitimacy’ among the many European citizens. These citizens don’t trust the EU and reject the lacking democracy of the most important European institutions: the European Council and the European Commission.

"Are we on the road to the United States of Europe or are we going back to the Concert of Nations, where large European powers combinedly are the boss? The answer is: neither of both. The world is so much in motion and there are so many unknown factors, that wanting to predict the appearance of the EU in thirty years would be guessing; too quickly this would be the victim of political opportunism and wishful thinking. On top of that, the last ten years show that the debate on the political completion of the European cooperation can work paralyzing; it distracts from the work to be done in the coming years.

There is so much work to be done to reinforce the EMU, to use the potential of the internal market and to stimulate international trade, thus enabling growth and reduction of European unemployment".

The last paragraph is definitely true, but it is not FORBIDDEN for the Dutch to think about the future. By refusing to think about the future and looking at ‘panorama’s’ of what the EU should look like in thirty years, the Cabinet will always be surprised by the events that occur in Europe. Putting your head in the sand is not a successful strategy: neither for the Dutch government, nor for the ostrich.

"Since the birth of the Euro not only the economic imbalance between the Euro-countries increased, but also the political-govermental culture didn’t converge sufficiently. Especially countries that were not so internationally-oriented, experienced the consequences of the economic globalization and deterioration of their own competitiveness only with a substantial delay".

This paragraph, clearly aimed at especially Greece, Portugal and Spain (the GPS-countries) is true and valuable in itself. Unfortunately, in the follow-up the Dutch vision narrows it down to the necessity of financial soundness for the Euro-zone countries and the need to find macro-economic risks in an early stage, while boasting on the recent Dutch role in this process. 

This is a missed opportunity and it shows that The Netherlands doesn’t look at its own role yet in the misery of the South-European countries (see this and this link)

The following paragraphs in the Dutch vision, clearly inspired by the speech of David Cameron, speak about what ‘Europe’ should and should not regulate and what parts of legislation should belong to the national governments.

Nothing exciting here…

"The democratic deficit of the EU is its Achilles heel. It can only be handled by letting the EU achieve more and in a better fashion and on top of that, increase the democratic control within the EU. What the EU and her member states do, should be done better, more transparent, efficient ánd democratic".

The point about the Achilles heel is true in itself, but the solution in the Cabinet’s vision is disappointing, as it misses the real point: It is not just a question of EU performance, but a question of EU legitimacy.

In my opinion, this can only be changed with much more direct democratic influence on Europe. I wrote earlier in my review of Cameron’s speech:

I’m an advocate of the “one man, one vote” principle and I would like to have much more democratic influence on the European government bodies.The European Parliament is unfortunately a toothless tiger with too litle power. The European Commission consists of too many (weak) politicians that are often appointed as a favor for their glorious past, not for their brilliant future. Or they are chosen, because they offend nobody with their personality.

These circumstances made the EU and the European Commission such a disliked and distrusted institute. The representatives of these institutes are untouchable and invisible, because “we” made them untouchable and invisible.

"The core of European cooperation remains the starting port that the EU is a union of European (nation) states and of citizens. The current way of cooperating, which is based on making steps where and when they are necessary, is hard to combine with the desire to sketch where this cooperation should end in the future. The reality is that the European cooperation will be continued like in the first seventy years: step by step, looking for a balance between (nation) state and community. The priorities of the cabinet are: first solving what should be solved to let the European economy thrive again, which is a 'helluva' job already".

This paragraph again reflects the Dutch ostrich view unfortunately. It misses the point that – in the current conundrum –  the European unification process gets dynamics that might speed up the process beyond belief. Instead of stopping to let the people and countries out that don’t like the unification process anymore, the European train will increase speed, forced by the financial markets, as well as the large economies, formed by the United States and the BRIC-countries. Personally, I don’t believe in an EU of two (or three) speeds; I believe that you are either in or out, whether we like it or not! I consider the cabinet to be naive when they don't see this development.

"The Dutch policy from the beginning of the European integration can be summarized as: looking for chances for our country and looking for increased cooperation with countries that have the same mindset as The Netherlands. Looking back, we can conclude that this Dutch approach has been very positive, as The Netherlands turned into an agricultural superpower and a country that profited from the free trade and traffic of persons and goods and lately the internal market and the euro".

Yes, The Netherlands did indeed profit from the chances that the EU offered, especially the agricultural industry. However, a negative side-effect was that the extremely efficient Dutch agricultural industry almost annihilated the agricultural industry in (especially) the Southern-European countries. 

This has been very much in the interest of The Netherlands, but you can argue whether this was in the interest of Europe as a whole. Too often certain industries in the strong economies crushed their counterparts in the weaker economies in the EU. Personally, I would acclaim a pan-European industrial policy that would deal with issues like these, where egocentric behavior of certain countries endangers other countries in the European Union. 

However, such a policy is not likely to emerge, when the strongest economies only think about themselves.

Tomorrow, the last part of my appreciation of the Dutch Cabinet’s vision will be printed here.

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