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Sunday, 17 February 2013

“Building Bridges in Europe” – The Dutch vision on the European Union Part II

Yesterday, I started with the first article in this series, containing the vision of the Dutch Cabinet (i.e. Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmersmans) towards Europe and the European Union. Today, I publish the second and last episode.

“We took Europe too much for granted. There was a broad political and societal consensus that per definition European integration would be good for The Netherlands. Nobody bothered to talk about this. Why would you discuss something that everybody agrees upon?! The entry of initially  the South-European and afterwards the East-European countries made that The Netherlands, which had become more and more prosperous over the years, turned from a net-receiver into a net-payer. The Netherlands had to look for a new stance in a bigger EU”.

This paragraph shows exactly where the slowly, but surely declining support for the EU came from. The Dutch politicians didn’t talk about the EU-membership much, because they THOUGHT that everybody agreed on the usefulness for The Netherlands. The Dutch citizens were kept in the dark in the approach to the Schengen agreement (i.e. open borders) and the Euro.

The Dutch citizens were only informed when both decisions were already accomplished facts. As much as I agree with both choices for the Euro and for Schengen (I do), these choices were so fundamentally that the Dutch government could and even should have asked its citizens.  

Timmermans - and his peers in the nineties - were right about the political consensus, but neglected ‘the voice of Holland’ in those days. When that voice could finally speak out loud in 2005, it voted against the European Constitution. In hindsight, it doesn’t matter much whether this vote was a protest vote against the EU or a protest vote against the hopelessly failed “leadership” of Jan Peter Balkenende: if the Dutch people would have really wanted the European Constitution, they would have voted in favor of it. They didn’t do so!

“The Netherlands should actively shape the European Union of the future. Constructively, with a keen eye for the Europe that The Netherlands desires and thus in the own interest of The Netherlands. This requires consistency, ability to compromise and cautiously working on durable coalitions that yield to the achievement of the Dutch negotiation efforts”.

Timmermans is making here the same mistake as British PM David Cameron in his speech: making the interest of The Netherlands equal to the interest of Europe. The Netherlands is currently doing business in ways that are not in the interest of at least a few countries in the South of Europe: flooding their markets with cheap imports and “stealing” their very much required tax-money with the ridiculously low Dutch tax rates for certain kinds of corporate taxes.  This shows the arrogance and self-importance of The Netherlands in this matter.

“The Cabinet states that the financial-economic crisis strenghtened the mutual ties of the national and European governance layers and caused measures that have been at the focal point of both national and European legal orders; especially the decision-making on the economic and budget policy within the Euro-zone. For the Dutch cabinet prevails that an earlier and more straigthforward involvement of the national parliaments in the European decision-making process is very necessary, as measures taken touch the execution of national powers on the terrain of economic and budget policy”.

It would be “nice” when the Dutch parliament would be more involved in the European decision making process, just like the parliament from – say – Latvia. However, the real influence of both parliaments from these relatively small countries exists merely by their power to say ‘nyet’ to certain decisions: the veto-right. In reality, this would lay even more power by the German, French, British and Italian parliaments, as these are the large countries that cannot be intimidated and threatened with counter-measures. As a Dutch citizen, I would rather have more direct influence within the European decision making process: by using the ‘one man, one vote’ principle for the European institutions, the European Commission and the European president.

In the following paragraphs the Cabinet (i.e. Timmermans) argues that reinforcing the influence of the national parliaments within the EU governance process should be executed within the existing treaties, instead of looking for new and better treaties.

To achieve this, the national parliaments of the different Euro-zone should  cooperate better. Timmermans proposes to strengthen the role of the national parliaments as a provider of mandates and controller of national governments, when these are acting in the European Council.

This would turn Europe in a Babylonic confusion of tongues, where everybody is talking and nobody can take a decision anymore. This would paralyze Europe beyond belief, as every decision would be assessed by 27 individual parliaments which could or could not form coalitions. Don’t do this!!!

“Finally, the Cabinet wants to reinforce the assessing tasks of the European Parliament (EP). This is desirable, due to the reinforcement of the position of the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary affairs, which was endorsed by The Netherlands. A possibility would be to reinforce the Right to Inquire for the EP”.

I happen to agree with this, but not for the same reasons. It seems that The Netherlands has its hand firmly on the chicken switch, concerning the powers of this super-commissioner, which the Dutch wanted themselves. This is not exactly a symbol of trust in this commissioner’s powers. 

I want the European Parliament to have much more powers to intervene with the European Commission and European Council: currently, this parliament is a toothless tiger, but it should have claws in the future. As a matter of fact, the EP is currently the only European institution that is chosen directly by the European citizens.

“The Netherlands is in favour of the so-called ‘intervention ladder’ that gives the EU the power to intervene in nations who break the European budget agreements significantly of protractedly”.

I am in favour of this intervention ladder too. Of course, the Dutch Cabinet is convinced that these interventions would never occur to The Netherlands itself: “it is only for the others in the South, not for us”. I have serious doubts about that, to be frank.

“The Cabinet thinks that the differences between the Euro-zone and the countries outside it, should not be institutionalized”.

This is difficult English (or, in this case Dutch) for: We don’t want the Euro-zone to have a separate, 'hidden' governance within the official EU governance structure. 

It is nice that The Netherlands doesn’t like this, but that was a logical consequence of the “Alleingang” (i.e. solo trip) of David Cameron. His veto towards an integral change of the EU governance structure forced the Euro-zone countries to look for the alternative of the ‘government within the government’.

“Attention should be given to the democratic legitimacy of the communities’ institutions within the EU structure. The elections for the EP in 2014, followed by the constitution of a new European Commission (EC), offer important leads for this process. The large parties in the European Parliament already informed us that they a. want to endorse their own candidates for the chairmanship of the European Commission and b. they will target a European Commission, largely constituted of members of the European Parliament”.

“It is not out of the question that in the future the EP deprives its trust from an individual commissioner in the EC. According to the Cabinet, such developments could both add to the assessing role of the EP and the legitimacy of the European Commission. This doesn’t change the fact that the Cabinet will also choose the new EC-chairman, based on his openness for the needs of small and medium-sized member states”.

The plan to choose EC members from members of the European Parliament would be a great plan when the EP would (like in the US situation) be composed out of top-notch politicians, who have a direct and full mandate from the voters in their region or country. 

Unfortunately, the members of the EP aren’t the brightest of politicians mostly and they don’t have a direct mandate (at least in the Dutch situation). Yes, they have been elected by the Dutch citizens, but no, they didn’t try to win the Dutch hearts and minds. Most of the time, the designated EP politicians either exist out of older, downhill-going politicians that ‘can easily be missed for a few years’ or very young politicians that have to learn the tricks of the trade.

The Dutch – and probably many other European citizens – are not interested in the European Parliament yet, because there is not much there to be interested in. This should change dramatically if Europe wants to change for the better from a democratic point of view.

Besides that, as Timmermans already discloses in the second paragraph – the European countries would never agree with a chairman of the Commission that they don’t like at all. Irrelevantly, if the chairman would be endorsed by the EP or not… The chairman of the EC will remain to be the result of heavy horse-trading, in my opinion, keeping the tracks wide-open for weak, faceless and spineless people, like José Manuel Barroso.

In the current financial and economic crisis, the European Council grew into the institute that decides on the pace and direction for the European policy and decision-making process. The Cabinet wants the preparation for the European Councils, especially where the Council for Common Affairs (the department belonging to the Presidents and Prime Ministers of the European countries) is involved, to be more sturdy and transparent. An earlier availability of information can improve the involvement of the national parliaments within this council.

In my opinion this is wishful thinking: in reality this larger involvement will lead to paralyzation of the process, as everybody and their sister wants to talk about the subjects. You can’t use 27 captains at the bridge, when you are sailing through dangerous waters.

“The Netherlands prospers most in a prosperous Europe. This cabinet wants to bring the national budgets in order and wants to endorse growth. Only when other member states want to do this also and the right choices will be made on a European level, the EU and her member-states can grow out of the crisis. Only a competitive EU, which creates jobs, can maintain here prosperity level and social protection in a globalized world”.

Translated in plain English: "it is our way or the highway", concerning the Dutch pet subject, the national budgets. Hmm, I wonder if the other European countries agree with this Dutch approach.

“The high unemployment and the soaring poverty in a number of EU member-states led to a sense of urgency that the social effects of the crisis must be handled. Although social policy is primary a national topic, this should also receive attention on a European level”.

With this I agree totally. Unfortunately, until now the Dutch government didn’t play a very distinct role in handling this subject. Rather to the contrary.

In the next paragraphs, the Dutch government braggs how it helped to make the EU more financially sound, by referring endlessly to the Stability and Growth Pact and its 3% threshold. That this doomed policy actually deteriorated the situation in the South-European countries, instead of making it better, is of course not mentioned by the Cabinet. Again, the cabinet seems to think that intervention measures in national budgets are only meant for others, not for us.

The Netherlands endorses the usage of European expenses for provoking economic growth in countries that apply for this, through stimulating structural reforms. This financial support may not lead to an increase of the Dutch payments to Europe.

Yes, we want to help you, but only on OUR terms, and it should not cost us any extra money, y’know.

“The internal market is the foundation of the European cooperation, it delivers a crucial contribution to Dutch prosperity and it forms the ‘engine’ for economic growth and employability within the EU.

Just like David Cameron, the Dutch cabinet shows this narrow-minded vision towards Europe and the EU. The EU is so much more than just the internal market, but the Dutch don’t want to see this either.

Although this Cabinet’s Vision also showed the narrow-mindedness of Cameron’s speech in some aspects, it seems more friendly and understanding about how the EU became what it is today and that this didn’t happen out of luxury. That makes sense: Frans Timmermans is a pro-European by heart.

However, the greatest hiatus in this vision is what the cabinet really wants with the EU: after reading the vision, I still don’t know that!

To ask a few questions:
  • Does the Dutch Cabinet want the chairman of the European Commission to be chosen by the EP or not?
  • Does it wants to strengthen the European Parliament itself and its democratic powers or not?
  • How does the cabinet want to improve the democratic legitimacy of the European institutions, like the European Council and European Commission and other institutions with important tasks in Europe (European Court of Justice)?
  • How the EU should look in thirty years, the Cabinet doesn’t want to say?! To put it even stronger: the Cabinet straightaway blames Van Rompuy for presenting HIS vision on the future EU and it states that this paralyzes the solution of current problems. Is kicking the can down the road really an option?!

The only clear vision that the Cabinet seems to have – improving the influence of the national parliaments within the EU decision-making process – would lead to a Babylonic confusion of tongues and consequently paralyzation of the decision-making process.

We could wish that the outside world - the US, the BRIC’s, the Arab world and Africa - and the financial markets would not disturb the EU in its slow, but firm decision-making. But we know that this is not reality: the outside world is there and it is constantly screaming for our attention.

Attention in the form of thorough and firm decisions, that should be taken on the shortest possible notice by qualified people. We might not like this, but that is the way it is. 

Unfortunately, the cabinet says nothing to reinforce this important process! That is a missed opportunity.

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