Dutch Budget Debate – Europe is far away

2017 Budget for an inward looking nation

Each year in September the Budget for the next fiscal year (2017) is presented to the Dutch Parliament and debated immediately the days afterwards. 2016 is the last year before the General Elections in The Netherlands. This makes the budget debate a starter for the election campaigns. What we saw was a fundamentally inward looking political class. Holland is on the right track back from the economic downfall of 2008, there is a large and unstable outside world, and we will cling more to what is known and trusted, so the government pronounced. The government (through the King) frames Europe as a trade union, where economic growth and jobs come from. The only other theme where Europe is important, is the refugee crisis. Not even a tiny idea is launched to tackle the consequences of Brexit, or nor are ideas about European defence discussed.


Debate in Parliament

Reactions in Parliament were even less about Europe.  Health care, the refugee crisis and the (failed) integration of immigrants were the main topics. After a long discussion, one motion was carried that asked the government to speed up its decision-making about the Ukraine referendum where the majority voted “no”. Two conclusions can be drawn.


Europe is only a hype

First, however heated as the debates pro and contra the European Union were in the Ukraine referendum campaign, the following months Ukraine disappeared from public debate. Of course, Europe was shaken by the Brexit vote in the UK, so political attention shifted to this new topic. Some Dutch political parties nurtured hope of a Dutch Nexit. But in the budget debate only two parties mentioned it without much reaction of the others or the government. Europe is less of a deep concern than one might think. A hype. Given the problems in and outside the EU this is not a comfortable conclusion.


Europe is not “us”

Second, as President Juncker said[i]: “Europe can only work if speeches supporting our common project are not only delivered in this honourable House, but also in the Parliaments of all our Member States.” This is consistent with the idea that Europe is as much of the member states as of the European Commission and the European Parliament. The Dutch government has demonstrated in a sad way that Europe is only “us” in a minimal sense: when it serves Dutch interests, when it helps the economy and when its keeps refugees out.




[i] In his recent State of the European Union. See post “An alternative State of the European Union – What Juncker could have said” in this blog.


An alternative State of the European Union – What Juncker could have said

This is the trouble I’ve seen….


Honourable Members of the European Parliament.[i] Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis. Over the summer, I listened carefully to Members of this Parliament, to government representatives, to many national Parliamentarians and to the ordinary Europeans who shared their thoughts with me. Never before have I seen so much fragmentation, and so little commonality in our Union. Too many citizens have low trust in the European Union, as the low voter turnout for your Parliament shows. In many member states major groups voice not just criticism but propagate exit from the EU or giving up parts of its achievements, like the Euro. A majority of governments of member states wants to reduce the policy range of the Union and longs for a stronger role for the individual states. Only in some areas a stronger union is favoured: migration, defence, youth unemployment. And even then: The European Commission, with the European Parliament the embodiment of the “commonality” of the Union, has less friends than ever.

Pull ourselves together

Being an ordinary politician I could say: “Do we allow ourselves to become collectively depressed? Do we want to let our Union unravel before our eyes? Or do we say: Is this not the time to pull ourselves together?” And then I could propose some measures that hopefully would strengthen confidence in the EU. Measures that “deliver” desired goods to the public, like more safety at the borders of the EU or better EU-wide internet, or more transport infrastructure. If the member states think that this is worthwhile, the Commission will prepare proposals. But I think delivering more goods to the public misses the point. It would feel like bribery.

Divided member states

As members of this Parliament you know that the European Union is an imperfect democracy the European Union. We have too many captains on the ship: 28 + 1. Citizens need a focal point that represents them. 28 parliaments do not represent the European citizenry, and the European Parliament is too weak. Strengthening the EP is not a feasible answer, for now. We must recognize that there are strong divisions between the member states. The very quick expansion of the EU, from six states that were impressed by the ravages of the Second World War, via the “logical” entry of the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries and the happy return to the family of democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece, to the historical repair of the breach that the Iron Curtain had made, brought together very different political and cultural families and a variety of economies with their own strengths and weaknesses.  A Europe “a la carte” is a reality and seems to be growing (e.g. the Visegrad Group asking[ii] for “flexible solidarity” with regard to migration). Is that good? It makes for a weak Union, where members already are inclined to decide for themselves which agreements to keep and which not; the Euro budget rules are a case in point. This has the seeds of distrust in it.

Reculer pour mieux pouvoir sauter

We must recognize that some citizens don’t want a Union. We must recognize that the strength of the EU, its great variety of cultures and societies, is a political handicap. So we must seek for common grounds all over again. Maybe a free trade partnership is okay for most members. States and citizens that want to go further should stand up and make proposals. The Euro may be a liability and be split up or abolished, thus removing a strong cause of frustration. A northern and a southern Union may work. Meanwhile, the further expansion of the European Union with new members must be stopped until we know what direction we go, which families we want to form.

“Reculer pour mieux pouvoir sauter.” That is what I have on offer.


[i] Texts in Italics are literally taken from Juncker’s speech to the European Parliament on the 14th of September. http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/state-union-2016_en

[ii] http://www.visegradgroup.eu/calendar/2016/joint-statement-of-the-160919

Compact of European Citizens?

Comment on Richard Youngs, Democratizing Europe, Carnegie Europe and Foreign Affairs (August 8, 2016)

A more democratic compact?

Youngs invites his readers to support his ideas for a radical reorientation of the European Union’s political structure; no longer meddling through. He pleads for “a more democratic compact based on solidarity between citizens”. I have two comments: first on the urgency of the matter, second about citizens.

Urgency of reform

Although Brexit stimulates debate about the present dissatisfaction of many citizens with the EU, the urgency of reform of EU politics is far from clear. Of course, lip service is paid by many to public concerns. The Euro-crisis and the refugee crisis have produced impulses and formal steps that change EU political structures. However, you need wide spread urgency, over many European countries, in order to produce radical changes. In itself, imminent electoral succes of anti-EU parties is not (yet) enough to create urgency as long as it doesn’t affect Germany. External threats, like the refugee crisis or the Russian movements in Easternn Europe, are also not strong enough, to my mind. Political analysts have to work harder to produce a sense of urgency. (Ulrike Guérot’s Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss! comes close by presenting a smashing negative picture of how EU functions.)

Citizens of Europe or of the states?

The problem of not enough urgency has to do with my second comment: Citizens. Youngs’ article speaks of citizens and Europe, but his frame of reference is states and national governments. E.g.: States will choose from policy communities “to join depending on the preferences of their citizens.” In this way you never get a democratized Europe. As Fukuyama (in The origins of political order) elegantly summarizes, “accountable government” is a prerequite for a succesful modern state. In modern national states this has been achieved. But at the same time in almost all European states many citizens don’t think their national government is accountable to them. Representative parliaments are under scrutiny. So we have a double problem: National governments don’t get overwhelming support as representatives of their citizens, and organizing Europe through those states will not bring a European democracy any nearer. Even worse, eternally working through states keeps European citizens apart and potentially hostile towards each other (as the Greek crisis has shown).

Overcome national barriers

My idea of Europe is not a weak patchwork of divided nations, working through back room negotiations that always are unsatisfactory for an audience demanding accountability. Europe needs an audience, a political public, not supplanting national politics but complementing it. Without an European public you never get accountable European government. And here we can start something that is truly a “Compact of European Citizens”. Overcoming the barriers of national political parties by creating European political parties that can take votes for the EU parliament from every member state could be a step forward. Another step would be the adoption of English (yes, precisely after Brexit a good choice) as political working language (as Latin once was) for European politics. Thus we feed the coming to life of Europe wide news organizations and political communities.