The future of Europe in the shadow of Iraq

Frans Timmermans
20 March 2003

The nations rising

Frans Timmermans: Iraq has a tremendous influence on the atmosphere in the Convention on the Future of Europe. I’ve noticed, especially in the last couple of days, that participants tend to stick more to their positions than they did even a couple of weeks ago.

This is also influenced by the fact that we are now looking at texts for a European constitution, rather than talking in generalities; but still, I notice that the Brits, the Swedes, the Danes, and the applicant countries in particular tend to put more emphasis on their own national positions. Rather than saying, “We need to find a compromise and get a text we can all agree on,” people now seem to start with “We think that…”

The debate we had yesterday about the word “federal” was indicative. “Federal” has all sorts of connotations, and I understand the feelings that people in Britain might have about it – feelings that many people in the Netherlands share these days. It’s almost anathema to say “federal” or “federalist” today in the Netherlands. It’s fashionable to say, “We’re beyond all that!” But the latest Convention debate showed clearly that national feelings tend to be very dominant right now. And this has everything to do with the rift in Europe over Iraq.

Euro–Atlantic Netherlands?

openDemocracy: Where do the Dutch find themselves in relation to the rift over Iraq?

FT: We had a rude awakening in 1940. We were traditionally a neutral country that never took sides. We were never clear in the 1930s about condemning Hitler, even – it was a disgrace. So we reacted in a different direction after the second world war: we decided we needed to be part of a transatlantic alliance. Since then, we’ve always played this role in Europe: the alliance is number one. Pressing Britain to join the European Community was a key factor in Dutch foreign policy.

A transatlantic rift will cause tremendous problems for the whole of Europe, but especially for the Netherlands. It’s hard for us to talk about a choice between transatlantic and European relationships. Sometimes we tend to be more European, with the leftist governments of my party; sometimes more transatlantic, with the right-wing parties. There’s one party, the VVD conservative liberal party, that would love to join the US and become the 51st state.

But on the whole, all of us want to stay in the middle of the road, to keep this transatlantic alliance as our cornerstone, as well as the European Union (EU). If the choice is forced upon us, I’m sure we can’t choose.

I think Europe is in deep trouble if this choice has to be made, because all the accession countries would rather choose transatlantic links than Europe. For several reasons, but mainly because they remember their very recent experiences of insecurity. Especially since the end of the cold war, in large parts of western Europe, people have had this feeling that security is a given; but this is very unwise, especially today, and it is not shared in the accession countries.

It’s interesting: when I teach in the University, I now have to explain to my young students what the cold war was. To them, it’s just history. To me, it’s part of my life. I was in military service. I studied European law because I was interested in peace questions in Europe, concerned, like most people of my generation, with insecurity and the missile threat. That’s all changed.

Foreign policy: debate postponed

openDemocracy: Some fairly advanced foreign policy proposals have been put forward in the Convention – the Penelope constitutional draft put together behind the scenes by the European Commission, and the Franco–German proposal which includes qualified majority voting on common foreign and security policy and even an EU diplomatic service. What do you think of these ideas?

FT: I’m not sure about Penelope. It’s got interesting elements. But why did the Commission choose to come up with a completely different draft when everyone knows that Giscard d’Estaing will make his own draft? I’m not sure whether those are the best tactics.

I think there’s a lot of merit in the Franco–German proposal, and that something along these lines could work. The only problem is, also here, Iraq. It’s for this reason that Giscard has postponed all the discussion on foreign policy and security until the end of the Convention. If you were to force people to take a position today, we’d get nowhere. Nothing would change. And that would be a shame.

I’m not sure we can reach consensus on foreign policy by June. This might be a question that some countries would like to leave for the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC). I sense this tendency when speaking to colleagues in the Convention. I think that would be regrettable.

But this all depends on Iraq. Is there going to be a rift in the Security Council? Can we bridge the gap?

No to twin presidents, Yes to a Security Council

openDemocracy: What’s your view of the two-president proposal made by France and Germany, for an elected President of the Commission and a long-term appointed President of the Council?

FT: I think two presidents is a very bad idea. This is the only thing in the Franco–German plan that I really didn’t like. It won’t work. You’d get conflicting legitimacies. If the President of the Commission is elected by the European Parliament, he has democratic legitimacy. But what is the legitimacy of a Council President, who is elected by whom? By his peers, the heads of government? Is he more legitimate, or less legitimate? This is going to be a huge struggle.

openDemocracy: Is there any proposal you do like on the presidency of the Council?

FT: Let’s start from the fact that we need to change the presidency. The Dutch government tend to say, “Let’s keep the system as it is” – but I think that’s not realistic. The present system, rotating every six months, doesn’t work and won’t work with 25 member states. But there’s no need to elect a president who will stay on for two and a half or five years. The Benelux memorandum submitted to the Convention by Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, which has gained some support, contains some other options.

Let’s look at where the problem is: in foreign policy. It’s of no interest to anyone who presides over the Agriculture and Fisheries Council or the Competitiveness Council. So, let’s concentrate on solving the problem in foreign policy.

Would I accept longer presidencies, or a kind of “Security Council” where you give the biggest member states a bigger role in the executive branch of foreign policy? Yes. I think that might be a solution. It’s in the interests of the Union as a whole to give the larger member states a relatively stronger position there.

Freedom, security and justice

openDemocracy: How about the proposals to bring freedom, security and justice policies more fully under the aegis of the European Commission?

FT: These issues are very controversial in the Netherlands. Our Justice Department – probably all Justice Departments all over Europe, but especially ours – has the attitude that it’s time for the rest of Europe to adopt our rules. They are very reluctant to think in a European way, especially when you talk about things like the penal code.

On the one hand, for certain problems – international crime, drug trafficking, trafficking in human beings, asylum and migration – there can only be European solutions. We strongly feel, even on migration, that the only way you can solve it is on the European level, given all these open borders. If you agree to that, you should also accept the fact that you have then to coordinate and come up with common policies.

What is the best model for that? Looking at it from a smaller member state, the Community method, with the Commission in an important position, is always better than the intergovernmental method. I’m willing to think about things like a European public prosecutor, and so on.

But I must tell you, in the Netherlands, these issues are very difficult. It’s going to be very tough to reach an agreement with our domestic partners on this.

The Dutch (non)debate

openDemocracy: What’s the state of your national debate?

FT: Non-existent, unfortunately! This is something that’s been worrying me for months, indeed for years. There has always been a consensus in the Netherlands that Europe is good for us. But since 1994, we’ve had different coalitions – mainly one including us and the Conservative Liberals, and now the Conservative Liberals and the Christian Democrats (Dutch only). And in every one of these coalitions, there has been a fundamental difference of opinion on Europe.

So how did they solve that? They didn’t tackle the fundamental issues. The only European point we could agree upon since 1994 was that we needed to get our money back, to get our share of the budget. We’re very unfairly treated, I don’t dispute that. But the image we’ve projected in the Netherlands, and also in Europe, is that we’re only interested in one European issue: money.

In the Netherlands, we’ve done nothing to stimulate debate, nothing to give people a vision of where we want to go with Europe. We’ve been too afraid to show the differences within the cabinet. From a historic perspective, Europe was always perceived as good because it made us money, because a bigger market was good for our economy. Now this is changing because of external factors – the agricultural policy costs more money for us, and doesn’t do us any good. But we have no debate on where we want to go instead.

People tend to see Europe sort of like the weather…it’s there, but you can’t do anything about it. And for a couple of years now, people see Europe as bad weather, bringing us bad things: BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, a Euro which leads to higher prices, asylum-seekers…this is their perception.

So we have a very serious problem on support for Europe in the Netherlands. It’s been kept relatively quiet, it only pops up now and then, but it’s always lurking underneath.

If we want to present these two radical proposals to our population – first, enlargement, which is going to be very, very difficult in the next couple of years; second, the Convention and its new constitutional treaty – I’m not sure the population will be receptive to it. It’s a very serious problem, and it needs attention. Our people don’t trust authority, full stop! They don’t trust the national governments these days, let alone the European government.

openDemocracy: So, will there be a referendum on the constitution in the Netherlands – and will it be hard to win?

FT: As you know, we’ve had elections recently in the Netherlands. We’re now negotiating a new government with the Christian Democrats, and this is one of the things we’ve put on the table: we want this referendum. But they have principled objections against referenda as an instrument: they think this is contrary to the constitutional structure, where democratically elected representatives make the choices. So it’s going to be very difficult to get a referendum. But certainly we will try.

Can we win a referendum? Yes, we can. But we will have to do a lot of work to explain why the changes are necessary, and why it is good for the Netherlands, and that’s going to be tough. Because the knee-jerk reaction in the population at large is: Europe is something we want nothing to do with.

How the Convention is working

openDemocracy: Do you think that now it is possible, in the time remaining before the deadline of June 2003, to resolve the differences between Convention delegates and come to a consensus in the plenary?

FT: I think it’s still possible. The question is: what will be left out, to be solved by the IGC? Will foreign policy be left out? Will third pillar issues? Joschka Fischer made a very strong point yesterday. He didn’t talk about any of the issues that were on the agenda, but he used his time to stress that we need to stick to the timetable. I think this is wise, but it’s going to be a difficult project. In the end we will probably have something in June, or at the end of June, but the question is how much of it will be finished business.

openDemocracy: There’s been some suggestion that the national parliamentarians haven’t quite found their feet fast enough in the Convention, and haven’t really made the impact they might have.

FT: I think that’s true. There are many reasons for this. The Convention developed in a slightly different direction to that which some people had anticipated: it’s a pre-IGC in many aspects. Now the Foreign Ministers of Germany, France, Belgium and Spain are members of the Convention, and the group of government representatives tends to be very cohesive in the way it operates.

National parliamentarians very often have a very rigid agenda at home. The government representatives who sit on the Council synchronise their agendas on the Brussels agenda. We can’t do that. Secondly, most of us are unaware of Brussels rules. Thirdly, we’re not supported very strongly by our own administrations. Others have a lot more support; the MEPs are in their own house, and we work by their rules, by and large – so that gives them a stronger position.

The two things we have going for us are sheer numbers (60 per cent of the Convention is national parliamentarians) and the opportunity to organise ourselves along party political lines, as we did yesterday: I gave my two-minute speaking time to my Luxembourg colleague, we worked out a text on which the whole Socialist group could agree, and he took six minutes to present our group position. This had a lot more impact than a scattered series of individuals talking for two minutes.

Where did the democracy go?

openDemocracy: There have been proposals in the Convention for a European motto, and for putting words to the European anthem, which Giscard noted is presently a wordless and poorly-defined section of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Are you interested in these, or are they just wrapping paper?

FT: Interestingly enough, these are the things that tend to catch the public’s eye, even if to many technicians and Eurocrats they sometimes look a bit silly. Early on, Giscard proposed European citizenship, and the press and the public immediately seized on that. I think if you really want a public debate, symbols are important. Symbols in any state-like construction or international construction are one way to create links with the public.

openDemocracy: The original remit set out for the convention was quite broad, and there was a focus on bringing Europe closer to its citizens. The Constitution was the last item, almost a footnote: “Toward a Constitution”. That set of priorities seems almost to have been turned on its head. Do you think the democracy agenda has been abandoned because it’s too difficult?

FT: It has failed, and this is something we should be very sorry about. We started off quite well, with the Forum, and some public involvement…but you know, a constitution is dry stuff. You need to draft articles and discuss them in detail. If you want a public debate, you need it to be lively, to address issues people can grasp immediately.

This is the contradiction. We’re working on very dry stuff, which needs to be done! You need to fix the basics before you can talk about the rest. And for many people in the public, that’s not very interesting.

You can buy a wonderful-looking car, but if the chassis is not working, the car will be useless. It’s like buying a DeLorian – it looks great, but it doesn’t work!

openDemocracy: Do you think democracy is an issue that will return to the fore of the European agenda?

FT: Yes, I think it will. Don’t ask me when or how, but I think it will. I think we have to try.

How do we work after coronavirus?

The pandemic has profoundly changed our working lives. Millions have lost their jobs; others have had no choice but to continue working at great risk to their health. Many more have shouldered extra unpaid labour such as childcare.

Work has also been redefined. Some workers are defined as 'essential' – but most of them are among the lowest-paid in our societies.

Could this be an opportunity?

Amid the crisis, there has been a rise in interest in radical ideas, from four-day weeks to universal basic income.

Join us on 5pm UK time on 20 August as we discuss whether the pandemic might finally be a moment for challenging our reliance on work.

In conversation:

Sarah Jaffe, journalist and author of 'Work Won't Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone', due to be published next year.

Amelia Horgan, academic and author of 'Lost in Work: Escaping Capitalism', also due to be published next year.

Chair: Alice Martin, advisory board member of Autonomy, a think tank dedicated to the future of work.

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