A people’s Europe

30 November 2004

A people’s Europe

Dutch Socialist Party MP Harry van Bommel speaks to the Morning Star about his country’s social strife and the EU. Harry von Bommel is a man on a mission. The charismatic Dutch Socialist MP is travelling Europe to speak to left-wing opponents of the European Union constitution.

Harry van BommelHe’s confident that the left can win a No vote both in his home country and elsewhere if it takes the right approach. "A No to this constitution is a Yes to democracy," he argues.

Van Bommel is his party’s European and foreign affairs spokesman. He has a direct way of talking that reflects both his background as a teacher and the Socialist Party’s grass-roots approach to politics within his country.

By offering help and advice to people directly in their communities, it has gradually forced itself onto the national stage and, with a membership of over 40000, is now the fourth largest party in Holland.

Van Bommel’s visit to London was organised by the recently established Centre for a Social Europe, which intends to promote the left arguments for taking an anti-EU position.

In Holland, the EU has become a hot topic as a result partly of Islamophobia is right-winger Geert Wilders, who has tied together the issues of Islam and the EU.

"Wilders left the right-wing Liberal Party because he had written his own manifesto, which said that Turkey should never be allowed to join the EU. For him that was the bottom line," says van Bommel. "He formed his own party and in the polls right now, he has more than the Liberal Party."

Van Bommel believes that both murdered men voiced a widely held feeling in his country that Islam is a backward belief.

"Right now, the minister for integration is talking about ’us and them’ - even in Parliament. It’s incredible," he reveals.

"We have MPs from Muslim backgrounds. If I’d been Muslim I would ask: ’When you talk about us and them, where to you put me?’. It’s unbelievable. It would have been outrageous two years ago."

Van Bommel argues that integration, opportunities and education are the only way to combat extremism on both sides.

"We have 3 million immigrants. 1.6 million come from outside the EU. Over a million are Muslim," he says. The population of Holland is around 16 million.

"There is a general feeling among young Moroccans and Turkish immigrants that they are discriminated against," continues van Bommel.

"I used to be a teacher. I know for a fact that many think it doesn’t really matter if they get a certificate, because they won’t get a job anyway.

"If we want each other to have respect, we have to meet each other first, we have to understand each other.

"I have lived in a neighbourhood where there is an over 50 per cent immigrant population for the last 20 years.

"I have experienced racism in my own surroundings. On the other hand, I know that, if immigrants weren’t so concentrated in the older and poorer areas of the cities in the Netherlands then there would be more respect and more understanding and more chances for people.

It’s not just a matter of changing the education system - it’s also a matter of changing housing policy, it’s also a matter of better integration into labour markets."

Does he think that the current direction of the EU will increase the contradictions between rich and poor and between established residents and new arrivals?

"If you have a look at the Lisbon agenda, we are meant to be the most competitive economy in the world by 2010. We are behind on the Lisbon agenda," van Bommel replies.

"To make the deadline to become the foremost economy there will have to be more cuts.

"Those who work will have to work longer. Those who have no chance on the labour market because they don’t have the education, they can’t speak the language well enough or because of race discrimination, they will feel that their welfare has been sacrificed to reach economic goals.

"The chances that they will go to extreme positions will grow. I see real danger in European policy in this respect."

With the EU constitution, many people across Europe will be able to vote for the first time on the direction of the whole project.

Van Bommel describes this as a "very, very important moment for the people of Europe. A No vote would be good for Europe from the people’s perspective.

"The constitution legitimises Europe as it is today - a neoliberal project directed by free competition, an internal market and also a new appetite for Europe to militarise."

The question we need to ask ourselves, he says, is "Is this the Europe you want or do you want a different Europe? Because, for a different Europe, you need to have a different constitution – if you need a constitution at all.

"I think that most people want not only an economic project to take care of large businesses but also a social Europe and Europe where nation states can still decide the things that are important to their daily lives.

"As soon as we’ve got rid of this constitution, we can start having a debate about what we do want.

There are good things in this constitution, but it is not a constitution that was wanted or written by the people – it doesn’t even have the idea of being for the people. So this referendum is also a referendum where we have the people against the elite."

But what would be the consequences of a Yes vote in European referendums on the constitution?

"The process that was started at Maastricht will be speeded up," argues van Bommel.

"There will be more competition for the public sector, more parts of the public sector will be brought to the market."

As well as its eurosceptic position, the Socialist Party’s opposition to cuts to the country’s welfare system – which will be familiar to British Star readers and people across Europe - have helped its fortunes.

Van Bommel says: "We have three million people without dental care. Before that, they were on the national health service. After five years, you can tell what people earn by looking at their teeth. That’s not the idea that we have of civilisation in the Netherlands.

"The same goes for paying for your own medication and how we treat the elderly. People don’t recognise themselves in Dutch society any more. "Sometimes people attack us and say: ’You want everything to remain the same.’

"Well, if it comes to dental care and national health, then yes, I want everything to remain the same.

"It didn’t bring any positive effect when we brought our postal service to the market. The telecom service has been privatised. A part of our railway system has been privatised. It reduces the citizen to a consumer, but people want to participate.

"We even had an increase in turnout for the European elections - from 30 to 40 per cent. That’s not because people had a positive idea about ’Europe’, it’s because they distrust Europe

"Look at the way the commissioners are appointed - that’s not a democratic way - that’s nepotism.

"If you see how members of the European Parliament deal with their own income, if you look at the fraud in Eurostat, if you look at fraud with subsidies, people have the right and good reasons to distrust Europe."

Which brings us back to van Bommel’s visit to Britain.

"My being here has to do with the fact that we as the Socialist Party have felt alone in this eurocritical position," he says.

"I find it very interesting to meet with people from different parties and different organisations all over Europe who think more or less the same.

"I’m here to discuss how we can win this referendum. It is important for people in Britain to understand that a No in this referendum means no constitution.

"A No in this referendum will not mean that Europe will collapse. It does not mean that the euro will go away. It only means that, for the first time, the European elite will get the message and listen to us. It’s high time that that happened."

Copyright Morning Star 2004

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