European integration isn't a question of marketing

23 March 2007

European integration isn't a question of marketing

In common with France, the Netherlands belongs to the six countries which fifty years ago concluded the Treaty of Rome, the beginning of European cooperation. The people who in 2005 seized the opportunity to express their views in a referendum had a great deal of experience of European politics. In this half century Europe has not succeeded in winning the hearts of the people. Europe's friends should therefore bother themselves less with a new Constitution, and rather invest more in winning the public's trust.

by Jan Marijnissen, Chairman of the SP's parliamentary group

Distrust of Europe is in the first place fuelled by the fact that people do not feel involved in European decisions, decisions which often have far-reaching consequences in their daily lives. The euro was, for example, introduced without any opportunity for people to express their views. The same thing threatened to happen with the European Constitution, until national parliamentarians in France and the Netherlands sounded the alarm.

National governments have also used Europe to justify unpopular decisions. The deregulation of the national railways, bus transport and energy corporations was pushed through in the Netherlands with the argument that it was a 'European obligation'. The promise was that the public would profit indirectly: more market testing would eventually benefit economic growth. The reality is that people were directly affected, measures designed to improve international transport putting social security, working conditions and wages under pressure.

A third reason for this lack of faith is that criticism of Europe can hardly ever be heard in the political debate. During the constitution campaign of 2005 the 'No' side was represented in the Netherlands by a small minority of elected politicians. Social democrats, liberals and greens turned out not to represent the European feelings of their members. This problem of representation went not only for political parties, but for trade unions, environmental and development organisations who declared themselves to be convinced by the 'yes' campaign, as did most journalists.

In order to recapture this lost trust a start must be made in European politics in allowing the voice of the population to be heard. This can only be achieved via national democracy. The initiative for European decisions must lie less with the European Commission and much more with the member states. A Euro-MPs' job is not to represent Europe in his or her own country, but to enable the voice of the citizens to be heard in Europe.

The 'no' to the Constitution was not only a criticism of the lack of European democracy, but certainly also a protest against the political colour of the present European integration. With the Treaty of Rome, in 1957 the European Economic Community was established. The development of a European internal market also had deep political consequences. From the 1990s onwards an increasing number of public services, previously supplied by national authorities, were given over to the market.

To bind the European project so tightly to neoliberal convictions is an historic error. The principle of more market and less state was even laid down in the European Constitution, which thereby became a political document. European politics can only win back people's confidence if a political debate is conducted over the direction of European integration. Most Europeans want national authorities to retain full powers to conduct national public services and their own social policy.

The first thing which must happen is, however, that Europe must demonstrate more humility. The European bureaucracy's strategy of taking ever more power and control to itself fills people with anxiety. It is good if countries cooperate on European policies, for example on tackling environmental pollution or terrorism, but it unacceptable for the European Commission to use this to lay down limits on national democracy.

To put for a second time a European Constitution before the Dutch people makes, on the other hand, little sense. European integration is not simply a question of marketing, of better explaining what Europe does. More cooperation can come about only if we can recapture the public's faith in it. Fifty years after the Treaty of Rome we stand at an important fork in the road: should we go further along the path of the Europe of the market, or should we instead follow the Europe of the people?

In such a Europe matters like education, health care, social policy, public transport and social housing would remain primarily national affairs. European cooperation would not be forced on by the European Commission, but would take place at the initiative of the member states. The European internal market would offer economic advantages to every citizen, but would never provide a reason to run down social provisions for which people have voted on the national level. Against this I say 'no' – for love of Europe.

Originally published in De Volkskrant, 23rd March, 2007

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