'The Netherlands wants less Brussels'

22 March 2009

'The Netherlands wants less Brussels'

53-year-old Dennis de Jong from Rotterdam will top the SP's list for the 4th June European Parliament elections. De Jong, currently a special adviser on human rights and good governance to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is confident of trading this post for a prominent position in the European Parliament. “We have a real answer to the disastrous neoliberal course of the governing Christian Democrat and Labour parties (CDA and PvdA) and the right-wing opposition Liberals (VVD), both in the Netherlands and in Europe. We aren't 'Europhiles', we haven't lost our senses over 'Europe', unlike the (centrist) D66 and the Green Left. Nor are we 'Europhobe' like the far right Wilders with his 'get rid of Europe' message. What we say is 'The Netherlands wants less Brussels. Cooperation okay, but what we can do ourselves, from now on we'd like to do ourselves.'

Dennis de JongWhat do you colleagues at the Foreign Ministry say about your leaving for Brussels?

They're totally positive, though they express regret that I'm leaving. To my astonishment colleagues have come to me and said 'I'm certainly going to vote for you, because I always vote SP.’ Lots of times I thought, 'What? You!' I found it funny. But then you remember that at the last parliamentary elections more than one-and-a-half million people voted for the SP. And that at the referendum on the European Constitution we stood for a majority of the population.

What about your friends and family?

My friends also reacted extremely positively, as did my partner. Of course, I'll be at home rather less often and we'll see less of each other. But in terms of physical distance Brussels is no further away than Dutch cities such as Groningen or Maastricht. And in any case I'm not going to shut myself away in Brussels. I intend to spend a great deal of time in the Netherlands. I promised the Party Council that in my first speech and I really mean it. I see myself as a representative of Dutch voters, so I feel I have to speak with them continually.

How did you come to join the SP?

I was in the Labour Party when its leader Wim Kok ditched its ideology. I felt that that was a disaster. I think people should take care of each other, they shouldn't see themselves as striving one against the other. I don't want a society based on the principle of me-me-me and the devil take the hindmost. It wasn't for nothing that I worked in the Human Rights Directorate of the Foreign Ministry. You have to protect people's rights, not undermine or dismantle them, which is what has been happening in the last ten years, here and in the rest of the world. The PvdA (Labour Party) let this happen, so I couldn't have any more to do with it, and gradually I began to develop more interest in the SP, a party from which I heard all sorts of things I'd long believed myself. I was simply doing what so many other people were doing who considered that other parties had lost their way while the SP was offering invigorating answers.

So how did you come to be number one on the list for the elections?

Six years ago I joined the SP and since then I have become increasingly active in the party. I have contributed to the development of political positions on international questions. And I've also been involved at local level. The value which the SP attaches to local issues is unique. When, last year, the party asked me what I thought of the European Parliament, I thought, there could be something in this. In terms of background, knowledge and experience it suits me well, I can speak a number of languages, I've spent time in Brussels and know how things work there. Why not? And I felt honoured by being asked and was proud when I received the unanimous backing of the Party Council. So now I'm going for it, with my foot down!

But it will cost you rather an attractive job at the ministry.

Sure. I've worked for thirty years in the national administration. As a civil servant, and in my free time as a researcher, I've given lectures and interviews and built a reputation on an international level when it comes to such topics as the fight against corruption and the protection of freedom of religion. I look back on this with a feeling of contentment. Now I'm taking the chance to disseminate the SP's views within the European Parliament. This is an exciting challenge.

The SP says 'A better Europe begins in the Netherlands'. What do you think of 'A better Europe begins in Germany and France.' Don't these countries have the biggest finger in the pie?

That's certainly the case and we have long warned about it. Big countries often play the boss, just as does the Brussels bureaucracy. But if you want to resist this, you have to start in the Netherlands. We have to stand up for the right to regulate our own affairs. Cooperation is for those matters which you can't deal with alone. That's something completely different to giving powers over to Brussels. We've given far too many powers away. If the Treaty of Lisbon comes into force then even more of the Netherlands' right to rule ourselves will be lost. I find this laughable. If a European decision has consequences, for example, for the social system in the Netherlands, then we must stand on it, and straight away, and say, 'Stop'

What's wrong with Brussels?

‘Brussels’ interferes too often and to too great an extent in everything and you have no idea what all of this has to do with its work. Moreover, in Brussels they listen attentively to corporations, banks and investors, but as for the interests of workers or people on benefits, these are taken into account far too little. Brussels has pursued the neoliberal agenda, and strongly: many of the proposals for privatisation and the introduction of the market into sectors where it's wholly inappropriate, such as health care, come from Brussels, or are imposed by government leaders via Brussels. Lastly, Brussels is responsible for unnecessary spending and for the waste of a great deal of money. That's why our efforts in the election will be based on the slogan 'The Netherlands wants less Brussels'.

Can you give some examples of this?

European Commissioner Neelie Kroes sticks her nose into everything and anything. Her job is to promote honest competition in Europe. But think about that whole business over the free schoolbooks and the duty of schools to look for the cheapest supplier, because of which they could no longer choose books which they themselves felt to be best for their pupils. Or the public broadcasting system in the Netherlands. You have to look at this very critically. Because a public broadcasting system which can be accessed via the Internet Ms Kroes considers to be unfair competition. So you see that there are all kinds of matters which everyone thinks should normally be regulated within the Netherlands in the way that we ourselves find best, but where you then find that Brussels has made off with them. Also, this entire idea of the 'internal market' has got completely out of hand. Originally the aim was that it would be easier to market your products throughout the whole of Europe. Good. But the European Court of Justice (the ECJ) has on a number of occasions stipulated that trade unions which stand up for workers' rights when a firm from another member states establishes itself in their country are going too far. So Brussels is attacking the right to strike. And surely this isn't what we thought Europe was for?

I was also astonished when I heard that our telephone and Internet charges had now become a European affair. Not because countries wanted to cooperate over this matter, because that I could endorse. But no, according to the ECJ, rules must be established because otherwise we would be trading in a way which conflicts with the free movement of services. Oh, sure, in this way you can attach everything to the internal market, but that was of course never the intention. .

And then there's the way in which money has to be paid to Brussels so that Brussels can pay it back. Here in Rotterdam we have a cycle path which was paid for with EU money. Now I like very much to cycle around Rotterdam and we can make good use of decent cycle paths. But why does this have to be paid for with European money? If it really was European money, you could see it as a gift. But in the end it's simply our own taxes, because the Netherlands pays every year a net amount of €4 billion to Brussels! This is how it works. The EU set up a European Social Fund, the ESF. Member states submit projects to this. This costs a great deal of work, with lots of form-filling and so on. Next these projects most be defended before the European Commission. For this, Dutch state officials have to put in a lot of travelling and working hours. Then the EU officials get to work and in the end Rotterdam gets some money. Imagine what it must cost to get this money! And it could be done much more efficiently, if such funds were used only in countries with extensive poverty, such as Romania and Bulgaria. You could then work much more purposefully with much lower costs and the Netherlands' net contribution could also be lowered.

Does less Brussels mean less cooperation?

No: better cooperation. Good cooperation is extremely important, and we're certainly in favour of it. European cooperation has prevented the continent's major powers from once again going to war. It's good for our economy and for our prosperity. But cooperation doesn't mean letting Brussels play the boss. That's what we want less of. What we can do ourselves, we must once again do for ourselves. Decisions concerning people must be taken as close as possible to the people who will be affected by them. Via Brussels we should be regulating only those things which we can't do for ourselves closer to home. In this way you can stand up against people like Wilders who want to put a fence around the Netherlands. We are for an open Europe with good cooperation, to everyone's advantage.

So what exactly is being done wrongly?

Take the economic crisis. Of course the SP is keen to see that we in Europe discuss with each other how we can best solve this. But in my view it is going too far if we receive a diktat from Brussels that includes an instruction that 'You must return to a maximum three percent budget deficit.' And where we do cooperate, we should in any case put an end to the influence of the neoliberal employers' lobby. Shortly, eleven European Commissioners will attend the European Business Summit. This means that half of the Commission is going to be spending two days listening to what the employers have to say. The unions or the environmental movement are happy enough if there is one Commissioner who can find the time for them. That is what Dutch people mean when they say that Brussels lacks transparency. Brussels doesn't listen to us, but it certainly listens to the 12,000 corporate lobbyists there.

How do you break down this pressure towards ever more Brussels diktats?

Look, on the one hand this time of economic crisis is bringing in its wake a great deal of misery, but on the other hand – as strange as it may sound – this situation is also creating possibilities. Because there are no longer any established truths. There are ever more things about which everyone is saying, 'Hey, this can be done completely differently then. If people now let it be known that they want a different Europe, with human beings at the centre and more cooperation instead of diktats, then the forthcoming elections will be just as much of a blow to the established order as was the referendum on the European Constitution.”

Is there a good side to things?

Partly as a result of European cooperation we have not seen a war between member states of the EU and its predecessors and no major war since 1945. The war which we have had was in the Balkans, outside the EU. Also, the fact that you can market your products easily in Europe contributes to our prosperity. Europe was for a long time going generally well. Until the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, Brussels was a reasonably well-functioning organisation for economic cooperation, without too many pretensions that it wanted to do things in every area of policy. After that, however, the agenda would be handed to the market by this gigantic Brussels-based employers' lobby, and the interests of working people and of the unemployed would be dumped overboard, seen as simply burdensome. Social rights? Burdensome. They reduce the potential for economic growth. Then it was education that came in for a kicking and if it was left to Brussels health care too would be thrown to the market. So what is good? Europe has had stability, peace and prosperity, but this is now slipping away. The EU isn't popular any more and it's causing serious problems.

Could the EU play a more important role in international politics?

You should always look around if you want to do something with foreign security policy, but it depends on the subject which countries you choose to cooperate with. They won't necessarily always be EU member states. With Norway, for example, I've often been able to cooperate to good effect and sometimes with India or Brazil, South Africa or Nigeria. It's absolutely not the case that all twenty-seven countries of the EU are needed before you can make a stand. In social policy matters Latin American countries can be of interest. But we can't cooperate with them, because it doesn't suit the EU. So it's smothering. Take the United Nations, in which at present EU member states are compelled to cooperate. The UN always works with texts and resolutions on which agreement must be reached. As the EU we first of all meet beforehand, and two-thirds of the twenty-seven sit round the table trying to arrive at a consensus. For every topic endless consultation is needed before we can arrive at a common line. All of this time there are other countries outside of this with whom you could have been doing things, but you can't speak to them, because there's still no European position. But okay, eventually the moment arrives when something emerges. A text. Hey, the European Union has reached agreement! Actually, not. Because only then do the negotiations begin! And there's hardly any time left for these, so the Chair has to say, 'Oh, this is the text and I can't change any of it, because then I'll have problems with the other twenty-six countries.' You can laugh about this now, but that's really how it goes! So it needs to be much more effective. It must produce results. We have to look on the basis of our own views to see with whom you should be working.

Can Turkey become a member of the European Union?

Time will tell. The same applies to Turkey as applies to all countries who want to join the European Union. They must fulfil all conditions. We need to be very clear about this. We mustn't accept a lot of stories about how well everything is going. Turkey has just been indicted by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, twice recently, over the way in which the country treats its minorities. There remains a great deal amiss in the field of human rights. Furthermore, Turkey is still not really prepared to cooperate in finding a solution to the situation in Cyprus. For the next five years membership is certainly not on the cards. After that, we need to see how the Turkish government performs. Watering down the conditions would be stupid, certainly from the point of view of people in Turkey. We have seen in the cases of Romania and Bulgaria how badly that can turn out. People were promised mountains of gold and then all that stopped immediately on accession. In our election programme we state that we are in favour of the Dutch people being given the chance to express their views in a referendum on any future accession treaty. That would enable us to prevent overhasty decisions being taken. Let the government simply explain whether a country does indeed fulfil all of the criteria.

How big could the European Union eventually become?

Again, time will tell. For the time being we say, take care with this. Since the Maastricht Treaty European cooperation has taken the wrong direction and at too high a tempo. That's bad for everyone. It undermines faith in cooperation, and creates space for those who don't want any kind of cooperation. That's exactly what we are proposing to the voters in 4th June – The Netherlands wants less Brussels.”

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