Frits Bolkestein, of the right-wing Liberal party, the VVD, admitted it in a straightforward and open fashion. It was his life's ambition to become a European Commissioner, an ambition which he fulfilled. With the formation in 1998 of the second 'Purple' government – so-called because it mixed the red of Labour with the blue of the 'Liberal' VVD - he insisted that he be appointed the Netherlands' European Commissioner. In post, he devised the Services Directive, also known as the Bolkestein Directive. As a result of this measure, service providers from all over Europe can compete with each other in a race to the bottom over working conditions.
by Harry van Bommel
Later this year a new European Commission will be appointed, which means a new Commissioner from the Netherlands. I say 'Commissioner from the Netherlands' and not 'Dutch Commissioner' because the latter term risks giving the impression that this person will represent the Netherlands' interests, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. In the EU Treaty it states that the members of the Commission must exercise their function completely independently and in the "interests of the Community". They are expressly forbidden from taking instructions from any government or other body. The Dutch Premier, Jan Peter Balkenende, can therefore not expect the Commissioner whom he will effectively appoint to take instructions from him or listen to his wishes. The current Dutch Commissioner, Neelie Kroes, has shown this to be the case. In relation to her portfolio, competition policy, she has on a number of occasions taken actions which were certainly not in the interests of her country.
The hue and cry over the naming of a new Commissioner has begun. The centrist, europhile D66 wants to see a profiling exercise, and a debate around this in Parliament. The two major parties of the ruling coalition, the Christian Democrats (CDA) and Labour (PvdA) both appear to be anxious that the new Commissioner be one of their own. The CDA believes that they have more right to the post because the PvdA has more mayors than they do, mayors in the Netherlands not being directly elected, but appointed by the government, though with an eye to the relative strength of parties in Parliament and the country in general. The process by which the new Commissioner is chosen is utterly lacking in transparency and the hopefuls of the CDA and PvdA can see their chance to get their hands on this prize. It seems likely that the CDA is in pole position to take it.
D66's proposal looks at first glance reasonable, yet a profiling exercise would not add very much to the existing formula laid out in the EU Treaty, where it is stated that the Commissioner should be chosen on the grounds of general ability and independence. This seems to me logical, forming as it did one of our objections to the appointment of Neelie Kroes who, at the time of her nomination, had a number of business interests which could have influenced her decision-making. Happily she has turned out better than expected, but it goes without saying that such considerations are a point worthy of attention. There is also a major drawback to D66's idea. If Parliament debates the issue of the new Commissioner, it will give the impression that we share responsibility for the eventual choice, that we have the power to choose, which is not the case.
The European Commission is not a European government and must not become one. It is the day-to-day executive of an undemocratic political construct, one which people, quite rightly, don't completely trust. Let this Commission, then, continue to be appointed by the government, free from the influence of Parliament. We will judge the Commission as a whole on the basis of what it does for the EU and for the Netherlands. Participating in the appointment of the European Commissioner from the Netherlands means backing the government in its choice, which I can see no advantage to. Let the government decide for itself, but then let it be known who else came looking for the job. Unfortunately it is to be feared that such openness will not be respected. And so the European executive will remain as it is now: bureaucratic, opaque and undemocratic.