Werther Nieland in Europe

30 October 2009

Werther Nieland in Europe

Precisely sixty years ago the magnificent novel Werther Nieland by the great writer and man of the people Gerard Reve appeared. The novel revolved around the 11-year old Elmer, who made friends with Werther Nieland. Elmer is a sad, somewhat precocious boy who is often not understood by his friends. In order to boost his importance, Elmer regularly set up a club of which he would make himself chairman. One of the principles of each club was that it must always be chaired by the one in whose house it was established. Elmer himself, of course.

By Harry van Bommel

I found myself thinking about this novel when I read the profile which the Benelux drew up for the yet to be designated European president, the permanent (for two-and-a-half years) chair of the European Council. The profile states that the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) believe that the president must have the stature of a head of state or leader of government. In the Netherlands that can mean only one person, Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende, because our head of state, Queen Beatrix, is of course excluded from such an office. The previous prime minister, Wim Kok, is past his sell-by date and is in any case up to his ears in directorships, including a place on the board of Shell, and is therefore unsuitable. The profile thus points unambiguously in the direction of Jan Peter Balkenende. Yet he has already said quite clearly, "I am not a candidate."

If you want to be mayor of Groningen you have to make your availability known by applying for the post. To become President of Europe you have to be invited by countries belonging to those who run the EU: Germany, France and the UK. Germany and France have already expressed their support for Balkenende. The UK will follow as a matter of course, but will certainly want another high office in return. Germany and France want Balkenende because he is a weak leader. This is in their own interests because both countries will continue to want to deviate from the rules of the European game, for example in the matter of state aids to the auto industry or in relation to financial agreements. This will be easier under a Dutch than under a German or French presidency, as these would bring charges of favouritism.

Balkenende is wanted for still another reason. He has demonstrated with great facility his willingness to go against the opinion of his own people. Support for the invasion of Iraq came as a result of loyalty to America, not because the Dutch people wanted it. They did want a second referendum on the European treaty, but Balkenende stood out against this in the national council of ministers and made it impossible. In short, the premier is a politician who subordinates his country's interests to his own position. A sort of Elmer from Werther Nieland, who feels himself misunderstood and who has declared his own rules, his values and standards, to be sacred, held in order to serve higher interests.

The premier is therefore extraordinarily suited to becoming the first European president. Should it come to that, an early general election in the Netherlands would appear unavoidable. Labour Party and Christian Union, Balkenende's Christian Democrats' partners in government, have said that in their opinion Balkenende must remain in the Netherlands but that they would not oppose his candidature. To be misunderstood appeared originally to be a disadvantage for the premier. In the end, however, it seems to be raising him to new heights. Not in his own interest, of course, but in those of the Netherlands or even of Europe. If you know what I mean.

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