Van Bommel: Fundamental discussion on future of EU needed

7 December 2015

Van Bommel: Fundamental discussion on future of EU needed

In the first half of 2016 the Netherlands will take its turn in the European Union’s six-month rotating presidency. According to SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel, the presidency is an excellent chance to launch a fundamental discussion on the future of the European Union. ‘Many people have turned their backs on the European project because they feel it’s far too forced. Because of that they’ve lost their faith in what national politics can mean for them. But the government is sticking its head in the sand and acts as if debates about “more Europe” or “less Europe” were so much waffle. A missed opportunity.’

On Monday the national Parliament in The Hague debated the State of the Union – the European Union. Below is the complete contribution of Harry van Bommel, national parliamentary spokesman on European Union and international affairs for the SP.

We are speaking today about the State of the Union, but I want to reverse that: we are a Union of States. States with different populations, cultures, traditions and ambitions. It is precisely in this that the strength of the EU lies: unity in diversity. Sometimes this means that certain countries must put aside certain sentiments, as with the member states in eastern Europe where the reception of refugees is concerned. But it means also that when this diversity is put under pressure in an unnatural manner, the unity begins to show cracks. We are eye-witnesses to this process. Check it out: Schengen’s dropping to bits, Grexit can’t yet be ruled out, we have a possible Brexit, tensions between Balkan countries are growing under pressure from the refugee crisis. Northern and southern Europe are growing further apart, and in Ukraine the population is torn apart between orientation to the West or to the East.

In Poland, once a shining example of European integration, the constitutional state and the media are being slowly but surely brought under the wings of the Law and Justice party, a party with no respect whatsoever for democracy or for the separation of powers. Last week the Danish people said no in a referendum to more powers for Brussels. The EU is in deep crisis. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge this too? Does he agree that the division in Europe is growing, both within and between countries, and that Brussels is failing to guarantee solidarity in Europe?

Many people have turned their backs on the European project because they feel it’s far too forced. Because of that they’ve lost their faith in what national politics can mean for them. Yet instead of taking a step back and looking at what the real situation demands, Brussels chooses to fly fearlessly ahead on crucial issues. I’m referring to the completion of the monetary union, which means that Brussels will soon be able to pull even more tightly on the reins when it comes to national budgets. To the TTIP, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the US, which will further reinforce the power of corporate business and undermine democracies. To the Association Agreement with Ukraine, which has contributed to the bloody conflict that still smoulders there.

Meanwhile the Minister of Foreign Affairs continues to contend firmly that creeping transfer of powers doesn’t exist. How does the Prime Minister see that? In what areas is he prepared to transfer powers to Brussels? All of them, or does he exclude some areas as well? I would like to remind him of his list that stemmed from the subsidiarity exercise. Can he in his reply also go into the question of to what extent a treaty amendment is necessary in order to comply with the United Kingdom’s demands?

As is well-known, there are four such amendments: protection for countries who want to maintain their own currency, greater competitiveness, an exception position for the UK in relation to the ‘ever closer union’, and control over national asylum policy. Some of these would demand a treaty amendment. The government is against such, but also wants to see the UK remain in the EU. What would the Netherlands rather have: a treaty amendment should than turn out to be necessary, or an EU without the UK? And if a treaty amendment becomes negotiable, what will the Netherlands be seeking from this?

In less than a month the Netherlands will take its place for six months in the presidency of the EU. An excellent chance to underline the urgency of the questions on the European agenda. But instead of doing so, the Netherlands wants to play the role of the best kid in the class. Two things I want to hear from the Prime Minister: a discussion of “more Europe” or “less Europe”; and whether he’ll deal with this question as if it were nothing but “waffle.” Because according to the Prime Minister we should “let others enjoy philosophising about whether it makes sense that we exist.” That the Prime Minister sees any vision as a sort of burdensome elephant we already knew. But that an imminent president of the EU says at this tense moment in history that “Europe has no need for vistas, but for tackling major problems” I find nevertheless a little amazing.

This government has never had a problem with the transfer of powers. But it’s precisely there that the greatest danger lies hidden. In numerous areas, but above all in the financial-economic field, Brussels takes powers for itself, and in doing so is quite clearly realising a far-reaching vision, namely a vision of further integration. Does the Prime Minister acknowledge that? Does he share the opinion that the challenges facing Europe cannot be addressed with pure pragmatism, but precisely with a clear idea of what Europe stands for and what it does not stand for and of what it is about? In the Presidency edition of The State of the Union (the annual official government statement on the EU – translator’s note), what’s indicated is the need for ‘balance’ when it comes to dossiers which are sensitive for the Netherlands. What dossiers would they be?

The refugee problematic forms the biggest challenge facing Europe today. In view of the raining of bombs on Syria, it’s to be expected that the influx of people forced to leave house and home in flight from terror and violence is more likely to grow than to reduce. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister believes that thanks to the deal between the EU and Turkey, the flow will go ‘towards zero’. This seems to me like a flight of fancy, and that deal also brings risks, as it turns out: Monday morning, immediately after the deal was concluded, the Turkish government had 1,300 migrants arrested who were trying to make their way to Greece and who have now been temporarily accommodated in detention camps.

Turkey has not, to say the least, got a good reputation when it comes to respecting human rights. Are such actions in keeping with the fundamental laws of the European Union? What agreements have been made in connection with this? And what agreements will still have to be more closely elaborated, including above all the Action Plan? According to Human Rights Watch, Turkey has violated human rights by turning Syrians away at the border, forcing them to deal with people- traffickers. Can the Prime Minister confirm these reports and if so, what does he feel his reaction should be? Human rights organisations are concerned above all about the fact that irregular migration will only increase in reaction to the severe Turkish attitude and grow more dangerous. Does the Prime Minister share this view? What is the EU going to do to prevent further disaster scenarios in the Mediterranean Sea?

Last week during Parliamentary Question Time the Prime Minister talked about the way in which Turkey had found itself “doing the splits”: the country had to guard its borders, while at the same time providing decent reception for the refugees. ‘We have to be realistic about this,” he said. What precisely does that mean? Does it imply that Turkey can send fleeing Syrians back? Was the arrest of 1,300 migrants an example of “being realistic” as far as the Prime Minister is concerned? How is the EU monitoring developments in Turkey, and how is the government contributing to ensuring that Turkey’s border guard operations are directed in particular at ensuring the refugees’ safety?

As you will know Turkey has never fully ratified the UN Convention on Refugees. How should the deal be regarded in the light of this fact? In the SP’s view Turkey must of necessity and in the short term ratify the Convention. Here I would draw your attention to the adopted Gesthuizen/Sjoerdsma motion (the two members referred to are respectively from the SP and another opposition party, the centrist liberal group D66 – translator’s note) from on the Netherlands’ efforts regarding compliance with the Convention: how does the government intend to demonstrate these? Is the UNHCR, guardian of the Convention on Refugees, fully involved in the implementation of the deal with Turkey?

During the presidency the citizens of the Netherlands will also have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine. As is well-known, the SP is against this Association Agreement. Ukraine remains in chaos and the situation in the country’s east is far from stable. The Association Agreement has indirectly contributed to the onset of the civil war, which has already cost the lives of more than 8,000 people. In addition, it’s damaging to stability on the EU’s external borders.

Restoration of the democratic, constitutional state in Ukraine is in our view necessary before far-reaching cooperation is a serious option. If you look at the European context, there are already numerous member states and candidate member states who need to do their homework in relation to combatting corruption, the rule of law, the free press and so on. First things first.

To conclude, I’d like once more to underline that the Association Agreement is in reality seen by not only a portion of the Ukrainian people but also by President Poroshenko as a step towards full EU membership. Various EU leaders have confirmed this interpretation. I would be grateful for the Prime Minister’s reaction to this.

Poroshenko said during his visit to the Netherlands that the referendum would not stop the Association Agreement, and moreover that the Netherlands had already ratified the agreement. He also dreams that after his term of office as president he will become a Member of the European Parliament. I would be grateful for a reaction from the Prime Minister to all three of these statements, and would ask him at the same time to respond to the statement by Paul Tang, Member of the European Parliament for the PvdA (Labour Party, the smaller of the two governing coalition parties – translator’s note), who said: “If you are for a referendum, then you must also offer clarity. Not only afterwards, but also beforehand.” Does the Prime Minister share this opinion? And if so, could he then clarify what precisely is meant by “re-evaluation” of the Association Agreement, which according to him will occur on the basis of the result?

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