Europe in high tempo
Europe in high tempo
The media failed to really take the measure of Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent State of the Union address, while the package of measures which accompanied it was completely ignored. Yet it threatens the citizens of the EU’s member states with penury and distress, argue Dennis de Jong and Renske Leijten, more so than ever before. “I’ve never seen Brussels go this far before,” says De Jong.
They want to see a Europe which bases itself on fair cooperation between member states treated as equals. A Europe that’s not ruled by the interests of multinationals, but instead looks out for the interests of ordinary people. They don’t want to see a superstate, but more and better European cooperation on numerous policy areas. And they are optimistic, convinced that Europe can make a difference in a world which seems increasingly torn apart and polarised. In short, SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong and Member of Parliament Renske Leijten, the party’s spokeswoman on Finance as well as on Europe, have a vision of the continent’s future. But this vision is ridden roughshod over by the views which the European Commission – which in De Jong’s opinion is made up of “the top officials who would love themselves to be seen as the EU’s government” – laid out in its president’s recent speech before the European Parliament. In his ‘State of the Union’ address, together with the EU work programme which accompanied it, ‘market-think’ and the transfer of powers to Brussels, are seen as proceeding in the highest possible tempo.
Jean-Claude Juncker, in his State of the Union address, claimed that Europe now had the wind in its sails. What did he base that on?
De Jong: He gave his State of the Union speech at the end of September, when he most probably had the result of the French elections on his mind. In Macron there’s a suitably europhile president in power. He left the fact that Le Pen had picked up 40% of the votes in the second round out of consideration. And in the Netherlands the PVV had won seats in parliament, but had not got into power. So Juncker said you can see that populism has been eliminated. This just shows how arrogant is the thinking in the Brussels bubble. Juncker was willing to ignore the discontent among so much of the public. But then came the elections In Germany, where the extreme right AfD became the country’s third biggest party, and Austria, where the Christian Democrat leader Kurz is saying things which are the same as the extreme right FPÖ . And both parties are definitely not europhile. The original joy amongst the europhiles has then been somewhat dampened.
So it was just a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Juncker?
De Jong: Well yes, but as he was saying it, he will have meant something like ‘it’s after all not such a nightmare as we’d feared’. But that’s quite another thing from Europe having the wind in its sails. Because there are of course still underlying problems with Europe. So many people are asking themselves just what the tasks and powers of this Europe are. Will it soon even be worthwhile for national parliaments to carry on voting? Or will everything now be determined in Brussels? This frame of mind has of course not gone anywhere. And it’s against this background that very strange things are now happening. Juncker’s State of the Union address is going to be coupled with the European Commission’s work programme. If you read that, you’ll see he’s taking a great leap forward, one which will mean that national democracies will be degraded still further.
Leijten: Following Macron’s victory in France and Merkel’s re-election in Germany, europhiles in Brussels evidently all got the idea that the moment had come to push on. Now we’re seeing proposals coming from the European Commission to shift more power to Brussels, which is indeed what we’ve seen up to now: less power for member states, more member states on board, a bigger EU. In itself that’s not very surprising. But on the basis of these new plans I’d also say that things are moving very fast.
So hard that you as a Dutch MP will perhaps soon be out of the game…
Leijten: The European Commission has indeed proposed the introduction of qualified majority voting (QMV) in a number of areas including financial policy, foreign policy, security and defence, but also increasingly on social policy. This would mean that a vote by the Dutch Parliament would be negated if a weighted majority of the other member states voted for a different outcome. Absurd.
De Jong: This really is entirely new. Up to now our Parliament in The Hague has had the right to stop something. If our armed forces must be sent somewhere, the government asks Parliament if they agree. But if it’s up to Juncker, the Dutch Prime Minister in the event of a ‘no’ from Parliament will have to come back and say ‘the Netherlands doesn’t want this, but I didn’t get enough support in Brussels so we’re sending our soldiers in any case'. They’re also going all out for a European army, a sort of NATO in the EU. Is that what we can expect?
Leijten: Some discussions have been declared out of bounds: what do you think of our budgetary policy? Of course there’s the strait-jacket of 3% GDP, above which your budget deficit may not go. And your national debt mustn’t be too great either. On the basis of these agreements Rutte’s government has spent the last few years imposing massive cuts in public spending. Now they’re planning European taxes, a European Finance Minister, and the whole financial world will become European. With this we’ll lose any influence, any oversight, as is already largely the case with banks. In short, we’ll be given less and less room for manoeuvre. MPs and the people we represent will simply lose all power, insight and control.
Power, insight and control are of course very important. But don’t you think that many Dutch citizens have other concerns?
De Jong: Then you just have to take a good look at that European Commission work programme! Just look at everything Juncker wants to do about economic migration. We already have a blue card - a sort of European work permit for highly educated people from countries outside the EU. But now Juncker’s saying that because we now have so many undocumented migrants, in exchange for regularisation we have to make agreements with African countries that poorly educated or wholly unschooled Africans can come to Europe. What’s behind this is that the employers want as much supply as possible in the labour market, because that can hold wages down, a view which is shared by the European Commission. This is the real reason why they want more Africans on the labour market, who will compete with people who already have things hard enough, and these are precisely the people with low levels of education.
Leijten: Your question rather suggests that a lot of people think that the European Union is big and complex, but what influence does it have on our everyday lives? That's why I'm so keen to inform people about what's really going on and what's really hanging over our heads. I mean that if you knew that there were currently regulations in the making that will allow financial products to be repackaged and sold on, then isn't that surely a red alert? Because that's precisely what went wrong in the financial crisis. Risky trades with bad mortgages and we had the biggest crisis we've had since the Second World War. And this kind of trade the EU is simply going to permit again! All I'm saying is that Europe intervenes in so many ways in our lives. Just look at the problems surrounding tendering in health care which is regulated at local authority level. This costs much more, leads to a fixation on the short term and limits both local authorities' and health care facilities' ability to do what's best.
De Jong: Another thing, we're working at the moment on an investigation of the European Medicines Agency, the EMA. If people have already heard of the EMA, that's because it's currently in London and Rutte wants to get it for Amsterdam, but lots of other member states want it too. The fact that this Agency determines what medicines we can and can't use in the EU very few people know. Yet that's the case. The pharmaceutical industry goes back and forth to the EMA in order to work on it. Big Pharma conducts a great deal of research from which it turns out that their products are entirely new and that they work. So if I ask the EMA to base their decisions on independent research, they say that there are hardly any researchers to be found who don't have links with the industry. And this is the idiotic part: if a researcher wants to get some of the huge pile of research moneys that the European Commission has at its disposal, he or she is obliged to work with the industry. That's the 'public-private partnership' which is so popular in Brussels. While the EMA needs independent research, the Commission makes it actually impossible. And Juncker wants to make that even worse. Education and business must work even more closely together and the Commission is going to earmark money for this. Might be a fine thing is you're looking for a placement with a firm. But it's gone so far that only these trainees will have any chance when it comes to corporate jobs. Useful studies which aren't of much value to Big Pharma won't get a look-in.
Leijten en De Jong consider that not everything in Juncker's agenda is bad. There are some good things, albeit not many. The fact that he is advocating the recycling of all plastic packaging by 2030 is something they welcome. In addition the common measures to counter insecurity on the internet – cyber- crime, email-phishing and so on) and against tax evasion are useful, but really pressing ahead is out of the question. Of course European cooperation is a good thing in itself, but why does Brussels want more power in all of these areas, and will this mean that the room for manoeuvre for national administrations is restricted? So the general picture isn't positive. The handing over of more and more national tasks in all sorts of policy areas, the ongoing desire for enlargement – all member states must be in the euro, the whole of the Balkans in the EU – the increasing tendency for the EU to make social policy, the fact that local and regional authorities are being removed from the game, the two SP politicians are sick and tired of all this. Then there's a Commission president like Juncker who in his most important speech of the year failed to once mention the poverty in which millions of Europeans are living, or the humanitarian crisis afflicting so many refugees in Europe or the for so many people disastrous erosion of the public sector in the name of European market fundamentalism. The highest priority in the European Commission's plans is the consolidation of the internal market – put bluntly, a united European as a sort of free trade zone with free movement of goods, people, services and capital. Leijten and De Jong can see the importance of the internal market and of the EU's role in it. But what if you include literally everything in this internal market, from health care to labour and even loans? How desirable is the extension of the internal market against such a background?
Leijten: The attitude of Prime Minister Rutte raises in my view many concerns. He speaks unequivocally in favour of the further reinforcement of the internal market. You have to understand here that this internal market involves absolutely everything. Even health care. Everything is commerce. Because of this we can determine less and less whether to leave something to the market or not. So Rutte is saying in effect that as long as trade comes from it we're in favour. Perhaps on some points he does indeed seem critical, such as on the euro. Officially he's obliged to oppose the appointment of a European Finance Minister, as a result of my resolution which was backed by a majority in Parliament. But when it comes to that other European agenda, the one that comes from corporate business, he drives forward at full throttle.
Leijten: A majority in Parliament are in favour of the internal market per se, but look at what happened around the question of participation in the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. Parliament expressed its support for our initiative against such a federalisation of the rule of law. Yet the government said recently that the Netherlands would take part. This was in exchange for support for the internal market agenda, and this sort of exchange is what makes the EU so untouchable. I think that in essence Parliament is much more critical of the EU than is the government. Admittedly when he speaks to Parliament he can also be very critical. But when he comes on the television he doesn't speak about more or less Europe, but about better. And there's only one European agenda and that consists of 'more, more intensive and bigger'. So if you say , no, it's about 'better', then you're simply lining up on the same side and supporting that agenda.
De Jong: In addition to the question of whether or not we want the transfer of power in every policy area to Brussels at all, there's the issue of whether it will actually work. In Juncker's work programme there's also a plan for a labour inspectorate at European level. So – as a result of the enormous spending cuts of recent years, which the Commission moreover insisted on – at national level there's now insufficient money for adequate labour inspectorates which means that a European version will indeed do a much better job. That's because it comes from the European budget and so all of a sudden it's fine to spend the money. This is of course laughable, because this budget is funded by the member states. But okay, this agency will probably be housed somewhere in an east European member state, because as things stand there aren't many agencies out there. But how can you organise workplace inspections in the Netherlands from somewhere in Poland? Surely you have to be somewhere close to where people are working? Think about the Dutch lorry drivers who point to the miserable conditions in which their Polish and Romanian colleagues have to work and live. These drivers are asking themselves, and with good reason, why is there no monitoring of Dutch parking places? As things are now you could simply enforce that formally. But in the future you'd have to go to Poland and say that an inspection has to take place. What if that doesn’t work? So, once again, it's a long way from the people and there's no longer a chance for them to influence it. And moreover it simply isn't effective.
Leijten: This kind of plan has been triggered by the idea that there are no longer any European internal borders and therefore also only one single labour market. But the labour market in Poland is completely different from that in the Netherlands. So here too the EU is eroding people's interests and taking its cue from those of the employers, of big capital.
De Jong: Absolutely. This work programme is purely an employers' agenda, and not even remotely a workers' agenda. And what they list under the heading 'social'; when it comes to social policy the European Commission is opting for the further stimulation of junk jobs, further weakening of rights in relation to dismissal, and so on. Plus the fact that everything will become increasingly obligatory for the member states.
What can you do about this?
De Jong: The entire work programme consists of dozens of proposals and each of these will eventually come before the European Parliament. Then we'll certainly let our criticisms be heard and we'll come up with alternatives. And as well as that I know a number of organisations which are also critical, ans we'll be working together. But the most important thing perhaps that together we can inform people about what Juncker's threatening if he gets his way. In EU matters, you unfortunately hear about things only when they've already been decided. So we need a campaign which conveys the message: this mustn't happen. And you mustn’t permit it from the Dutch government either.
Leijten: First and foremost we have to inform people so that they know how things are. The militarisation of Europe will certainly provoke a great deal of opposition. So for sure we can do something about that. And don't forget: in a year and a half there's European elections again.
Text by Rob Janssen. This article first appeared in the SP monthly magazine Tribune in November, 2017.