Ladies and gentlemen,
This book was born in the air, mid-Atlantic. Since I was elected last year, I have been commuting between Brussels, the capital of Europe, and New York, the capital of the world, where I used to live and where my family will be living until this summer. On these repetitive long flights I thought: what shall I do? After a while, I had heard all the music and had seen all films worthwhile seeing. So, I thought, why not write a book in the plane on a small laptop? Obviously, since I am member of the European Parliament, it would be a book on Europe. So this book is launched today because for many hours I had nothing better to do.
Writing a book is a process of creation. You start with some ideas, you have to design a structure and map out the storyline. In the end you have to write down the words. Context without text is empty, but text without context is meaningless.
The most important challenge of a book is to raise crucial questions. For me, the election last year was the fourth return to the European Parliament. I started here as an assistant in the 1980s, I often came to the European Parliament as a journalist in the 1990s and I returned as a member of the cabinet of the Commissioners Bolkestein and Kallas in the past decade. And now, I have been a member of this congregation for nearly one year.
Question one is: what am I doing here?
Question two is: what are all the others doing here?
And with ‘others’ I do not only refer to members of the European Parliament. In fact, I point to the entire European institutional elite: politicians, officials, journalists, diplomats and lobbyists of all kind. We seem all to be part of the vanguard leading European integration. But we hardly ask the questions: what do we stand for, what do we aim at and do we implement our legislation properly.
Instead, we tend to legislate as much as possible, we create ever more institutions, we enlarge the EU in all directions and we are eager to convince the world to do the same. Collectively, we want to be the moral guide for the world.
But do we always do the right thing? For the European institutional elite, the right thing is: ‘more, faster, bigger’. And here, I borrow the narrative of the Tower of Babel (from Genesis 11, for those who have limited biblical knowledge).
Are we not creating something that risks collapsing because ‘quantity’ is more important than ‘quality’. Some of the floors we have built in the past decades happen to be quite shaky, their foundations start crumbling. Instead of looking at the quality of our work, or rather the lack of it, we tend to say: ‘no problem, we’ll just build a floor on top. We need a higher tower of Babel’. In this way, our bonfire of bureaucracy becomes the bonfire of the vanities, and it will go down one day.
Now, raising these questions was ‘not the done thing’, even until recently. I worked for Commissioner Bolkestein who studied Greek and Latin and who is familiar with ancient history. In the plane to Strasbourg he preferred reading Greek theatre plays to reading Commission files, to the amazement of many Commission officials.
Given his knack for history he drew parallels to the European Union, which in some ways is the successor of the Roman Empire. He said: ‘what goes up can also go down’. He liked to compare the European Union to the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, de Vielvölkerstaat, that unraveled during the First World War. He once wrote: ‘If Turkey joins the EU, the liberation of Vienna in 1683 was in vain’. You can imagine, the astonishment it provoked among European Commissioners.
Yet, some members of the College of Commissioners were doing precisely what we all feared. In 2002, the President of the European Commission, Mr Prodi, said in Le Monde: ‘the stability and growth pact is stupid and inflexible’. So, the guardian of the treaty gave up on the treaty and put it on the slippery slope. A more flexible pact allowed France and Germany to exceed a budget deficit of 3 percent and it was a sign to Greece to ignore the pact altogether. After all, the pact was ‘stupid’.
The revision of the pact was justified by introducing ‘more and stronger enforcement rules’, the so-called ‘excessive deficit procedures’. But in fact, the pact went down the drain, a process of which we see the results today. The widely preached ‘enforcement’ never worked. Too often, Europe is a boulevard of broken commitments. Had member states stayed within the 3 percent deficit margin, we would not have had all this trouble with the euro now. So, we as a European institutional elite failed, and now ordinary people have to pick up the bill. Why did it happen: because, we do not dare to ask ourselves harsh questions. We would rather congratulate each other.
And there is another, more philosophical reason: we regard ourselves as people carrying forward a holy mission, which is epitomized in the credo: the ‘ever closer Union’. Our ‘Tower of Babel in Brussels’ is regarded as a gradual and irreversible process to one, ever closer political entity, ruled from the corridors of power in Brussels. We are the chosen to lead the European citizens to the Promised Land.
But increasingly, we face difficulties because these European citizens are stubborn and whenever given the vote they say ‘no’. And why is that? Most people regard their ‘nation state’ as their home and they perceive the EU as a ‘common workshop’ for effective cooperation. The European institutional elite thinks, or hopes, that these nation states will evaporate and be substituted by Brussels-based rule. But these states persist and political-cultural differences in Europe should not be glossed over or simply denied.
By coincidence, I happened to know Belgium and Britain. As a Dutchman, I got elected in the former and as an MEP I mainly work with colleagues from the latter. And I can tell you, in their view on Europe, there are no worlds further apart than the Belgian and the British. You just wonder whether they talk about the same project. You find different perceptions everywhere. Germans have a different view of how to manage money than Greeks. And Scandinavians have a different idea of political transparency than the prime minister of Italy.
In the bible, during the construction of the Tower of Babel there was ‘one language’ and ‘one people’ trying to reach heaven. God did not like this bonfire of human vanity and inserted different languages. Now, the European institutional elite presuppose that we all speak the same EU-coded language (which means we all agree on the ‘ever closer Union’) and that there is one European people, one European demos. But none of the above is true.
What can we do to save the construction from collapse?
1. Perhaps we should admit that the orthodoxy of the ‘ever closer Union’ is not correct. That there is a limit and that European cooperation is mainly a matter of nation states. Instead of missionary zeal, we should insert a more pragmatic approach. Some countries want to be part of Schengen, others don’t. Some countries want to be part of the Euro-zone, others don’t. And if a country cannot keep up with the pace of the Euro-zone, it should be possible to leave through an exit-procedure. This is not possible now, because it does not match the philosophy of the ‘ever closer Union’. To ensure the idea of the ‘ever closer Union’.
We take politically motivated decisions that are not
underpinned by economic realities.
2. Perhaps we have to make a clearer distinction between what Brussels has to do and what member states do. Let the European Union focus on about six core tasks like the single market, the monetary union for those that are members, a common transport, environmental, immigration and foreign policy. But other issues, like social policy, culture and education or tourism are better dealt with by the member states themselves. Now, the EU has the pretention to do everything. Now, every problem is turned into an ‘important European issue’ and be given an ‘ambitious agenda’. So, I think we should have more integration on core tasks and particularly better enforcement, but ‘less Europe’ on other issues. But the phrase ‘less Europe’ sounds heretical in Brussels.
3. Thirdly, let’s keep the EU budget limited, let’s be slightly modest. A big budget through EU taxation will produce the frenzy to build the tower to heaven. Europe offers a unique opportunity to shape a level playing field for wealth creation. But EU taxation will turn the European Union into a massive ‘transfer Union’ in which some produce and many others consume. Some in Belgium once said: l’Europe sera belge, ou ne sera pas’. Look at Belgium now. It has created a ‘transfer economy’ from north to south. The transfers have become unsustainable and, as a consequence, its political system is stuck. If we apply the same mechanism to Europe, the same will happen. That is why I am spearheading a European Citizens Initiative (ECI) against EU taxation, in cooperation with the Dutch Flemish Association for Taxpayers Vlanetax. I hope that taxpayers in Europe will provide the European institutional elite with a reality check. The European elite needs a countervailing power because, as the famous American journalist H.L. Mencken once said: ‘No politician ever benefitted by saving money. It is spending it that makes him.’
About four weeks ago, I called Mark Rutte to ask him whether he would be willing to receive the first copy of this book.
Why? I have known him for about twenty years as a young eager politician, interested in politics, history and current affairs. We often drank coffee to talk about British and American politics.
About two years ago, when I lived in New York, I was running in Central Park. It was a hot day, I was sweating, being overtaken by real runners and having trouble doing my own laps. From a distance, I saw two people walking while eating ice-cream. I thought: that guy looks like Mark Rutte. As I came closer, I could overhear their conservation and heard they were speaking Dutch. So, it was Mark Rutte.
I asked him: ‘what the hell are you doing in Central Park’? He told me he had just been to Harlem to see for himself what it looks like. He was amazed by the way Harlem had been improved from a ghetto to a thriving New York neighborhood. Nowadays, Harlem is safer than Brussels and Amsterdam combined. He also noticed the results of a zero tolerance police strategy.
Rutte saw for himself the effects of economic growth, proper policing and social mobility. He understood: don’t ever give up on people, don’t ever give up on neighborhoods. There is a way out of social deprivation and poverty, there is a way back to self-esteem and social mobility.
So, do not lock people up in social allowances but give them training and a job. Launch a policy of wealth creation, instead of wealth distribution that only ends up with redistributing poverty. Rutte was in New York to look for certain aspects of the ‘American Dream’ that can be implemented in his own country and equally in Europe, since we have no ‘European Dream’. States are members of the European Union, often for entirely different reasons, and only the European elite has a dream: 'put more power in the tower', with all the risks it entails.
I now see that our encounter in Central Park is what the elections in The Netherlands are all about. They are about social mobility, wealth creation and a future-oriented society. That is what Mark Rutte stands for.
One rarely meets Dutch politicians who eagerly read, learn, improve and apply from what they have seen elsewhere in the world. If need be, they refer to poems they never read or to prose that doesn’t exist.
Now Mark, I know that for you one of the masterpieces of political literature is the book called ‘Master of the Senate’ written by Robert Caro on the way Lyndon Johnson dominated the Senate in the 1950s. He was the boss and nothing could be done without him. But he could not do everything because he had to cross the hurdle of the filibuster. He needed 60 votes in the Senate. So, whenever a young, ambitious senator came up to him with a beautiful and well-intended proposal, Johnson said while bending over him: ‘Listen son, I need the numbers’.
Therefore, I hope Mark that next week you will get it ‘done’, because you will have the numbers.
Thank you for coming here, thank you all.