Non-believer among diehard Europhiles

Elsevier Volume 68, Issue 51, 22 December 2012

Text: Carla Joosten, Foto’s: Jan Van de Vel

Derk Jan Eppink (54) became involved in the Brussels' scene at age 26. He has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. As opposed to many of his colleagues, he is not a supporter of a federal Europe. A day with the euro-critical insider. "In Brussels you do not ask how long someone has been here, but how many kilos he has put on".

Joining Member of European Parliament Derk Jan Eppink

No round of swimming for Derk Jan Eppink this morning. Angry dairy-farmers have blocked the European quarter in Brussels. This member of the European Parliament is happy he reached the Parliament at all.

Eppink has a subscription at sports club Aspria, where he arrives from his pied-a-terre around seven in the morning on the days he is in Brussels. "It's pretty expensive, swimming fifty times for €1,000, but the water is nice and warm there", he says.

The popular Brussels' activity of networking starts early in the morning at Aspria. High ranking officials, lobbyists and politicians exchange gossip and news while swimming. Eppink considers this healthy start to the day a necessity. "In Brussels you don't ask how long someone has been here, but how many kilos they have put on."

The first meeting of today is in the Budgetary Control Committee. Every MEP can become a member here. Other committees cost points, which have to be evenly distributed among the members of groups. This way, everyone gets their fair share. "It does not work that way in Budgetary Control. And that is a good thing, because it is after all the heart of the parliamentary work."

This morning Czech deputy minister of Financial Affairs Miroslav Matej is a guest at the committee. Eppink: "More and more ministers from the Member States value the option to exchange views with the Parliament, a new phenomenon."

Derk Jan Eppink (54) is an insider in Brussels. He became an intern at the European Commission at age 26, then assistant for the Dutch Labour Party. As a journalist, he worked for the Dutch NRC Handelsblad and for the Flemish De Standaard. Jokingly, without being patronising, he uncovered the nature of the Belgian people in his book Adventures of a Nederbelg (that is - a 'Dutch Belgian').    

He has been an MEP since 2009, but he did not become an advocate of a federal Europe throughout all these years in Brussels. He always does the same thing, though every time from a different angle: he has a critical look at things and puts it into words. Eppink is of opinion that Europe should limit itself to its core tasks, such as stimulating trade.

Pushy Union

The adversary of the ever closer Union, the intrusive Union, feels right at home in the group for European Conservatives and Reformists, which is dominated by the British Conservatives of David Cameron.

Eppink moves through the corridors in Brussels and Strasbourg as hurriedly as all those hundreds of other EU parliamentarians. This morning he has an interview with the Catalan radio from Barcelona. He became well-known in the rebellious Spanish region of Catalonia after he criticised his Spanish colleague Alejo Vidal-Quadras, who said that he would send the army after the unruly Catalans. Eppink suggested that maybe the Catalans should decide on their own future. "Not the army, but democracy decides," echoed through the Parliament.

So now Eppink also has to address media from that part of Europe. Having learned some Spanish at school turns out to be useful. Language seems to be his biggest hobby anyway. In the 'Achterhoek' (an area in the east of the Netherlands) he grew up with German. French and English he learned at school, Swedish at university and Russian he speaks because of his Russian wife: an interpreter/translator who taught him. He reads Arabic reasonably well and he is busy learning Chinese.

On his desk are two Chinese-Russian language books. "I'm a substitute in the China-delegation. We often receive governors from Chinese provinces. They love being addressed in their own language. Yet I also do it because it creates understanding. Through language you see the peoples' way of thinking."


His office is located on the fourth floor of the Willy Brandt building. On his desk there are two little flags: the European and the American one. Eppink is very fond of the United States. On the wall there are framed front pages of the New York Times after the first and second election of Barack Obama as President of the US. "A form of self-flagellation", Eppink says. This time he was hoping for Republican candidate Mitt Romney to win.

In two days he will join the Parliament's US Delegation on a trip to Washington. "We will meet a handful of members of Congress. We never get to see Senators; they have no interest in us". A visit to Nashville has been removed from the program by the Americans. This means the delegation will be flying across the Atlantic for only one and a half days in Washington. To Eppink the route is familiar: for a few years he travelled to New York every two weeks. The family - which by now includes the children Macha (3) and Sascha (7) - is reunited in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the small workspace in Brussels, Eppink's team of four gathers during lunchtime. The four arrange meetings and prepare debates. After a quick sandwich and a coffee in one of the bars in the Parliament, Eppink is off to do interviews for the position of director of New Direction, a think tank affiliated with the European Conservatives and Reformists. He does this together with fellow group member Geoffrey Van Orden, a Brit, who claims that if you go back only four centuries in his family tree you end up with a family in Apeldoorn.

Three interviews later Eppink rushes through the glass bridge to the other side of the Parliamentary building. The Budgetary Control Committee tries to tackle the annual report of the European Investment Bank and a study by the European Court of Auditors on the spending of European funds in Turkish Cyprus. Between 2006 and 2011, nearly 100 million Euros have been invested in the Turkish part of the island to prepare for the reunion with the Greek-Cypriot part which is a member of the European Union.

The Court of Auditors is critical. The biggest project on Cyprus has failed: the construction of an installation for seawater desalination worth 27.5 million Euros. The Parliament is worried. No less than 107 amendments have been tabled already. They are not about the money, but about the political tensions on Cyprus, Eppink notes gloomy. "The situation in Cyprus is complex. I was there recently. Even crossing the border has to be done in such a way that nobody takes offense. We are here for the tax payer. The spending of money is the only thing that matters today."

The problem of Cyprus will not be solved today either. For the European Parliament, the report is simply the latest in a long line. Yet for the Turkish-Cypriots it is of vital importance. Future support from the Union depends on it. A delegation of politicians from the region is present at the meeting and they visit Eppink in his office later. The Cypriots wave amendments meant to secure this European support. Eppink does not budge.

Members of the European Parliament are often accused of being influenced by lobbyists. It happens frequently that Members of Parliament table texts provided by lobbyists as official amendments. "We should be careful not to dance to their tunes", Eppink says after his conversation with the Turkish-Cypriots. All this talking does not tire Eppink. He does it gladly; there is still something of a journalist in him.

Parliamentarians care a great deal about becoming a Rapporteur. The role of a Rapporteur is to line up all the pros and cons on a certain file and to offer this file to the European Commission. Eppink was a Rapporteur once. "I'm not a believer, nor am I a federalist. That does not get you the role very easily."

The insider who is at the same time an outsider, enjoys playing the role of scallywag in the political arena. He likes stirring things up. For instance, by waving around enlarged pictures in the arena on which European leaders hug Moammar al-Khadhafi, precisely on the day the dictator was brought down. Or by lashing out at the Europhile ideas of his old enemy Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian ex-prime minister who leads the Liberals in Parliament.

 Eppink calls himself a 'liberal conservative', 'euro realist' and 'internationalist'. In the Netherlands he feels at home with the VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. He was elected into the Parliament for the LDD: Libertarian, Direct, Democratic, the Flemish, right-liberal party of Jean-Marie Dedecker.


Downing Street

Eppink does not fit neatly into any single political category. In 2011, the head of his Group Martin Callanan asked him if he could introduce Bart de Wever, leader of the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, to British Prime Minister David Cameron. It happened, so now there is a picture hosting, among others, De Wever and Eppink in front of the door at 10 Downing Street. In Belgium the visit caught attention and created surprise: then Prime Minister Yves Leterme had never been invited to the home of the British Prime Minister.

On the bookshelf in his office we find Eppink's own book Life of a European Mandarin, in which he shows the reader what goes on behind the screens of European politics and bureaucracy. Also on his shelf are Memoires by Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Deutschland schafft sich ab by the German social democrat Thilo Sarrazin and De ordelijke opdeling van België ('orderly division of Belgium') by leader of the Vlaams Belang Gerolf Annemans. Eppink's most recent work is an adaptation in two languages of his 2010 book De toren van Babel staat in Brussel ('the tower of Babel is in Brussels'). In this book he explains how the European Union is expanding unhindered by any opposition.

Eppink sent his book to contacts. This led the Ambassador of Belarus to request a meeting. It turns out he translated the book from English to Russian. "I have done that for our minister of foreign affairs", Ambassador Andrei Yeudachenka says. "We are interested in all opinions. And this deserves being read from Minsk to Moscow and Kiev. Your book describes everything correctly, it is clear and concise. I will use the text for my political messages to Minsk".

Eppink talks about how there are quite some similarities in the vocabulary used in the European Union and the former Soviet Union. "In the European Union people now speak of the irrevocability of the euro in the way the Soviet Union talked about the irrevocability of socialism."

Eppink often goes out to see the world. "I don't like talking about a country I have never visited". Recently he went to crisis-struck Greece; his program was compiled by his Greek assistant Andreas Kansouzidis (30). He has to talk about Greece today on Russian television. The English-speaking TV channel RT, owned by the Russian state press office RIA Novosti, wants his response to the most recent rescue attempt of Greece.

It is almost seven o'clock. Eppink puts on his ski jacket over his suit, walks out of the Parliament and to the Residence Palace elsewhere in the European quarter, a building surrounded by the office towers of the European Union complex where many media are located. In the hallway there is a reception of an interest group of the alcohol industry. Eppink rushes to the first floor. There, the cameraman is already waiting. He is interviewed In front of a window with a view on the Parliament. His message is that Greece and the Euro are not saved yet.

Downstairs in the hallway Eppink briefly shakes hands with his Luxembourg colleague, Astrid Lulling, member of the European People's Party. In one of his books he wrote how she alternates her work with other 'escapades'. "Ever since, she has been asking me who gave me that information." He bids us farewell and rushes to his next appointment, a dinner with the Friends of the Gulf States. They don't want the prying eyes of the media.


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