Speech on Europe


Thank you for coming to Rotterdam. This location, the Maassilo, symbolises the Rotterdam we all know: its port and its industry. But it also stands for the new Rotterdam: a city of start-ups, creativity and an international mind-set. Rotterdam is a quintessentially European city.

The contrast between old and new is clearly visible here. It’s a place where the 20th century meets the 21st century. At a time of great change.

The debate on the future of the European Union is framed by the huge changes that are reshaping the world. The world is different than it was over 50 years ago. The Union as it was conceived in the fifties and sixties by Jean Monnet needs to move with the times.

You submitted lots of questions and suggestions by email and Facebook. Your questions were a source of inspiration, and I’ll try to answer them as well as I can over the course of my speech. So I hope you recognise your questions when I touch on them. Most of them are about recurring themes: the democratic deficit in the European Union; the power wielded by Brussels; unemployment and the economic crisis; the need for greater transparency, for more plain speaking, and for less musical chairs between Brussels and Strasbourg; and the need to make Europe something people can relate to. Your questions were critical and practical. They showed concern and were to-the-point:

- How can decision-making by the European Parliament be made more transparent?

- How can we in the Netherlands retain and underline our identity?

- In what sense can we speak of a European Union?

- How will you make sure the Eurosceptic parties don’t get the upper hand?

- How can we give the people of the European Union more of a feeling that they are Europeans?

- What will the European Union look like in 25 or 50 years’ time?

- After five calamitous years, can you still say that the EU and the euro are a positive thing?

- Will there be a referendum, and what is the government’s view on a federal Europe?

- How can we increase the turnout among young people at European elections?

- How is the Netherlands protecting its sovereignty against the unelected European Commission?

Not all these questions have an immediate answer. One questioner was annoyed that his Dutch Netflix account wouldn’t work in Belgium. That’s not a problem I will be solving today. Strasbourg was mentioned by many people, and like you the government would prefer things to be different, but that’s a problem for the long term. But I will certainly be taking to heart the warning I was given by Ms Verbruggen that we need to look beyond ‘our own neck of the woods’. And the email from Ms Visser, who wished me good luck with ‘this impossible speech’.


If you know your history, you’ll be aware that the Netherlands is a card-carrying member of the European Union, but that over the years it has often sounded a critical note. We are one of the member states, like Germany, that prefers to take short steps forward. In the last few months a new question has arisen in our national debate: wouldn’t the Netherlands be better off if it gave up its membership of the EU?

But to quote an email from Mr Van Dijk, ‘The question is not if we should be in Europe, but what kind of Europe we should be in.’ That hits the nail on the head. The government is in the same camp as those Dutch people who want to be in the EU, but a different EU. The EU has to listen better to voters from all member states, rather than governing over the heads of Europeans.

That’s why it’s valuable to listen to critics of the EU. If you’re critical it doesn’t mean you’re an enemy of the European idea. Eurosceptics warn us about being overconfident or rushing into decisions. They make for a keener debate. A better debate helps us make better decisions. But I also see a difference between the critical sceptics and the critics who call into question the whole basis of European cooperation.


European cooperation is founded on solidarity. By joining together as European countries we can prevent major conflicts and we are stronger on the world stage. This fundamental idea is now being called into question by what are called ‘nationalist’ political parties. Nationalists believe in going it alone. They distrust cooperation based on solidarity, because that implies taking collective decisions on some questions.

It’s good to be clear about what we’re talking about. Definitions are important. Most people feel a strong bond with their country. And there’s nothing wrong with that. A government, by definition, serves the national interest. Cherishing our identity is a great good, because it fosters a sense of belonging and a common bond of solidarity. But being proud of the Netherlands doesn’t make you a nationalist.

Nationalism is the political ideology that views the nation state as the only desirable political structure. We mustn’t lump today’s nationalist parties together with those of the past. The nationalist political movements we see today differ from their historical forebears. Today’s nationalism is not militaristic, not by definition reactionary, not by definition right-wing, not by definition xenophobic. And there are big differences from one country to the next.

But today’s nationalism is the same as in the past in one respect: it believes in an illusion. The illusion of a glorious sovereign national past, as a basis for an equally glorious future. It paints a picture of a Netherlands that never did exist, as a template for a Netherlands that never will exist.

We must not be misled by false opposites, as if it were a question of all or nothing. Either a European federation, or an isolated nation state. Reality can’t be reduced to soundbites. Counterpointing the federation with the nation state is misleading. The EU is not like the US. But it’s also more than a loose association of nation states. It involves a continuous search for the best possible balance between a federal state and a federation of states.

We live in a small continent of enormous diversity. We must find a way to do justice to our differences, but not at the expense of the peace or prosperity of one or more countries.

History shows that it’s not always easy. Since the Napoleonic wars, and long before then, Europe has tried in various ways to maintain a precarious balance of power, or to adjust that balance, usually by means of warfare. In the 19th century, this geopolitical game was based on the sovereignty of European states. Countries tried to hem each other in through diplomatic manoeuvres and strategic alliances. European history is a bit like a never-ending episode of Game of Thrones: peoples and nations seeking to dominate, power continually shifting from one to another, increasingly violent wars as a means to achieve a new equilibrium.

Striving for dominance has been a hallmark of European history. This struggle was rarely good news for a small country like the Netherlands. In 1713, at the peace negotiations leading to the Treaty of Utrecht, the French diplomat Melchior de Polignac put it like this: ‘Chez vous, sur vous, sans vous.’ That is to say, the negotiations were taking place ‘in your country, about you, without you’. The Netherlands could host the negotiations, but had no say in them. The shape of the Netherlands after 1813 was largely determined by the European powers which viewed our country as a buffer against the imperialist ambitions of others. The Netherlands had a say, but by no means had full control over its own destiny.

The European Union put an end to the centuries-old struggle for dominance. It forms the core of European cooperation: no one country can dominate any more; there has to be give and take. The EU is structured in such a way that even the big countries have to go along with what the majority of member states decide. It is a form of solidarity and voluntary modesty. It appeals to our capacity to be reasonable and see things from the perspective of others. It is a great good that countries like Germany and France are prepared to show lasting respect for this principle of solidarity, based on binding treaties, even if it means that they sometimes bear a disproportionate burden vis-à-vis countries that are smaller and less powerful than they are.

This solidarity means that countries cannot always have their own way. The Netherlands being no exception. Sometimes we have to give ground, we have to yield and accept a decision that is not in our immediate interest. It’s important to be honest about that. But we should not forget that this process of give and take brought together the countries of Europe in the European Union. This has proved a resounding success – in terms of peace, political stability in member states, Europe’s position in the global power play, economic growth and the development of the welfare state.

The Union was the engine that drove the advance of democracy in the countries that were outside the EU. And it still is in those countries that are not yet members. It is a force that has brought sustainable democratisation in the countries that lay behind the former Iron Curtain; that has guaranteed peace, freedom and democracy throughout Europe; that has enabled universal values to take root across Europe, values like equal rights for all, freedom of expression and socioeconomic security.

Ukraine’s position today, wedged between Europe and Russia, was Poland’s lot for many centuries. Poland’s borders have shifted many times in the country’s history. It has experienced periods of independence, annexation by the Russian empire, and has been repeatedly overrun by invading armies. That is now inconceivable. Poland is firmly anchored in the EU, at the heart of Europe. It owes its stability in part to the strength of the EU. The tug-of-war over Poland of bygone years, pitting Germany or Austria against Russia, is a thing of the past. If we compare Poland’s situation with Ukraine’s, we can understand the paradox that Poland joined the EU precisely because that gave it secure, fixed borders. That is also a strength of the European Union.

The EU deserves our support, even at a time when we think we can manage on our own. The real test of our partnership is whether we can maintain our commitment to it even when war seems a remote prospect, if not inconceivable. After all, who can now imagine Europeans taking up arms against each other again?

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that Europe without the EU would slide into war, but it would also be naive to think it would be better if everyone went their own way. Some historians describe 1913, the eve of the First World War, as the most cosmopolitan year of the 20th century. Then, too, you could travel freely, and people did so in large numbers. Europe was optimistic. New technological developments followed each other in quick succession. These were the ‘vertigo years’ with relatively high levels of prosperity and technological progress.

If history teaches us anything, it is that there are no certainties. No certainties with regard to war, no certainties with regard to peace, and no certainties with regard to prosperity. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be lulled to sleep by those people who say that the world is better off if everyone goes it alone. We need to follow a middle way between exaggeration and naivety, between fear and overconfidence: people are people, and we know from ourselves that we can be unpredictable and volatile in our behaviour.

I take seriously the challenge thrown down by the critics. Where need be, I take up the gauntlet. But the government does so in a way that fits with who we are as Dutch people.

3. Government position

It’s difficult to face up to the fact that, due to globalisation, our fate is inseparably connected with that of 500 million other Europeans. Some of them are quite similar to ourselves, while many others are different to varying degrees. Working together can cause friction. The process can stall and even come to a standstill. It’s not always easy and quite disconcerting to discover that we Europeans are now all in the same boat. After all, how dependent do you want to be on someone you hardly know, whose trust you have not yet won, and in whom you have yet to put your trust? But that’s precisely the situation we Europeans now find ourselves in, especially in the aftermath of the financial crisis and in this difficult phase of the economic crisis. In this European boat of ours, we seem to be more dependent on each other than we would like at this moment. So it’s no surprise that some people’s gut reaction is to say ‘I’m grabbing a lifebelt and jumping ship’. But isolation is not a lifebelt – it’s a Fata Morgana. At a time of globalisation and major geopolitical shifts, we need partners and allies. I’m sure I don’t need to explain in the port of Rotterdam that a large well-built ship is less vulnerable in rough seas or in a storm than a little dinghy, bobbing about by itself in a big ocean, surrounded by big ships that take account of each other but don’t spare a second glance for a small vessel.

The countries of the European Union have exchanged ‘might is right’ for the rule of law. They have committed themselves to abide by arrangements laid down in treaties, even if these arrangements result in decisions being made that benefit some member states more than others. The important thing is striking a balance between giving and taking, between advantages and disadvantages. Over the long term, the balance must be a positive one both for the Union as a whole and for individual member states, otherwise the basis for European cooperation will crumble away. The fair and uniform application of the law is essential in this respect. Without an impartial referee, all the agreements between countries become weaker. Imagine what it would mean for Dutch companies if every country had different rules. Businesses operate internationally and if other countries have more flexible rules than ours, the Dutch economy will suffer. If we are serious about working together in Europe, we need to make and enforce rules jointly.

The idea that it would be in our interest to leave the Union strikes me as nonsense. We are a trading nation. Those who put our trade at risk do not have the Netherlands’ best interests at heart. No border controls, no foreign exchange risk within the eurozone, no ambiguity whatsoever about what rules products must comply with: these are essential conditions for the success of a country that relies on exports, especially within the EU. The EU’s internal market can only function thanks to the joint control we exercise from Brussels. Thanks to the European Commission, the internal market functions well, although improvements can and should be made.

When Poland joined the EU 10 years ago, it was Dutch companies that invested there. Dutch businesses are the biggest foreign investors in Romania and Bulgaria; exports to Poland have risen rapidly in recent years, even during the crisis. The Dutch economy has benefited greatly from the free movement of goods, capital, services and also persons.

But this does not mean that there are no drawbacks. European solidarity has a downside, and we should not try to conceal it. The government recognises this fact and is working with other member states to tackle the adverse effects of the free movement of persons, for example.

Pickpockets are a problem; profiteering landlords and gangmasters who force ten people to live in a small room are a problem; sham employment arrangements in the construction industry are a problem.

We will solve these problems, with our EU partners where necessary. Tearing ourselves free of the Union is not an option. The government remains loyal to the Dutch values of cooperation and an international outlook. These values are part and parcel of our identity.

Thanks to the Dutch tradition of cooperation in Europe, we have always been able to exert influence, despite our limited geographical size. Thanks to the European Union, the Netherlands’ values are thriving. We could choose to cut our links with the rest of the world, but the government prefers to have an influence. Only then can we truly make our voice heard on the global stage.

Sovereignty is not something you can measure, weigh and package. You can’t measure it like the water level in the Maas. You can’t say, for example: ‘The Netherlands is still the Netherlands because the sovereignty meter gives a healthy reading.’ The Netherlands is more than that and stronger than that. Sovereignty is a paper tiger. In today’s world, if you want to serve Dutch interests you need influence. As Michael Heseltine once said: ‘A man alone in the desert is sovereign. He is also powerless.’

But that does not mean giving the EU carte blanche to arrogate more powers to itself. The European Union needs to be modest and understand that there is no Union without the member states. The EU is not ‘Brussels versus the member states’, but an attempt to work together effectively and democratically. The EU exists by the grace of the member states and their democratic institutions. The EU would do well to secure greater involvement in Brussels decision-making by those democratic institutions, governments and parliaments. Those institutions in turn have a solemn duty to make far better use of the instruments available to exercise influence in Brussels, instruments which too often they fail to avail themselves of. National parliaments pass up opportunities to consult with each other on the use of yellow and orange cards when assessing the necessity of European proposals. They can and must do a lot better in this area.

Some say that all this may sound good on paper, but that it is proving impractical because Europe does not have its own demos, its own people. But as one of my email correspondents asked: ‘Doesn’t Europe have a nous, a mind, of its own?’

It is not true that democracy is only possible in a nation state. The European Parliament is elected directly, and the Council, in which national governments are represented, ensures that a balance is maintained between Brussels and the member states. The member states are involved in all decisions, even though afterwards they sometimes like to pretend otherwise.

The former Czech president, Václav Havel, put it this way: ‘Europe is the homeland of our homelands’ – a common roof over our different homes. For Havel, Europeans were primarily citizens of their own towns and cities, their own regions and nation states. But as inhabitants of Europe, they are also part of a greater whole: the homeland of homelands.

There’s no denying that friction sometimes arises in our ‘homeland of homelands’. Globalisation leads to alienation, and on top of that came the euro crisis. The crisis summits on the euro were reflected in national crises, which raised vital questions: ‘Who are we? What do we stand for? What is our identity?’ The crisis in Europe is much more than an economic crisis. It is connected with an existential question that many Europeans – from France to Croatia, from Finland to Italy – are asking themselves.

When old certainties start to crumble, people turn to what is familiar. The world is changing, and old social structures can no longer be taken for granted. People are wondering: ‘Who is still thinking of me?’ The government understands this search for identity.

Another issue is apathy. Young people in particular are losing confidence in politics. In its relevance and its ability to deliver on its promises. Politics is under fire and – let’s be honest – the criticisms are sometimes justified. Stalemates and inflexibility are undermining democracy. Every election promise that is not kept further erodes public trust. If promises invariably lead to disappointment, the stature of politics is diminished. Young people are turning their backs on political structures: either they do things themselves or they become completely passive and lose all interest.

Both developments bode ill. If we lose the younger generation – whether it be jobless young people from Southern Europe, or young people from Northern Europe who believe politics is pointless – we will lose our future.

Such developments should spur us on to take stock of ourselves and make changes where necessary. If Europe is the common roof over our homes, the institutions in Brussels should certainly never be seen as an end in themselves. Unfortunately, that Europe has supplanted the real Europe. And it prevents Europeans from seeing the real Europe. Those who equate Europe with large glass office buildings fail to realise that those institutions sometimes make it more difficult for people to identify with Europe.

4. Questions and conclusion

You have raised numerous questions and put forward numerous solutions. Ms Hassouna-Jansen suggested that national politicians should do more to share their knowledge of Europe with the public by playing a more active part in the debate. Mr Van Raalten says that the Brussels ‘pyramid’ has created a large gap between the European Union and its citizens. Like many others, he warns of the democratic deficit in the EU.

The government fully agrees with that. That’s why we are making proposals to bolster the role of national parliaments, and favour a smaller European Commission focusing on core tasks. The system of yellow and red cards, which allows MPs in national parliaments to intervene, must be further strengthened. And the Commission mustn’t brush yellow cards aside. National MPs represent national voters and their involvement in the European debate is essential.

Mr Duivesteijn, a student, complains that Europe is a plaything of China, Russia and the US because of its inability to speak with one voice. That is a valid point. If we make the European Union more democratic, we can advance European integration in certain areas. Global problems call for continent-wide solutions. Member states are too small to tackle them alone. The internal market must be enhanced, the energy problem calls for large-scale action, and the protection of human rights, both inside and outside the EU, requires a powerful common foreign policy.

Many people have highlighted the social problems in the EU. Europe has neglected the social dimension: the euro is a robust currency that has weathered the storm, but we must not get things back to front. The euro exists to serve Europeans, not the other way round. Youth unemployment in some member states is unsustainable, a social time bomb. It demands action by individual member states and at EU level.

I want to finish by considering an email I received from Mr Talens in Dronten. It really captured my attention. Let me read some of it:

‘I was born in Eext, a beautiful little village in Drenthe. I loved living there as a child. Lots of fun, lots of nature, lots of farms. The first secondary school I went to was in the nearby town of Gieten. I was proud of Eext. Children from other villages were merely so-so. My next school was situated in Assen, a big city! I didn’t like the people there at all; I felt at home with people from Eext, Gieten and other villages!

‘After leaving school, I worked in Enschede – I thought its inhabitants were rather strange. Then I got a job as a teacher in Flevoland: which was nothing compared with Drenthe and Twente.

‘A year and a half ago we took our children on a trip across Europe. We saw the first Greek temples, we read Greek mythology, we saw the catacombs in Rome with the first Christian frescos. We visited the Sistine Chapel. ‘Europe is great, Dad,’ said my youngest son one evening on the Mediterranean coast.

‘What we need is a narrative about Europe that is not just about the economy. A narrative about nations, customs, myths, religion, dancing and eating, passion and suffering, about people who cherish the place where they live and make the most of things. About being proud of what we have, just as I was of Eext.

‘I love the village where I was born, but I have seen that a small village can be great thanks to a greater whole: Europe.’

That hits the nail right on the head. Being European means being aware of identity, culture and tradition, but also of the responsibility that people in different European countries share with one another. I don’t believe that Europe and feeling at home are opposites. Personally, I think like a European precisely because I’m devoted to my own home. The Netherlands and the European Union are not opposites, they belong together. I love my city, my province and my country – that’s why I’m a European.

In a globalised world we stand stronger if we stand together. Europe is and will remain our common destiny. Europe has a unique social model with a welfare state, a high degree of social mobility and a balanced distribution of wealth. It is by no means certain that this heritage will survive in the coming century.

Much of the hesitancy about European cooperation stems from a rapid succession of changes that have brought great insecurity in their wake. It was only 10 years ago that the EU had to digest the biggest round of enlargement in its history. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, this was a historic step, an essential and necessary step from every conceivable perspective. But because of differences in economic development, political background and culture, this round of enlargement gave rise to a diversity within the EU that many felt uncomfortable with or even saw as a threat. Our European home was thoroughly renovated. We were joined by new residents, and it took quite a while for us to get used to each other.

It is a little over five years ago that the financial crisis struck, followed by an economic crisis that dealt a heavy blow to many of our certainties. In some countries over half the young people are now unemployed. And the efforts to bail out the banking sector made unprecedented demands on our mutual solidarity. This was a necessary step, but one which surprised many, since hitherto few Europeans had appreciated the extent to which our financial markets were interdependent. Unfortunately the EU was often seen as being partly responsible for the problems and impotent when it came to offering solutions.


We should not see the heated debate on the future of the EU that has erupted in the Netherlands and other European countries as a threat, but as an invitation to adapt the achievements of the past to the needs of the present. I am optimistic. Optimistic about Europe’s capacity to find a new direction. Optimistic about our ability to reform the EU so that it works for us all in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

We face the complex but noble task of mobilising the potential of European cooperation so that we emerge from the crisis stronger. Not only economically, but also socially and politically. This will only happen if Europeans become more convinced of the need for and benefits of European cooperation, based on what we have agreed in the treaties. This is why the EU needs to concentrate on the main issues and overcome its tendency to put a lot of energy into numerous side issues, into the extension of its own powers or into further enlargement.

There is no need to rewrite the treaties. What we need is for the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission, shortly after the elections in May, to reach a political deal setting out what the EU’s priorities will be over the next five years, and in what areas the EU will refrain from activity, so that those areas can be left to the member states. The Dutch government believes that in the next five years it is essential to focus on the main tasks, abandon side issues, and ensure that the major changes that the EU has undergone are properly consolidated. Greater purpose, a more modest approach, no more ideas based on a Brussels ‘virtual reality’, and a demonstration of concrete results. This is the only way we have a chance of convincing our ‘masters’, the citizens of Europe, that it is still well worth investing in solidarity.

Joost de Vries will shortly give his views on what I’ve said, but I want to end with a question from his latest novel De Republiek. I realise that I’m taking a risk. It’s always unwise to act as if you’ve understood a book when the author is present. But I’ll give it a go. In De Republiek Friso de Vos, the main character, is asked at one point: ‘Who do you want to be? The dauphin or the Robespierre?’ Dauphin is the French word for the crown prince, and Robespierre is the revolutionary who had the French king guillotined.

In my interpretation, De Republiek is about finding our place in the world. Deciding our position and making choices. These are key questions. Questions that my generation often asks itself, and young people even more so. If we were given the choice, what would we do? Make reforms or walk away? Are we the heir of the past? Or its executioner? In De Republiek the main character has to answer these questions for himself. Today, fortunately, we can discuss them with one another. So my question to you is: do we want to be participants or onlookers?

Thank you.