An EU fit for purpose

Speech by Minister For European Affairs, Frans Timmermans: Introduction and Q&A Policy Network/LSE - as delivered

Ladies and gentlemen,

One of the most pleasant surprises I had last week was when reading the Financial Times - and you don't get many pleasant surprises reading the Financial Times these days - was Gideon Rachman’s contribution. He wrote that he has been a staunch Eurosceptic for a decade, and wrote: ‘I haven’t given up on my ideas about the Commission doing too much, I haven’t given up on my ideas about the European Parliament, but this is not a time when we can afford to be Europsceptics!’ It’s back to basics. It’s back to why we need the European scale to tackle the issues we’re facing right now. And that is something we need to think about. I think he has given us an excellent opportunity to rethink our own way of addressing the issue of legitimacy.

The synthesis report states that the legitimacy problem is caused by the over-promising and underperforming of politicians. I think over-promising is more a sign of a dis-ease, of an unease with Europe rather than a core of a problem. Why do people over-promise? Because they feel they cannot convince their electorates that what they are doing is the right thing. So they start over-promising, underperforming and over-promising again. Plus, I think the core of the problem is rather that we have lost sight of the essential element of European integration. This is pulling off resources and pulling off destiny, which is more fundamental than pulling off resources. Because the beginning of European integration is of course the willingness to avoid mistakes of the past.

The goal is to avoid these recurring incidents. Every thirty years Europeans used to go at each other’s throats. And the formula used, is that we link our destinies, and we depend on each other. One cannot perform without the other. And this method performed admirably for fifty, sixty years. And now somehow, at some stage, something which was always the strength of Europe, has become in the public opinion Europe’s liability. So why is our strength, being part of a big family, part of a community where we pull our resources and our destinies together, why has that suddenly become a cause of concern or even fear? Why is what we said previously: ‘yes, it’s good to do this’ now transformed into: ‘why do I depend on these Rumanians or Poles or French, why can’t we take care of our own?’. An interesting change of attitude and I think this is the core of our legitimacy problem.

I think the reason for this is, in my view that with the end of the European divide, not only changed Eastern Europe, it also changed the perspective in Western Europe. Our perspective of the whole of Europe and of our position in the world. European integration was always driven by a fear of ourselves and the fear of external threats. Communism was one of those external threats. We have taken away that threat, but the Western-European countries haven’t found a new position in Europe yet. Especially when the perspective of the new free European states is no longer the same perspective as ours.

We have always had doubts about full sovereignty of nation states. The nation state has been the cause of problems in Europe many times. So we needed to soften the position of nation states vis á vis one another. Whereas for the newly independent countries in Eastern Europe the nation state was a clear expression of their freedom. So I would argue that the first thing we need to learn, all of us Europeans in order to regain legitimacy, is to get rid of this fallacy that says that Europe should be built at the expense of the nation state or that the nation state is in Europe’s way. I believe that Europe cannot be built without strong nation states. And that we cannot have strong nation states without strong European ties. The current financial and economic crisis proves my point very clearly.

Why do we need strong nation states? Because especially in the diverse Europe of today our populations need political focal points. And those political focal points are the nation states. That’s where the political attention is addressed, that is where they want their answers to come from. And it’s up to national politicians to define to the public that some of the answers or part of the answers can only come from Europe, not just from the nation states. So the responsibility of national politicians is no longer to always say ‘everything that went well is thanks to us, everything that went wrong is Europe’s fault’. We have to be more honest about the division of labour and also more honest about the successes that have been gained by Europe. So let’s look at the nation state again. I think this is not something one needs to explain in the United Kingdom, it’s more a continental issue. But I have noticed in my own country, that if you talk about the nation state in different terms and if you take away the supposed rivalry between Europe and the nation state you start the debate on Europe on a different footing and it does help to regain some legitimacy.

The second part on regaining legitimacy has everything to do with the crisis we’re facing today. For many years now, Europe has been virtually unpopular in my country. A very straight phenomenon that when Eurobarometer asks people in Europe ‘do you support the idea of Europe?’ the highest yes-response is in the Netherlands. But this is an abstract level. As soon as you go into the precise answers you will see that the Dutch have become quite Eurosceptical in general about the instruments of Europe, about the workings of Europe, etcetera. So what happens is that when talking about Europe, you immediately talk about the institutions, traffic and busses in Straatsburg and also some other nonsense we should have taken off the table a long time ago. So it’s like when you’re going on a long hike and you want to reach a certain goal. And you’re not enjoying the scenery; you’re not enjoying the fresh air because there is a pebble in your shoe. And that pebble is hurting all the time and you can’t concentrate on anything else but the pebble.

That’s what has been happening in the Netherlands. We’ve been concentrating on those relatively unimportant things that do not really matter, but symbolise Europe today. And we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. We’ve lost sight of the fact that we should have been going to a factory, telling the workers their jobs depend on the European market. We should have been going to institutions and saying you can only act because there is a bigger European space in which you act, which makes it possible for you to do something for our citizens. We have neglected that side of the debate completely and I think our responsibility is to go back there. We have an opportunity now. Because what we see now is that people almost naturally understand that this crisis can only be faced if we work together globally, starting in Europe. This is something I don’t really need to convince people about. As long as I don’t immediately go into the debate on the composition of the Commission or voting rights in the Council, but I concentrate on things that really matter such as how do we organise our economy, we do have a constituency for Europe in the Netherlands.

An interesting thing happened recently on Dutch television. The Finance minister was asked ‘what do you think what would have happened, had we not had the Euro in the last couple of months?’. He said ‘oh, we would have been Iceland’. And six months ago, this would have been ridiculed by the press as a nonsensical argument that you could never prove, etcetera. Now, everybody accepts this as a fact. So clearly, there is a constituency for a European programme if it is based on tackling our economic problems. I believe that if you look at the world, how it’s changing, if you look at our economic challenges, financial challenges, energy challenges, environment challenges, Europe is the best place of all regions in the world to grasp the opportunity that is offered.

Europe has more strategic depth than any other area in the world, because of its population, because of its economic structure, its purchasing power, because of its social retribution system, which is better than anywhere else in the world. All of these things are better in Europe then anywhere else in the world. But there are some things we need to do better than we are doing today. And this goes back to the third point of the rapport: our international responsibility. Are we able to provide stability and prospects for economic, social and cultural development in our own neighbourhood? I’m talking about Eastern Europe, I’m talking about the Mediterranean. If Europe is able to provide that, to that region, to our own neighbourhood, then Europe will be the part of the world that will set the trend for the new constructivist period that will begin within the next couple of years.

We’re going through a deep crisis, but I’m deeply convinced that at the outcome of this crisis we will enter into a new constructivist period in the world economy. With that region that is able to us its strategic depth to the fullest of its capacity will come out the strongest. And why do I believe that Europe has the best opportunity? I told you about the strength we have in our society, but there is also another factor that I think is important. I think economic models are changing. Proximity to markets becomes more important. Re-regionalisation of our economy due to ecological factors, but also economic factors, financial factors is increasing. That means that the markets with the highest purchasing power and with the best production facilities, with the best possibilities to develop markets are best suited to have a good starting position in this constructivist period. The Asian economic model will come under pressure. Asia has huge potential, huge potential, but it will have to rethink its model based on sending stuff three times around the world before getting it to your customer. That is not a sustainable economic model in the long run and Europe has a better proposition. And I’m sure, as they did before, Asians will learn from what we will be doing.

Finally, based on this idea that we should rethink our legitimacy. That we should be optimistic about our strategic depth. That we have a convincing argument for European integration. I think these three points should be where we start, facing head-on populism in Europe. I do not believe in facing populism by talking about moral issues. Saying that they are not part of the debate, that what they say is despicable, etcetera, etcetera. I don’t believe in that, it doesn’t work. It has been tried time and again in the Netherlands, the only effect of it is that they grow. We will have to tackle the issue by fighting fear head-on. Because my biggest problem in European politics today is that we have such a lack of self-confidence. That the politics of fear have taken over the political debate all over Europe. You can win an election by playing on fear. This happens all over Europe. And the only way to tackle this is to re-introduce optimism on the basis of facts and not just on the basis of ideas. And I think there is a good argument to be made here because I think we are in an excellent starting position.

Finally, what we see now in my generation - I’m not talking about the youngest generation -what we see now in my generation, especially in the middle classes in most of Europe, is for the first time since the Second World War an intrinsic feeling of decline. It’s for the first time since the Second World War that a majority of Europeans, middle-classes, think it’s all down-hill from here. And if that happens, people will be reluctant to accept change to see the other or the neighbour or the other country as an opportunity. But will always see that what is different and what is foreign as a threat. So here again, if we want to avoid falling into that ancient old European trap we need to make sure that people know that it is not necessarily so that it is down-hill from here. On the contrary, we have a great opportunity to create a better future for our children.

Thank you.