Speech by foreign minister Stef Blok to EU ambassadors
Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, to the EU ambassadors, 16 May 2017
Around my family’s dinner table, I could always sense the shadow of the Second World War. My parents had seen their country destroyed. My mother lived on the right side of the last bridge before Arnhem. My father barely survived a Japanese camp. His father, my grandfather didn’t live to see the end of the war.
Then we lived through the era of post-war reconstruction. And the birth of a unique project: Europe. Suddenly there was French cheese on the table. German beer, Italian wine. Tangible progress. Slowly but surely, through practical, often non-political steps, Europeans built the most stable, prosperous and free continent on the planet, creating a climate of prosperity and stability. Peace through integration.
Europe today – handle with care
For today’s generation, the war seems very distant. That’s a good thing, but it has a downside. The stories of our elders, and the deeply rooted sense of war’s destructive power, are fading. So is our memory of the foundation – the necessity – of today’s European Union. And of the enormous progress this partnership has brought us.
As a result, today some take the benefits of European cooperation for granted. They concentrate on the perceived drawbacks - an unavoidable part of such a close partnership. Some even dream of some newfound ‘sovereignty’, liberation from bonds they perceive as chains. What they forget is this: that the very goal of EU cooperation – after two devastating world wars within 30 years – was to safeguard exactly that: our freedom and sovereignty. Some even irresponsibly plead for exiting this successful partnership, which has brought us so much.
Regarding Brexit, I want to be clear. My mother was an English teacher and I was told to never say anything negative about the British. But nevertheless, it’s a decision I regret deeply. I believe it’s bad for the UK, bad for the EU and bad for the Netherlands. But we must respect it. The focus now must be on minimising the pain. Because there will be pain, for all of us. So we need to ensure the exit process is as civilised, orderly and fair as possible.
But if I may: there is also a silver lining to this unlucky event. The realisation, in 27 other capitals: ‘let’s not try this at home.’ Coupled with a sense of urgency: we need to make it work for the remaining 27. Recommit, in solidarity. But above all: responsibly.
The Netherlands in Europe: a clear choice
It goes without saying that staying in Europe is clearly in the Dutch interest. The single market has brought prosperity. Cooperation brought stability. The institutions brought legal certainty.
It’s also clear that we cannot take these benefits for granted. The EU’s close political and economic partnership was created by people. It is not some natural phenomenon. It is a valuable asset – and also a vulnerable one. So we have to maintain it, refine it and sometimes make compromises.
And, at the same time, we must have the courage to be clear about what Europe is not. It isn’t wise to offer vague platitudes and generalities about an ‘ever closer union’. The EU is not some ‘unstoppable train, moving towards federalisation’. Instead, I believe we need to be clear about the following points.
- Europe is a partnership of strong states that preserve their individuality through cooperation. This means the EU is not a ‘super state’ or federation, where member states play second fiddle to some central power. The member states call the tune. The main job of Brussels is to keep time. The EU’s existence depends on the goodwill and support of our citizens.
After all, it’s those citizens who foot the bill. Public support for European cooperation plays out at the level of national parliaments. When it comes to decision-making, this is where is the ultimate source of legitimacy is to be found. It is the forum people identify with most strongly.
- The EU is the world’s largest market, with the most consumers and the most producers. This means that Europe should be founded on healthy economies that are globally competitive and generate sustainable growth. This is the best way to offer young people prospects for the future and ensure that pensions and care for older people remain affordable. That requires sound public finances. So when budgets are not in order, structural reforms are needed. This is the individual responsibility of each member state that signed up to the euro – the common currency we conceived, developed and introduced together. The euro should be a means to increase prosperity, not to redistribute existing wealth. The EU must not become a transfer union.
- EU membership is not a menu. If you join, you agree to all the terms – costs and benefits alike. It’s not always easy. It’s like a marriage - the in-laws are part of the deal. No one forced you to say ‘I do’. But one thing is clear: together you are stronger. We can sum up this message in a few simple words:
- A deal is a deal. I realise this might make me sound stern and inflexible. But consider the alternative: If everyone sticks to only a couple of the agreements, or decides for themselves what they can get away with, we won’t achieve anything. Like I learned in my grammar school, where I learned to say: pacta sunt servanda: ‘agreements must be kept’. It seems self-evident, but sadly it hasn’t always been the case in recent years. In the Netherlands, the 2003 example, when two large member states got away with breaching the Eurozone budget rules, is often cited as a decisive moment for the EU’s credibility. My mother would cite George Orwell: some animals are more equal than others (my mother was an English teacher). And now, as a result, at times, we’re reaping what we’ve sown. We’ve seen an erosion of public trust, which is essential to this project, and hence to public support.
In this context, consider also the separation of powers – Montesquieu’s brainchild – which is deeply rooted in Europe’s DNA. In some countries, this principle is being eroded, and the system of checks and balances is under threat.
Migration, Eurozone, MFK
Allow me to elaborate a little more on two key areas of concern: migration and the Eurozone.
Only two years ago, our continent was facing a serious migration crisis. At an individual level, it was rooted in human tragedy. But at a collective level it also stemmed from political failure. A lack of capacity to act on the part of the EU. The crisis showed that we need a common and effective European asylum system. This issue is on the agenda of the June European Council.
The Dublin system isn’t working properly and needs to be revised. We need a system that can withstand future pressures and sudden shocks. We urgently need clearer and more efficient procedures. And, most importantly: we need solidarity among Member States. During a migration crisis such as the one we saw in 2015, no Member State should be allowed to avoid responsibility.
The Netherlands is pressing for an integrated approach that calls for action at every point along the migration route: in countries of origin, transit and reception, and in the EU itself. Without solid, functioning agreements in place, people’s freedom of movement will be in jeopardy.
My second major concern is the euro. To me, the future of EMU is too important to simply rush into a compromise. It is clear that risks need to be reduced sufficiently first, before they can be shared. Completing the banking union is essential to the eurozone’s future. But that doesn’t mean we have to rush into it.
It’s also important that we reform the European Stability Mechanism, within the existing intergovernmental framework. Emergency funds should be provided only to countries with sustainable levels of debt. If their debt doesn’t meet the criteria, restructuring should take place first. This principle must be clear to everyone. Compliance with – and enforcement of – these rules will prevent public finances from reaching unsustainable levels. If each country takes its responsibility, there will be no need for a common ‘shock absorber’ fund.
In this connection, I’d like also to mention the Multi-Annual Financial Framework. A lot was said about this last week, when the Commission presented its proposal. Let me say this. We support the Commission in the much-needed modernisation process. But the reforms need to be a lot more ambitious: more innovation, less ‘business as usual’. The Commission’s proposal does not meet that standard yet. It is also expensive. Too expensive for the Netherlands. What’s more, it doesn’t divide the costs fairly. The Netherlands is already being hit hard by Brexit, and the budget proposal adds an unreasonably high bill to the mix.
As I said last week: this is not acceptable to the Netherlands. A smaller EU should mean a smaller budget. And that means: much tougher choices and deeper spending cuts.
Europe is a great good. It’s a fantastic project, but one that requires continual maintenance, improvement and endorsement. A project we must all handle with great care. It is too fragile to be left to its own devices. It is a vital tool for achieving an overarching goal: peace, prosperity, security and stability for the countries and people of this continent. And as a liberal politician, this is my guiding principle: freedom and security for our peoples.
If our grandparents could see Europe now, would they be proud? Yes, I believe they would. Over the years we’ve built a growing community of lasting peace and prosperity. I know that not everything is working as it should. It’s not perfect. It’s the work of human beings, after all. Maybe it can never be perfect. As William of Orange said, ‘It is not necessary to hope in order to act, nor to succeed in order to persevere.’
Europe still needs political will to make tangible progress. To build a Union that performs, protects, and provides jobs for its people. This is the only way to make Europe fit for the future. The only way to ensure that the EU can continue to count on the public’s support. And the only way we can safeguard the Union’s promise, and proven achievements: prosperity, stability, and peace through integration.