Peter Noordhoek: Set a high standard for the European Parliament
Peter Noordhoek, a member of the Christian Democratic Party in the Netherlands, makes the case for a more positive approach to Brussels.
With much interest I read the article of Dr Charles Tannock MEP on ‘Why we need to take the European Parliament more seriously’ and the subsequent comments on it. It led me to write this Dutch perspective on the issue. Not, however, to say anything about the selection of candidates itself. I have neither the position, wish, nor knowledge to do so. It is because I might have something to add when it comes to the importance of the position of an MEP, here, in Holland and elsewhere in Europe. Reading the many comments on the article, and having spent quite a few conversations on this topic with people in your country, I hope my comment will add some fresh insights into the hot debate on Europe in Britain.
And how hot it is. Many people in the Netherlands, including those who are critical of the EU, do not realise how high the temperatures can rise in Britain. The number of people in Holland that are critical of the EU is considerable, enough to vote no on our referendum on the EU-treaty. Even so, most of them would not understand the radicalism with which many Britons approach the subject. For the Dutch, leaving the EU is no option, improving it is a must. For many Britons, including a great many Tories, leaving the EU is a must, improving it an option. Even if I were to agree with that sentiment, which I do not, I do not think it makes sense. For one thing, it may lead to an inaccurate assessment of the importance of your representatives in Europe for your country and party.
To be sure; you are more than entitled to have this critical view on Europe, to plead for a referendum, even to plead for a withdrawal from the EU and to highlight every folly coming from Brussels. It might actually help to bring some democratic sense to Europe’s bureaucrats. But please, do not stop thinking about what is in your and our common interest. When a longing for splendid isolation becomes a magnificent folly, it is not only you that will get hurt.
Living in a smaller country than yours makes it perhaps more evident, but it does look like there is a global shift going on that gives Europe more weight. To the business community this is already abundantly clear. Not just because the euro is getting stronger every day in relation to the dollar (and the pound), but it is also worthwhile noting that for instance American companies are now using European standards for their product quality. To the Dutch public this is also becoming clear because the media are slowly but surely breaking their habit of only focussing on The Hague when it comes to political news in the Netherlands. When Brussels sneezes, we know it – and start coughing.
There are many misunderstandings about Brussels. I give you two. The first is that it is mainly a number of European bureaucrats that decide matters. The second is that MEP’s are just a silly bunch of impotents standing miserably on the sideline.
While not diminishing the role of the European bureaucrats, policy is and will be mainly the result of the battles that are being fought out by the national bureaucrats of the now 27 member states. For this, alliances need to be struck, coalitions to be made. Sometimes a single nation can stop a policy, but it is almost impossible to be successful in achieving a certain policy without attracting others to your point of view. You cannot be part of this if your mind is not part of this. The others know. I think the Netherlands paid dearly in terms of influence because of our ‘no’ at the referendum.
Meanwhile we are all still struggling with the reality of negotiating policies with more than twenty nations. No doubt it will become more a matter of blocks of nations exchanging views than of single nations. Inevitably much of this will be played out in the European Parliament – it is the one public place Europe has. And as this Parliament becomes more and more politicised, party lines will become more and more important. You have to be strong and talented to play in that theatre and very much aware of your position. Saying you do not want to be part of that is like a backbencher saying that he does not care about sitting on the frontbench.
How odd it is then, that while other countries, especially the new ones, do everything they can to be in a good position and send strong candidates, you appear to be less than sure in your efforts. Following the discussion and having spoken with many of you, it is hard to deny a certain – let me say it mildly – ambivalence in the way you speak of the European Parliament and your representatives in it. I fear for the consequences of that.
This issue matters to me both for practical reasons and more. Though we sometimes differ, I think the Dutch and British have much in common, and should team up in Europe, both when it comes to being constructive and being critical of Europe. To me improving the EU is not an option, it is a must and we must do this together.
In politics, you lead by example. In the past year I was asked to do some training on building party organisations and campaigning for young potentials from Eastern Europe. It was wonderful to work with them. What struck me was that they were very much aware and self-critical of the old-style politics in their own countries. They also made clear how much they looked to us, to countries like Britain and Holland, to set a different standard. Being part of a common political effort in the European Parliament, and setting high standards for your representatives in it, is very much part of that standard. Please, raise the bar high in Britain.