Text lecture Caroline de Gruyter

Caroline de Gruyter i, Europe correspondent for NRC Handelsblad. September 15, 2017 - The Hague. Check against delivery.


United by diversity - from polarisation to pacification

It is a great pleasure for me to be speaking to you about this year’s ‘Prinsjes theme’: polarisation and pacification.

For me, this goes straight into the heart of the European matter. Polarisation and pacification tend to go together. Europe is my field of work. The European Union is a peace project. It was, and it still is to this day, an attempt to pacify European nation states with clashing interests and ambitions. Those clashes have, as we all know, in the past repeatedly gotten out of hand militarily. I often hear people complain these days about the EU. “See,” they say: “there is the EU and still the North is disagreeing with the South! Brussels is at loggerheads with the Visegrad states! The French have different plans for the euro than the Germans!” and so on. Yes, that’s right. Day in, day out, European countries clash with one another on a wide range of different subjects. They have different interests, different hangups, different ambitions, different industries and different taboos - and so they will always clash. They used to fight this out with guns. Now they fight with words. I think that’s sheer progress.

I have spent 10 years describing these verbal fights in Brussels. Not just about refugees or different visions of the euro. Do you know how long they fought about the so-called ‘breakfast regulation’? In other words, a precise definition of what can be labelled ‘muesli’, and how much sugar or nuts 100 grams of this is allowed to contain? So that on the internal market every producer can compete with others from other member states freely and fairly? Well, it took them years. Several member states produce sugar. Others have raisins, or big cereal companies. Diplomats fought over this like street cats – about two grams of this, or half a gram of that. Another example? It took them 15 years to agree on a European patent. They all want this patent: you can file a request in one country and have it recognized automatically in all EU member states, instead of applying in each country again, each time in different languages and for whopping fees. Everybody agreed: this would be great progress. But still it took them a generation to conclude it, and not everybody is on board - because of a dispute about language, the language in which the patent is eventually translated. Some countries can’t accept that their language will not be used.

I can go on and on about this. I won’t, don’t worry. My point is here that conflict, polarisation, is a given in Europe – even after so many years of peace on the continent. That is why we still need some kind of mechanism, a structure, to contain these forces. To make sure the conflicts are fought out verbally, with words, and not with guns again. Some people assume European nation states can live happily together without this structure. They think there can’t be war again. I think this is an illusion, dangerous and naive. I have seen the cunning games in Brussels. I have smelled the adrenalin, the raw emotions and the sarcasm of the foot soldiers in the corridors. They were smartly dressed, in suits and ties – but still they are foot soldiers, on a mission to defeat another country’s foot soldiers on behalf of their country’s banks, coal industry, or chicken farms. And I cannot think of a better raison d’être of the EU than this. Not to suppress these emotions. But to contain them and modify them.

At school I used to learn that Europe is all about trade. About economic cooperation with our neighbours. Oh yes, and some of us share a common currency, too. It is high time we start teaching our children that the EU is a political project. That it is basically all about, yes: polarisation and pacification. To this very day.

If you want to start to understand Europe’s troubles, it is essential to know what the European Union is about and how it functions. You have to know what it is, and what it is not. As long as our school books give priority to NATO and transatlantic relations, treating European cooperation as an economic afterthought, Dutch citizens will never understand what our country is doing in the heart of the EU, why we are in Schengen and the euro, and why we are participating in every single project that the EU is undertaking. It’s politics, stupid.

Nowadays I think the biggest challenge is not what to do with the ‘new’ member states. It is not the euro, or even the economy, which anyway seems to be picking up. And it is not Brexit, either. I think the biggest challenge is to come to terms with globalization.

Let me take you back a couple of years. I am sitting on the couch with my father. We are watching television. It is election time. He supports the rightwing liberals, and like my classmates I had pinned a broken gun on my jumper – maybe just to annoy him. Anyway, we are on opposite sides and we have a real fight. In those days there was a big difference between left and right. Socially, and economically they advocated totally different policies for the country. It made a huge difference, whether the VVD or PvdA – the right or the left – won the elections. One would lower taxes and diminish social spending. The other would do the exact oppositie. This was the same in all European countries. Sovereignty had real meaning in those days.

Nowadays, this difference has almost evaporated. Tony Blair, a Labour man, has liberalized and privatised more than Tory Margaret Thatcher. The Greeks wanted different policies and voted for Syriza. But Syriza continues the policies of the previous conservative government. Greece is in the eurozone. It voted for this itself. ‘Different policies’ would have meant an exit from the euro zone and guaranteed pariah status for the next decade or two. Poland wanted to change its pension system a few years ago. The plan was killed in the end. Not by the opposition in Poland (though they tried), but by Pimco in the US - the financiers. Pimco said: “If you go ahead with this plan, we’ll withdraw.”

By globalizing we have taken the economy out of national politics. We’ve taken it to a higher level. This means that you can still talk about it, or fight about it, in the parliament, or in cafés or, like my father and me, on the couch. But these discussions have only limited impact on policies now. People vote Syriza, and get different ministers not different policies. So they start complaining that democracy doesn’t work. Whoever they vote for, it doesn’t have real impact. They feel, rightly, that they’ve lost control somehow. Power has slipped away. They ask: what is democracy worth? It makes them frustrated and angry. Some turn their back on politics, others start hating all politicians and vote them down whenever they can.

The main battle that citizens in Europe are waging, centres on this.

During the euro crisis I once witnessed an extraordinary discussion in the offices of a think tank in Brussels. It was lunch time. 20 people or so were sitting around a large oval table with sandwiches. We were looking out over the Parc Cinquantenaire. I remember the autumn wind chasing the last leaves from the trees. Suddenly the door opened. 4 young men in jeans entered. They were Indignados, young activists who had been camping out for several weeks in the park, protesting against neoliberal policies and the multibillion bailout of banks in Europe and America. “This is not the society that we want,” one of them said. He was a young man from the Sorbonne. Like the others, he was eloquent, well educated, multilingual, polite, and serious. Nice guys.

I will never forget this session. The young men had not had a shower for a while, and brought a horrible smell with them. They obviously hadn’t had that much to eat either, and started pocketing the sandwiches immediately. The plates were empty in a minute. “For our comrades in the park”, one of them said apologetically. But the most impressive moment came when they had finished criticizing the capitalist system and its excesses. Then it was the turn of “the system” to answer. A director-general of the European Commission stood up. The casting couldn’t have been better. He was grey-haired, a little on the heavy side, and wore a good suit (he was Dutch, by the way). And he said: “I feel like a turkey at Thanksgiving. You expect me to defend the system? Well, I won’t.” He explained he had been involved with the ’68 protests. This had also been a fight against the “system”. He said he sympathised with them. That they had good points. But having said that, he wanted to give them a piece of good advice: “Go into politics. Get involved. Change the system from the inside. That’s what we did. Don’t stay out, you influence will be zero.”

I am making this little detour in my story because it sums up the most important dilemma we have in Europe: we have a democratic political system, and still many citizens feel utterly powerless.

Democracy is national. The economy is mostly international by now. It is this mismatch that causes trouble. People start questioning the value of democracy itself.

But there is a second important side-effect of this process of globalization. What happens if you take the economy out of the national debate? You are left with soft issues. Issues that you can still decide upon at the national level: euthanasia, integration, abortion, the burka. All these touch on identity, religion, and values. They are polarizing issues. When you discuss the economy lots of facts and figures are involved. It is relatively easy to compromise and be good friends after a fierce political argument – like me and my father at the time on our couch. The next morning we had a good laugh at the breakfast table. But it’s hard to compromise on soft issues. The more you make your point, the more you insult others. The more you discuss them, the angrier everyone gets. Remember the poisonous Sylvana “discussion” spinning out of control?

Back to Europe again, to polarization versus pacification. The question is, how do we give politics more meaning again in such a way that citizens feel they have a say and a stake again? The most radical remedy would be to bring the economy and democracy back on the same level. That would mean either re-nationalizing the economy, or internationalizing parts of democracy. I’m not sure there is any appetite for either. Globalization is like a plane, and we’re in it. Pascal Lamy, the former chief of the WTO, once said: “It’s stupid to jump out in mid-flight. Globalization will go on without us.” The UK is now experiencing this. Taking back sovereignty solo, so radically, is a great way to shoot yourself in the foot. Internationalizing democracy is more interesting. Is the eurozone undemocratic? Let’s give her a parliament! But it can only work if citizens finally get active and learn about Europe and its workings, its meaning and its issues. If you want to get involved and help shape the future, you need to know where to go and what to do.

It would be great if a country like The Netherlands, in the heart of Europe, would help its citizens with that discovery. The future of this country is intimately connected with the future of the European project. If Europe needs a vision it is also the member states that have to help her to get there. Some countries are trying to formulate new common policies. It’s good news that France and Germany, who form the most important pillar of the EU, are finally discussing this again. Initially they never agree about anything, but this is precisely the point. Germany has been locked up in the north and France in the south, for almost a decade. Nothing moved, because they emphasized their differences. They polarized. Now Paris and Berlin are focussing again on what unites them – or what could/should unite them. They try to develop some kind of vision for the next decades. They pacify.

For The Netherlands, which is utterly dependent on Europe, this is a double-edged sword. We often feel squeezed between France and Germany. We like to follow the UK because it was the ideal counterbalance against those two. I’m saying “was”: the UK is out. The Dutch stakes are now all on the continent, just like those of the Czechs and Danes, who have long hidden behind the broad eurosceptic back of the UK. If they want to help shape the future of Europe, they will have to be right there. The Dutch Prime Minister can maintain that those who try to develop a vision for Europe “must see an eye doctor” – but this attitude will not do any longer, and I think he knows it. The country will have to become more European. Europe will move because everything around us is moving, too. Paris and Berlin will not wait for us. It is time to slowly prepare citizens for this. To give them a little more information about what, exactly, our ministers our doing in Brussels. Did you know, for instance, that two thirds of all decisions there are taken by unanimity? Meaning, all member states approved?

It is time to start correcting the idea of this “faraway bureaucracy” taking decisions far above our heads. No, it is not “eurocrats” patronizing us – often it’s rather our own ministers.

Let me wrap up by saying that I think that in one year, the mood has shifted immensely. A year ago all was gloom and doom. Everybody seemed convinced the EU would be torn to pieces. Well, she is still there. Battered and not very pretty, as usual - but stronger nevertheless. Extremists in several countries didn’t even come close to win elections. Constructive parties and politicians won instead. Everywhere there are interesting experiments going on by groups, movements and parties trying to give democracy a new start. Students in Germany and Switzerland refuse to sit on their hands any longer complaining that nothing works, and get politically active. People started waving European flags this year in over a hundred European cities. Here in The Hague little discussion groups about Europe spontaneously sprang up in private living rooms, organized via Facebook. There are zillions of big and small examples of this. Some will fail, some will get somewhere. Perhaps that’s the best thing of this political crisis: people realize most of us never had it so good, and that if we want to defend it we have to get up and do something. If we need reform, well: let’s try to bring it on. There is this wonderful saying by Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”


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