We shall be hearing the name Bernard Bot a lot in the next six months; and the name Jan Peter Balkenende. The former is the Foreign Minister of the Netherlands and the latter is the Prime Minister; and today Netherlands takes over the rotating Presidency of the EU.
Ireland has, it is said, completed its stint successfully, though if one looks too closely for the details of that success, they remain unclear. Enlargement went through without a hitch but it is hardly the ceremonies that matter. There are problems between the new members and the old, between some of the old members and within the new members. A success? By EU standards, yes. After all, the content never matters, just the structures and the ceremonies.
Then there is the Constitution. By dint of bargaining, fudging and flying across Europe and back several times each week, Bertie Ahern has achieved an agreement on a completely incomprehensible, deeply unpopular document that, if implemented, will set in stone all the problems the EU is facing already. Of course, its implementation will happen (or not) in the next few presidencies and it will not be Mr Ahern who will be facing the problems.
So what can we expect from the Dutch Presidency? Apparently they will concentrate on economics, enlargement and security. The wretched Lisbon process will be revived and reforms carried out to ensure that Europe’s economy becomes dynamic and successful. Oh good. We haven’t heard that one before.
No doubt, in order to cut the red tape that is stifling various European economies – and they are in plural not singular – more commissions, enquiries, scoreboards, reports and studies will be set up. As ever, the paper industry should do all right.
Once again, the onus is placed on the new members, who, with their dynamism will revive the tired economy of Western Europe. Not so long ago we were told that the East European countries needed to join the EU in order to bolster up their own fragile economies and political systems. Apparently, it is the western economy that is fragile and needs bolstering. Were the East European told this during the negotiations?
The basic inconsistency of what the EU is supposed to achieve was unwittingly summed up by Mr Balkenende:
“The problem is that we are not pursuing our approach forcefully enough,” Mr Balkenende said. “Europe’s member states need to take firm action. We can’t put off measures to make Europe’s rigid labour market more flexible. That would be irresponsible. It would mean less growth and more lost jobs.”Is it “we” or is it “they”? Is it Europe or is it the member states? There are, as we have said before no pan-European solutions because there are no pan-European problems. So what is the purpose of all the EU-wide policy making and presidential waffle? To create those pan-European problems, one assumes.
Mr Balkenende also thinks that the new Constitution will be a great help in cutting back red tape, clarifying issues and creating a dynamic economy. One cannot blame him for not reading all the 130-odd pages of the minutely detailed set of rules and regulations, couched as often as not in incomprehensible gobbledy-gook or language so general as to be meaningless, but why make comments about it. The people of Netherlands will have a referendum. Let them read the document, when it appears in Dutch and decide.
Then there is enlargement. The only thing Messrs Bot and Balkenende can say about that is that the EU will treat Turkey fairly. That can mean anything and has meant anything in the past. After all, this, too, we have heard before.
We await the Dutch proposals for greater security and suggestions how that can be achieved at an EU level rather than by individual nations through genuine exchange of information and co-operation. Oh yes, and individual nations across the world, since terrorism is hardly a European problem alone.
But Mr Balkenende proudly announced that he has dealt with the most pressing problem of all: he told President Bush not to interfere in “internal” European matters. No, he did not tell President Bush to take all the American troops and technology without which security in Europe is impossible, home. No, no. He simply should not make comments about Turkey and its membership.
“I told the President that this was a decision for the European Union, not the United States,” Mr Balkenende said. “You can talk about Islam, the economy and general issues, but to talk about EU membership and to decide whether to start negotiations is the EU’s responsibility. I made that very clear.”Well, that’s all right then. We have an EU presidency that can distinguish important from unimportant.