Friday, March 11, 2005

Losing faith in Europe

Taking the temperature of the EU constitution debate in Holland, Andrew Browne of The Times has been to Maastricht and finds that the Dutch are losing faith in Europe.

One of the people he interviewed was Frederick Brom, who declared that he was opposed to the EU harmonising everything. "In the EU, everything becomes the same, and that’s a real pity. When I go to France, I want to eat French cheese made by a farmer in his cellar, but with hygiene standards, everything becomes the same."

That is an interesting comment, not least because it transcends political dogma and gets down to the real practical consequences of European integration. To the despair of the Europhiles, who inhabit their own cloud-cuckoo-land of idealism, it is sentiments like this, amongst ordinary people, which I believe are eventually going to bring the "project" down.

Interestingly, my own route to Euroscepticism was driven by a similar sentiment when, as a recently qualified health inspector in 1972 I found that the (then) EEC poultry meat hygiene directive disqualified me from practising the craft for which I had just qualified, making me subordinate to veterinary surgeons, irrespective of whether they had any qualifications in food hygiene – all because there was no equivalent of the British health inspector system on the continent.

Browne calls this "cynicism", which he says has taken root in one of the EU's founding members, although I would call it realism. Nevertheless, he paints a word picture of European flags fluttering in the freezing wind outside the bars. In the marketplace, he writes, shops do brisk business in euros and the monument of metal Euro stars stretches skyward above the slogan: “We must move beyond nation states.”

Maastricht, that small Dutch town on the borders of Belgium and Germany, does of course have special significance in the history of the Union, the town where the treaty that gave birth to the euro was signed. It displays its European credentials proudly.

But, writes Browne, while the symbols remain in place, a strange thing is happening to the people who live here: they are starting to sound Eurosceptic. He cites “a grey-haired woman, as she scuttled along the cobbled pedestrian streets, lined with traditional Dutch gabled houses”, saying: "It's just too bureaucratic, too big. The EU and the people are too far apart... It gets bigger, bigger, bigger."

With the Dutch government having announced that a referendum on the constitution will take place on June 1, in an extraordinary about-turn, such sentiment may mean that he Netherlands may scupper the EU constitution. A recent poll showed that 42 percent of Dutch would choose to vote "no", against 28 per cent who plan to vote "yes", making the Netherlands the only founding member of the EU in which opinion polls suggest that the constitution will be rejected.

Other commentators whom Browne consults include a troupe of actors enjoying a midmorning rest outside a café in the main square in Maastricht – just your ordinary, everyday Dutchpersons. Nevertheless, they too have their grievances against the Union. Says Oda Selbos "with flowing red hair": "The euro is a big issue. Everything has doubled in price. When you went to Spain, it was nice to have a different currency. I want to have my guilder back."

Particularly exercising the Dutch is the ratchet of the growth and stability pact, which has forced the government to impose strict controls on public borrowing, causing considerable resentment when German and France seems to be able to break the pact provisions with impunity. This has special resonance as the Dutch are now acutely aware that they are the highest per capita contributors to the community budget.

Voters, Browne tells us, also have concerns about the economic impact of the euro. He talks to Xavier Schilling, an insurance manager, who says: "A lot of people in Holland at first thought the constitution was a good thing. Now they worry because the economy is not doing that well."

There is also widespread opposition to the decision to commence entry negotiations with Turkey. If she joined the EU, this would give 70 million Muslims the right to live and work in Western Europe. These fears are being given voice by the maverick politician Geert Wilders, whose opposition to radical Islam, Turkey and the constitution has propelled him ahead of the Government in the polls. Writes Browne:

In a recent speech in Rotterdam, Mr Wilders said: "The political elite wants to admit Turkey to the Union, an Islamic land of millions, that will have an enormous influence on the federal superstate. Because of the new European constitution, Turkey will have more influence on Dutch legislation than the Netherlands itself. It can't become crazier than this."
As with the UK though, the Hague government is relying on other member states – particularly France and Germany - ratifying the constitution before the voters go to the polls, when they hope their people will feel too isolated to reject it.

But Maurice de Hond, the Netherlands' most prominent pollster, said that the referendum is likely to become a protest vote about the direction of the EU. "People are voting about everything but the constitution," he said. "They are voting about the euro, about the ten new countries, about Turkey, about the Government. Turkey is a big issue and a much clearer issue than the constitution, which they have never read."

Browne concludes with some interesting observations: European leaders are now asking themselves what will happen if a country votes "no", he writes. It is generally accepted that, if France says "no", the constitution is effectively dead; and, if Britain says "no", the UK will have to renegotiate its relationship with the EU.

But what if the Netherlands, always one of its biggest cheerleaders, says "no"? One Dutch politician said: "If Britain rejects the constitution, Britain has a problem. But, if the Netherlands rejects the constitution, then the constitution has a problem."

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