EU Enlargement - Harry van Bommel


As enlargement approaches, the EU-critical left is faced with a number of dilemmas. In the candidate countries themselves only the far right campaigns against membership, although as the realities of the admission conditions make themselves known this may change. Nevertheless, the weight of opinion on the EU-critical left in the existing EU member states is that it would be wrong to oppose the process as such. Instead, parties such as the Swedish Left, the Danish People’s Party and the three French parties of various Marxist traditions represented in the European Parliament are seeking to prevent a purported partnership from being nothing more than a modern form of annexation.  On Wednesday 23 October the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch equivalent of the House of Commons or House of Representatives, debated the European Commission’s newly issued report on enlargement, which recommends the admission of ten new member states, to take place before the next European Parliamentary elections in 2004. The Dutch Socialist Party has consistently opposed the onward march of Euro-federalism, yet when its nine MPs were called upon to vote for or against the government’s approval of the European Commission’s enlargement report the decision was difficult. After a thoroughgoing debate the SP decided to vote in favour, whilst at the same time criticising the way in which enlargement is being managed. Not surprisingly the needs of big western corporations are to the fore, while those of the ordinary and impoverished peoples of the candidate countries are ignored. SP spokesperson on foreign affairs Harry van Bommel took part in the debate. The following is a slightly shortened version of his speech, which takes the form of a series of criticisms and questions aimed at the Dutch government and its own response to the Commission’s report.  The Netherlands is currently ruled by a temporary caretaker minority coalition of two centre-right parties, following the collapse of the coalition which was elected in May and which included supporters of the right-wing populist Pim Fortuyn, who was murdered during the campaign.

This debate concerns the enlargement of the EU. You will be aware of our concerns regarding this European Union: too much attention is paid to the interests of the single market for European firms, and too little to the interests of the citizens. In addition, we are against the transfer of further powers to the undemocratic institutions in Brussels.

We stand at the beginning of a new system of relations between the Western and Eastern parts of the continent. Around twelve years ago ten countries applied to join the EU. Now that the appointed moment is approaching, the government speaks of an historic step, because the destabilising division of the last half century is at last being brought to an end.  For many centuries European relations have been characterised by social and economic abuses, occupation, oppression and war. The various great powers have occupied states in Central Europe, oppressing them or treating them as conquered provinces or markets.

The division represented by the Iron Curtain has disappeared. The question is whether there remains a frontier between the small-scale agrarian capitalism of central Europe and the large-scale western European industrial social order. This division goes back further than the Iron Curtain and on the social level cuts as deep as did the political division of the latter half of the last century. The Socialist Party is of the opinion that this is indeed the case.

There remain numerous social and economic borders in Europe, the now-divided former Czechoslovakia representing merely one of them. The government has written, in a report on the Czech Republic, that living standards are at a level of 63% of the EU average. However, in the city of Prague GDP is over 35% higher than is this average, indicating that the contrast between town and countryside in the Czech Republic is large.   A similar picture can be seen in Slovakia, with a countryside which is far behind in development compares to Bratislava, where the GDP stands at the same level as the EU average. What will the consequences be for these regions if the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy is applied in an unmodified manner? What will be the consequences of a sudden influx of newly impoverished people from the countryside to these cities?

2003 will be seen as an opportunity to put more pressure on the candidate countries to, as far as is possible, straighten themselves out. From 2004 to 2006 the ten countries will be incorporated within the previously-agreed budget limits. This is, however, a somewhat optimistic scenario. Does the government also have a strategy for if the weather turns nasty? What are the risks for the EU as a whole, for the existing member states as well as the new ones? Does the government itself have any faith in the proposed measures?

The government is trying to save its own credibility by suggesting that support for enlargement depends on the extent to which binding agreements are achieved regarding the scaling down of direct income support for farmers.  But what negotiating position does the Netherlands have, given that the minister has already, in earlier negotiations, made this clear? In an EU of 25 countries small states such as the Netherlands will have little influence, a fact which the government has made sure of, however strongly worded are its vies on the phasing out of subsidies.

The question may be raised as to whether a number of the proposed new member states are indeed in a fit state to join. The Financial Times  of 10 October drew the conclusion that even the fulfilment of almost all the conditions for entry would not in itself be sufficient to enable them to cope with the competitive demands of membership. My question then is this: on what does the government base its confidence in the fact that eastern Europe will be able to stay on its feet in an enlarged Europe? The enlargement-at-all-costs attitude that now holds sway in Europe not only makes both the old and new member states vulnerable, but is for all sorts of reasons reprehensible. I will cite a number of these.

The new EU remains an undemocratic union. First and foremost, regarding such an important subject as enlargement there ought, as will occur in the new member states, to be referenda, including here in the Netherlands. For too long have the voters of the Netherlands been shoved to one side: in earlier enlargements, in the introduction of the euro, and now once again. We should consign this to the past, or the citizens will become increasingly disaffected. The government could call an advisory referendum, and in the opinion of the SP it should do so.

The government’s attitude to the candidate countries is tight-fisted. Financial support is seen as a kind of charity. But the existing EU-15 enjoys a trade surplus with the ten candidate countries and therefore the relation between the two blocs is already in our favour. If we want an effective and attractive – including for ordinary working people and the poor – enlargement, then we must be prepared to bear our share of the burden. That would also demand a reform of the present system whereby the EU is financed, so that each country pays the same proportion of its GDP, instead of the current system of “winners and losers” that has little to do with the wealth of the different member states, but is rather based on a complicated division of payments which is both unnecessary and unfair. Does the government share this opinion?

Human rights policy in the various new EU countries is unsatisfactory. The government writes that all countries meet the criteria, but I can list a number of abuses. In Hungary and Slovakia the Roma people continue to suffer discrimination. In the Czech Republic structural measures are needed to bring about general equal access to education, housing and employment. In Estonia and Latvia there is continuing discrimination against inhabitants of Russian origin, who in most cases have no rights of citizenship. In Hungary and Cyprus homosexuals continue to be denied equal rights. Could the government indicate in each of these cases how, and by when, progress will be evident? (All of these examples – as well as those below - are taken from the European Commission’s own report – ed.)

Coming to environmental law, in Cyprus, according to the European Commission, legislation regarding air- and water-quality is unsatisfactory. In the Czech Republic negative appraisals have been registered regarding, for example, water quality, waste, nature protection and control of industrial pollution. In Estonia criticisms concern waste, nature protection and air pollution. As for Malta, question marks can be raised over every aspect of environmental law. Can the government indicate how it will ensure that these problems in the various countries are solved? Could that occur, in the government’s view, before 2004 or 2006 or will it be still later?

Corruption is a major problem in many candidate countries. In Poland and Hungary the Commission describes it as a source of serious concern. In Hungary it is compounded by weaknesses in the system of financial control. In relation to the Czech Republic the Commission writes of corruption and economic criminality. Isn’t there a danger that corruption will undermine the economy and reliability of the EU as an institution? How does the government propose to solve this, and by when?

For many candidate countries adaptation to the CAP will have negative consequences, namely in the form of intensification and soil exhaustion. In addition to the lowering of subsidies, the system needs to be thoroughly reformed so that it can be used to protect small farmers’ livelihoods and conserve endangered species and varieties of farm animals and crop plants, as well as embracing the development of the growing market for organic produce. But the policy of the EU appears to be moving in the opposite direction to this. In a letter from a number of Polish NGOs to the European Commission, for example, a complaint has been lodged that structural fund subsidies for environmentally friendly initiatives for the countryside have been scrapped in favour of projects whose aim is to intensify production. How does the government propose to push the CAP in a more environmentally friendly direction?

The extended report from the European Commission raises a number of questions. The SP believes that in each of the policy areas covered there is a need for further progress and that there ought, moreover, to be some reliable means of ascertaining whether such progress has been achieved. The government must hammer away at this at every opportunity during the negotiations. We do not wish to block the process of enlargement but the government must not allow itself to come away from the negotiations with empty hands. That would have implications not only for its own credibility but for that of the EU itself.

I would like to close with a few words of advice from yesterday’s Telegraaf (a popular centre-right daily- ed.) on the occasion of the Irish referendum. Three lessons must be learned, the Telegraaf  opined:

1.       Don’t ram historic decisions down the throats of the voters.

2.       Don’t be scared of the citizens, they are not so stupid or so short-sighted as you think.

3.       Never again make such a dog’s breakfast as the Treaty of Nice, a treaty which no normal person can explain.

I would recommend, with all my heart, that you learn these lessons.