Writer, speaker and advisor on Europe

Category: EU Watcher

How the European Union works: the media perspective

One of the usual attacks on the European Union, is that it is so intransparent. Rules are designed and discussed behind the scenes, nobody knows what’s going on except for…

One of the usual attacks on the European Union, is that it is so intransparent. Rules are designed and discussed behind the scenes, nobody knows what’s going on except for some eurocrats, and then the member states have to swallow the Brussels diktat. That’s more or less how the argument goes.

But, is it true? In my journalistic activities, the experience is rather different. With two important exceptions.

Commission: an open house
First, the Commission. With a staff of around 26,000 people (there are various way to count the number of fonctionnaires) and with a range of (big) buildings in Brussels, the lawmaking institute does look a bit like a moloch. The Commission has 33 directorate-generals, plus a number of service bureaus and agencies. It’s hard to quickly find the person/information you are looking for.

Once you get in though, most people are more than willing to talk to you – whether you are a journalist, a lobbyist or a citizen. There even seem to be rules that mails have to be answered within a certain number of days. My questions to the Commission are most of the time quite sensitive but I still found the staff to be helpful. For instance, I wrote some articles on the Telecoms Package, a controversial set of rules that are still under negotiation with the European Parliament and the EU member states. After a request for a ‘state of play’ the spokespersons’ service set up a meeting with a high-level expert, and I could even quote him (without naming him directly). I also talked to the responsible director-general, he replied within half a day at a request and the interview was on the record.

In general, I am really surprised the Commission to be so transparent and straightforward. Most cabinets of Commissioners can be found entirely online, including phone numbers and mail addresses. I have talked to several Commissioners online (via Twitter). And from seasoned diplomats and other EU insiders I always hear that the Commission more or less is an open house – once again, if you manage to click on the right buttons, but that’s just bureaucracy.

European Parliament: a chaotic place, not a fortress
Hardly ever reported on in the national media, the European Parliament is often regarded as just another EU institute full of money-grabbing pricks. They decide on rules over our heads while claiming to be there for the citizens. No wonder only 43% of voters turned out at the last two elections of the European Parliament.

Because it’s so big with 751 members and thousands of staff (a lot of them located in Luxembourg, who knew that), and with two meeting locations – Brussels and Strasbourg – this circus of democracy is not really a glass house. The buildings themselves are a real maze. Only last month did I find out, after two years, how to get from one entrance to the other. And if you do manage to get in, try to get out! You can’t just walk out, certainly not over the blue carpet, then you’ll have a lot of people screaming at you. No, you have to smile at the security guard, and he’ll open the gate for you – but please, give your sticker back or you’ll get scolded again.

On access and transparency: the trouble is not the lack of information, rather the abundance of the stuff. It drives everyone crazy. What doesn’t help is the shitty website of the Parliament. Or the way the political groups work: the main ones are over 200 people big, so good luck finding the right Member of European Parliament (MEP) that actually has a real mandate. For instance on copyright rules, there are different voices on the matter in the Socialists and Democrats Group, ranging from conservative to progressive, or representing a national rather than a European view.

So to find out what’s going on, as an EU Watcher I have to follow ‘Committees’ who have ‘Rapporteurs’ writing ‘Reports’ on Commission proposals. These reports are then heavily amended, sometimes with 4000 amendments (!) and after the Committee votes on them, they can be changed again in the so-called plenary vote. You can also have several Committees talking about the same proposal. Let’s take the reform of the Emissions Trading System, which was set up to put a price on CO2. The Environment Committee and the Trade Committee have a say – but which one is more important?

I can’t go through 4000 amendments, so as a journalist I am susceptible to analyses and spin, produced by the EP groups themselves, lobbyists and other journalists. Further on, the stuff that’s on the table is often highly technical. Free mobile roaming sounds cool, but then you hit the wall when MEPs start talking about ‘wholesale access pricing’, ‘the BEREC report on RLAH+’, ‘network circumstances’ and other things that sound super boring but are in the end, super relevant. European integration is in the end about merging 28 different systems.

But by and large, if you take enough time to delve into a subject, you can get the hang of it and pull out some red threads, sticking points and other political issues that can be communicated to a larger audience. What does not help is that MEPs are overwhelmed by the work load and the constant travelling between Brussels, Strasbourg and their home countries. I find it annoying that on many occasions, the MEPs do not respond to requests for interviews. With one Austrian parliamentarian, our interview was moved three times in the agenda, and when I finally got to speak to him, he had one (1) minute. Not very helpful.

Black box 1: The Council
Commission: quite open. Parliament: quite chaotic. Council – the conglomeration of diplomats and government experts from the 28 – member states: quite a black box.

The two federalist institutes of Commission and Parliament have a tendency to be pro-European, constantly proposing European solutions for the many problems we face – be they economic, social or political. For those who do not like this continuous churning of  European laws, they have a protecting mechanism: the Council.

The Council is about the only institute you’ll see on the tv news. It’s right opposite the Berlaymont building, which is the headquarter of the Commission. This is where the heads of governments meet several times a year, and where deals are struck on salvaging Greece, punishing Russia with sanctions, size and scope of the EU budget, et cetera. The European Council is the real powerhouse of Europe. It is therefore also a black box.

I have been in the Council once when I was a diplomat. Many diplomats of the ‘Permanent Representations’ (let’s say embassies at the EU’ spend more than half of their posting in the unassuming building, attending endless ‘Working Groups’ to discuss all the proposals of the Commission, but also preparing the ministerial meetings of the Council, such as the Telecoms Council or the Eurogroup. Some ministers have to attend these ministerial Councils on an almost monthly basis.

I call the Council a black box because it’s not transparent at all. And for a good reason, say people at the Council: negotiations between EU member states need to be done in a certain outsider-free environment, so that the arguments can float and power-play can be applied without meddling of the media.

True, there are a lot of documents to be found on the (dreadful) website of the Council. But seldom do I encounter a document that tells me what is going on inside a Working Group. So I have to talk to the press officers, who are very helpful indeed, but because they work for an institute that attaches a value to secrecy, can only talk ‘on background basis’ and can only be quoted as ‘EU source’ – not even ‘Council source’. Otherwise the risk of distorting ongoing negotiations can be too big.

Another back-door solution is to talk to the Permanent Representations. Again, most of the press officers are helpful, often responding quickly and being quite open. They will most of the time let you talk to the diplomat/expert that’s the country’s representation at the Working Group. But they will never mention a member state that is blocking a deal. Nor are they very willing to share the ‘secret’ negotiation documents (code word: RESTRAINT). Unless you work for the Financial Times, of course.

Many times you throw in a pie into the Council machinerie, and then, after many months of deliberations, the end result: a cookie! Nobody really knows how that happened, but it usually has to do with protection of national interests, lobbying by big companies, or other mechanisms.

Black box 2: the trilogue
Still here? Good! We are nearly getting to the end. The EU lawmaking process is all about compromises. So first the Commission makes a proposal – for instance, rules on the protection of consumer data – and then the Parliament wants to sharpen that proposal. So it adopts a lot of amendments, aiming to protect the consumer rights even better. At the same time the member states discuss the original proposal as well, usually with the intention of watering it down.

As the European Parliament got a real say in most EU topics since the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, a second black box has popped up in the Eurobubble. And that is the trilogue. An informal get-together of Commission, Parliament and Council to negotiate a compromise text that all institutions can live with. The trilogue is now hugely popular, though it formally does not exist and really takes place in the backroom. Around nine in ten law proposals are dealt with in this way, leading to a faster adoption of laws by the European Parliament.

But is that good for democracy? I doubt it. Striking deals is important, but there is zero transparency in this intra-institutional haggling. Not even within the Parliament. Only a few MEPs, usually the Rapporteur and some colleagues, do the negotiations and then present the end result with an attitude of take-it-or-leave-it to their democratically chosen fellow MEPs.

Thinking has started amongst the institutions how to change the trilogue system, but right now, it is the only way forward to deal with the range of new EU legislation that the Juncker Commission will produce in the next few years.

To conclude, is the EU intransparent? No, not really. But you have to be equipped with context and contacts, in order to cover the European Union.

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George Soros: ‘Europe’s way of life is in danger’

The politically active billionaire George Soros payed a visit to Brussels on October 22, promoting a new essay on the relations with Ukraine. His organization Open Society Foundations (OSF) has been active in Ukraine…

The politically active billionaire George Soros payed a visit to Brussels on October 22, promoting a new essay on the relations with Ukraine. His organization Open Society Foundations (OSF) has been active in Ukraine for decades – even before its independence – promoting civil society, democratic values and freedom of information. ‘I am a firm believer in an ever closer Union of like minded states and open society. The OSF has deep routs in Ukrainian society and I have been going a lot to the country.’

Europe has lost its way

Right now Soros is deeply worried that all this work has been for nothing, as Russia has invaded Ukraine and Europe is indecisive in really helping the eastern neighbours, with disastrous effects. ‘The EU has lost its way as a result of the financial crisis and its failure to fulfil its original mission let to dissatisfaction. And now Russia has emerged as an alternative to liberal democracy.’ Russia could be described, according to Soros, as a ‘maffia state, where you combine political dominance with financial exploitation.’ The country now is challenging Europe in Ukraine, ‘and no one in Europe really understands the challenge and the seriousness of what’s happening.’

‘The EU is an experiment in international governance, but a failing one, just like the UN. International law is more a concept than a reality. But still, the EU represents the rule of law, while Russia represents the use of force. Which expresses itself by repression at home and aggression abroad.’

How could Europe save Ukraine? The businessman and philanthropist sees the emergence of a ‘new Ukraine’ which is radically opposed to the old Ukraine, which was a maffia state under Yanukovich. ‘That new Ukraine is devoted to the original concept of Open Society and the EU.’ You might think that Soros is promoting his own organization but at Sunday’s general election in Ukraine, indeed the pro-European parties won the ballot. ‘These people are willing to die for a better future, a European future.’

How to steer away from the cliff

Supporting the new government is therefore important. But Soros also wants more financial backing for Ukraine, apart from smacking sanctions onto the Russians. In the aforementioned New York Book of Reviews essay he spells out how to help Ukraine steer away from the cliff, in short his measures boil down to these ones:

  1. The IMF/EU programme has to reassess the situation because of the continued fighting, the financial needs of Ukraine far exceed what was originally assessed. An incipient financial crisis looms. Ukraine needs an injection of additional 20 billion dollars. That is not an unattainable figure, says Soros.
  2. Bailing in sovereign bond holders would be terrible mistake, basically leading to a default, and would make it impossible to get financing for companies. Instead of that the EU/IMF should provide debt relief.
  3. The state-owned gas monopoly continues to be a source of enormous waste of gas and of dependence on Russian supplies. The new Ukrainian management would need an initial investment of like 10 billion, for instance to introduce meters for gas (right now, households cannot control temperature, they have to open their windows even mid-Winter). The gas company should bring costs in line with the market basically by cutting costs and limiting use. That would stimulate local gas production, Ukraine has its own gas supply under the ground which is not tapped into.

Putin has the upper hand

According to Soros, Putin is still winning the game. He basically ‘observed the abominable cease-fire’ while he could he just have moved into the country, creating a corridor stretching all the way from Russia to Transnistria. Putin probably is waiting for the effects of a cold harsh winter on Ukraine that will be starving out of gas, accelerating a financial collapse. And then he just picks up the pieces of the remainders of Ukraine. ‘Europe needs to prevent this.’

The Association Agreement that was agreed upon between the EU and Ukraine, will not resolve the situation. ‘We have to recognize the deficiencies of the EU as an international organization,’ explains Soros. ‘It is extremely rigid, has its own timetable, and expects reality to conform to the timetable. We have seen this with the eurocrisis and now with Russia.’ Rather, Europe sleepwalked into the Association Agreement, being utterly surprised when then-President Yanukovich refused to accept the proposal in 2013, as it had a lot of demands and gave little back to Ukraine. ‘It was not difficult for Putin to outpit it, and so he did.’

George Soros thinks that the EU shouldn’t be too intrusive into Russian interests and promote ‘regular commercial relations’ with Ukraine.’ But that is the long run. Right now the EU needs to stop President Putin as he ‘wants to destabilize all of Ukraine. If the country collapses or is neutralized then Europe will have to fend for itself. The geopolitical consequences would be far reaching. Europeans wake up! Our way of life is in danger.’

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Launch of Next Europe

My new book Next Europe is now officially launched. Of course this comes with a modest campaign to create attention for the book. I published several opinion articles, on news sites as…

My new book Next Europe is now officially launched. Of course this comes with a modest campaign to create attention for the book.

I published several opinion articles, on news sites as well as in the Dutch paper Het Parool. You can read the ‘launch article’ at EurActiv(English) and on Opiniestukken.nl(Dutch).

The presentation took place on September 22 at the Press Club in Brussels. More than 100 people attended the event. First I gave a short summary (link to Prezi) of Next Europeto the audience, followed by the handover to Constantijn van Oranje-Nassau, chief of cabinet of Commissioner Kroes. A panel of experts – Shada Islam of Friends of Europe, Claude Grunitzky of TRUE, and Marietje Schaake of the European Parliament – gave their first responses.

Shada Islam: ‘This is an insightful study of Europe by a young, thoughtful EU Watcher.’

Dutch public radio 1 made a report on the launch event, you can listen to it here.


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Out now: Next Europe

Next Europe – How the EU can survive in a world of tectonic shifts After many months of interviewing, research and writing, I am happy to announce the launch of…

Next Europe – How the EU can survive in a world of tectonic shifts

After many months of interviewing, research and writing, I am happy to announce the launch of my fourth book: Next Europe. 

It is already downloadable from Amazon, the Apple StoreGoogle BooksKobo BooksBruna and Smashwords. Other ebook stores will follow soon. 


The EU is in deep trouble. As the eurozone crisis keeps raging on, the European dream lies shattered on the ground. Euroscepticism and nationalism are on the rise, tens of millions are unemployed, Great Britain is heading for the exit door, while Russia flexes its muscles and the Middle East burns. 

Is there any hopeful future for the European Union? Are we going to lose the race with the BRICS? Will Europeans ever truly engage with the EU institutes in Brussels? 

Next Europe gives some compelling answers to the big questions of our time. ‘EU Watcher’ Joop Hazenberg, a young Dutch writer who has been based in Brussels since early 2013, takes the reader on a venture across the globe to gain insight into the position of Europe in the 21st century. 

His findings are surprising. The old continent is stronger and richer than we are inclined to think. Though the EU is in a mess, so is the rest of the world. Many of the rising giants will stumble and may even fall before they can do Europe harm. But it is also true that we are no longer the coolest dudes on the planet and that new (and old) dangers threaten our security and well-being. 

Based on extensive research and interviews with leading experts, Next Europesoothes the unease that looms over our future. Joop Hazenberg also formulates a bold and strong agenda for reform of the EU. If we want to survive the coming age of uncertainty and tectonic shifts, then the European Union needs a restart. Not only in Brussels, but also in the capillaries of our society. 

By acting now, Europe could become, once again, a leading continent. Next Europe is the starting point for a better understanding of our world, whether you are a student, Commission bureaucrat, a voter for UKIP or a Chinese businessman. 

Praise for Next Europe

‘A spirited and courageous work’ – Jonathan Holslag, Professor of International Politics at the Free University in Brussels

‘Joop Hazenberg is a young thinker with the wisdom to realise that Europe has taken a wrong turn and the courage to want to change things’ – Philippe Legrain, author of European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess and How to Put Them Right

Launch details

The official launch is in Brussels on Monday 22 September. I will hand over the ‘first copy’ to Constantijn van Oranje-Nassau, Head of Cabinet of Commissioner Kroes.

If you want to know more about the programme of the presentation or attending, please contact me.

I am also available for (media) interviews, lectures and panels.

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De Europese verkiezingen zullen niets uithalen

Dit opinieartikel verscheen in NRC Handelsblad van 10 april 2014 De komende verkiezingen voor het Europees Parlement draaien uit op een flop. De miljoenen stemmen voor eurofobe partijen vertalen zich…

Dit opinieartikel verscheen in NRC Handelsblad van 10 april 2014

De komende verkiezingen voor het Europees Parlement draaien uit op een flop. De miljoenen stemmen voor eurofobe partijen vertalen zich niet in beleidsverandering. Bovenal zal het experiment voor de semi-gekozen Commissievoorzitter grandioos mislukken.

An accident waiting to happen. Zo kun je het geflirt met democratische vernieuwing in de Europese Unie het beste omschrijven. Hier in Brussel hangt de verkiezingskoorts al maanden in de lucht. Aan de ene kant zijn de bewoners van de eurobubblebloednerveus over de komst van eurofoben, aan de andere kant tuigen ze met groot enthousiasme een show op rond de ‘verkiezing’ van de nieuwe Commissievoorzitter.

Er is grote angst dat kiezers zich massaal afwenden van de middenpartijen, ten bate van clubs als PVV, Front National en UKIP. Recente peilingen voorspellen dat zo’n dertig procent van het electoraat eind mei zal stemmen op eurosceptische en anti-Europese partijen.

Vandaar dat een federalist als Jo Leinen heeft opgeroepen tot een front européen: alle pro-EU krachten moeten zich verzamelen om deze opstand van de burger de kop in te drukken, omdat anders het integratieproject ter ziele gaat. De voorzitter van het Europees Parlement, Martin Schulz, tapt uit hetzelfde vaatje. Hij stelde bij zijn bezoek aan de Tweede Kamer in december dat ‘populisten’ gevoelens van wrok uitbuiten. ‘Gevoelens die we een tijd geleden uitgeband hadden.’

Niet alleen hebben deze Europese politici niets geleerd van de lessen van de Fortuyn-revolte, waar hun uitspraken mij sterk aan doen denken, maar ook is hun angst overtrokken. Zelfs als de EU-haters in het EP worden verkozen, dan hebben ze zeer weinig instrumenten om de boel van binnen af te breken. Ze moeten allereerst in staat zijn om zich te organiseren: een fractie moet uit minimaal 25 parlementariërs bestaan uit zeven verschillende lidstaten. Dat wordt lastig, veel partijen weigeren om zich bijvoorbeeld aan het verbond PVV-Front National te verbinden.

Mocht dat tóch lukken, dan zullen ze geen deuk in een pak boter kunnen slaan. Net zoals in de veel lidstaten krijgen we ook in Brussel/Straatsburg een Grand Coalition. De twee grootste partijen hebben samen genoeg stemkracht om pro-Europese wetgeving goed te blijven keuren. Hooguit verschuiven accenten in het beleid. Ook al is het vertrouwen van de burger in de EU gekelderd – van 50 naar 28 procent in Nederland, van 80 naar 46 procent in Spanje, de trein dendert na de verkiezingen stevig door. Een eurofobe vertegenwoordiging in het EP zal niet eens bij de noodrem kunnen komen, hooguit wat blaadjes op de rails strooien.

De democratische druiven zijn zuur omdat sinds het verdrag van Lissabon (2009) de macht van het Europees Parlement juist flink is toegenomen. De afgelopen jaren hebben we heel wat forse gevechten van het EP met de Commissie en de Raad kunnen waarnemen: over het Europese budget van 1000 miljard euro, over wetgeving rond CO2-emissiehandel, dataprotectie, de bankenunie en het uitwisselen van gegevens met de Amerikanen. Ook strandde een kandidaat-commissaris na een kruisverhoor door het EP. Deze man mag ons niet vertegenwoordigen!

Als klap op de vuurpijl komt nu dé grote democratische troef op tafel die vijf jaar na ‘Lissabon’ eindelijk kan worden uitgespeeld. Het EP krijgt een veel grotere invloed op de benoeming van de nieuwe Commissievoorzitter, die dan de opvolger van José Manuel Barroso wordt. Dit recht was en is voorbehouden aan de Europese regeringsleiders, met het cruciale verschil dat zij nu de verkiezingsuitslag van het Europees Parlement ‘in overweging’ moeten nemen.

Dat werkt als volgt. De belangrijkste Europese politieke groepen hebben elk – met veel bombarie – hun eigen kandidaat naar voren geschoven. De socialisten hebben EP-president Martin Schulz genomineerd, de liberalen Guy Verhofstadt, en de christen-democraten Jean-Claude Juncker. De oproep aan de 400 miljoen kiezers is duidelijk: zorg dat wij de grootste worden, want dan kunnen we onze leider tot voorzitter benoemen. Wilt u bijvoorbeeld Verhofstadt als Mister Europe? Stem dan op de VVD of D66.

Er is van de drie grootste partijen zelfs een persbericht uitgegaan waarin ze stellen dat de groep met de meeste stemmen mag ‘formeren’ en zijn kandidaat op een schaaltje richting Raad kan duwen. ‘De nieuwe voorzitter zal het resultaat van een transparant proces zijn, niet een product van de achterkamertjes,’ heet het. Mede daarvoor zijn allerlei debatten geprogrammeerd tussen de ‘presidentiële kandidaten’, zoals eind april in Maastricht – live uitgezonden op tv en internet. Zo moet Europa democratischer worden en een herkenbaar gezicht opleveren.

En hier gaat het helaas onvermijdelijk mis. De verkiezing van de nieuwe Europese Commissievoorzitter wordt een blamage van de eerste orde.

Dat heeft alles te maken met de werkelijke machtsverhoudingen, afgezien van het profiel van de belangrijkste kandidaten (pro-Europeanen, oude en elitaire mannen). De Commissie is geen democratisch instituut maar een bureaucratische machine, die grotendeels wordt aangestuurd door de nationale regeringen – via de Europese Raad en de duizenden diplomaten hier te stede. Zij bepalen nog steeds de richting van het beleid, de agenda van de Commissie en de reikwijdte van de voorstellen. Op zijn best speelt het Europees Parlement een pesterige rol, maar van een wezenlijk sturende functie is absoluut geen sprake.

Dat betekent dat de EU-lidstaten nooithet mandaat zullen opgeven om personen voor de machtigste functies zelf uit te kiezen. De komende debatten tussen de kandidaat-voorzitters worden letterlijk niet meer dan een show voor de bühne.

Kijk naar de machtsverhoudingen in Europa. Hoe graag Guy Verhofstadt ook voorzitter wil worden, hij is een liberaal. Erger nog, een federalist, die dus vanzelfsprekend wordt geblokkeerd door bijvoorbeeld de Britten. De liberalen worden trouwens weggevaagd bij de komende verkiezingen, dus zijn kandidatuur is niet realistisch.

Tussen de socialisten (S&D) en christen-democraten (EVP) wordt het ogenschijnlijk spannender. Nu is de EVP nog de grootste fractie in het parlement, maar zij gaan zetels verliezen en komen daarmee op dezelfde hoogte als S&D (212 zetels). Er moet dus na de stemmenstrijd een deal komen. En die deal, die over het voorzitterschap van de Commissie maar ook die van de Raad en van de functie van ‘EU-minister van Buitenlandse Zaken’ gaat, wordt zeker niet in het EP beklonken.

Dat feestje zal hoe dan ook plaatshebben in de achterkamers van de politieke families. Daar blijft de EVP met afstand de belangrijkste groep, omdat zij in 17 van de 28 lidstaten aan de macht is of in de coalitie zit. De Duitse bondskanselier Angela Merkel zal uiteindelijk de nieuwe Commissievoorzitter aanwijzen – dit is Chefsachevan de eerste orde. Vergeet de 400 miljoen kiezers, de vrouw die de eurozone heeft gered zit aan de echte knoppen.

Dus Merkel kiest Juncker, de werkloze Luxemburgse premier die zij een ‘goede kandidaat’ heeft genoemd? Nee. Teken aan de wand is dat ze in Duitsland voor zichzelf en haar partij campagne voert, niet voor Juncker. Merkel zal opteren voor iemand in een hoge publieke functie, die vanwege die functieniet uit de kast kan komen als kandidaat. Denk bijvoorbeeld aan Christine Lagarde, die nu het IMF leidt. Zij kan onmogelijk publiekelijk solliciteren naar de functie van Commissievoorzitter, omdat een openlijke campagne haar huidige positie onnodig in gevaar brengt. Geen wonder dat direct na de EP-verkiezingen de Europese Raad bijeenkomt. Die gaan niet wachten op een kandidaat van het parlement, maar zullen hun eigen man/vrouw bepalen.

‘Deze keer is het anders’, is de officiële slogan van de verkiezingscampagne. Eindelijk krijgen de Europeanen de democratische invloed waar zij recht op hebben. Zeker na een periode waarin een enorme soevereineitsoverdracht naar Brussel heeft plaatsgevonden, waar dankzij Europees bezuinigingsregels een verloren generatie is ontstaan en de economie is vastgelopen. Mijn conclusie is dat deze verkiezingen alleen aan de buitenkant anders lijken. De uitkomst staat nu al vast.

Joop Hazenberg is EU Watcher. Hij werkt momenteel aan een boek over de toekomst van Europa.

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Speech: Why people are fed up with the EU

Speech Toogdag / University of Utrecht Why people are fed up with the EU: failing institutions and the rise of populism Joop Hazenberg – EU Watcher Utrecht, 10 October 2013 I…

Speech Toogdag / University of Utrecht

Why people are fed up with the EU: failing institutions and the rise of populism

Joop Hazenberg – EU Watcher

Utrecht, 10 October 2013

I arrived today from Brussels, where the mood in the Eurobubble has changed substantially in the last few months. Everyone – politicians, diplomats, eurocrats – has their eyes fixed on the European elections of May 2014. I wouldn’t say there is something of a campaign fever in the air, there is definitely fever in the air though, but more the traditional one.

People in Europe’s unofficial capital are so much focused on the next elections, because so much is at stake. There will be no treaty on the table, nor dramatic enlargement plans. The elephant in the room is us. We, the European people, more than 500 million of them, and we are rapidly losing trust in the EU.

Trust figures are really collapsing. You probably know the figures but I’ll just name a few: in the Netherlands trust in the EU has gone down from 50 to 28%, in just five years. Even pro European countries like Spain and Italy are quickly disengaging from the EU. In Spain the proportion of pro-Europeans has dropped from 80 to 46%.

Fresh polling by Pew Research is very worrying. Their conclusion is: ‘The European Union is the new sick man of Europe. The effort over the past half century to create a more united Europe is now the principal casualty of the euro crisis. The European project now stands in disrepute across much of Europe.’

People are fed up
This negative climate is only reinforced by the rise of populist parties who now literally team up to form an anti-Europe bloc during the next elections. The Economist calls it the rise of euroscepticism, but I would argue that parties like Front National, PVV and UKIP want to rip the European Union apart and destroy its institutions. Nothing eurosceptic about their goals: it is blunt eurotrashing, a direct attack on – what they call it – the EUSSR.

We are more than seven months from election time, but my estimate is that these parties could easily get ten to twenty percent of the seats in the European Parliament. Already in polls Front National and PVV come out as the biggest party in their home countries.

People are fed up with the EU, the payments to the South or the strict rules of the North. They are fed up with unemployment, piles of debt and political crises at home. No wonder people are susceptible to politicians who argue that the current situation is the fault of Brussels and that we should reverse the integration process.

So expect very tough fights and debates in the member states in the coming years. But we are not here to discuss politics, but to discuss institutions and especially the European ones. Are they indeed failing? Why is their legitimacy dropping so fast? Do people actually still believe in Europe?

Let me break down my answer in three parts. First the general crisis of institutions, secondly the specific problems of the EU, and lastly I will play out the generation card.


1. Institutions in the doldrums
As everyone in this audience knows, organizations dependent on large audiences or markets have trouble keeping people connected. Institutes like big companies, governments, labour unions and political organizations have lost their natural (20th century) legitimacy in an increasingly ‘flat world’.

Therefore new ways of engagement are on the rise. Citizens increasingly choose to engage online and individually, instead of going to meetings and committees. They burn down company reputations on social media in a matter of hours, but are also ready to cooperate with them to create new products and services.

This is because people want to get controlover everything in their life. In an era of information overflow we don’t believe advertisements and political pamflets that are thrown at us. We question doctors and other specialists who give us (medical) advice and prescriptions. We loathe European leaders who say they are at the service of the citizens. That is because these kind of communications are top-down and do not permit real involvement.

When it comes to the specific trust levels in political institutios, citizens are well aware of the loss of influence of these top-down thinking organizations. The disappearance of the borders and the advent of the IT revolution has made government bodies less effective. I wrote a book on this inevitable process, called ‘De Machteloze Staat.’

2. EU failing to act
European leaders can only contain the current economic crisis, not solve it, despite the optimistic words of Francois Hollande. The problems are still paramount: no growth, high unemployment, rising debt levels, zombie banks.

It has become clear that there is a big institutional gap in the EU’s governance, above all when it comes to steering the eurozone. The argument is well known: Europe’s leaders did manage to set up a monetary union without the accompanying political union. Since 2010 they had to repair the damage and expand the EU’s powers. The Commission can now directly enforce budget cuts in certain member states. The banking union will slowly but definitely be rolled out. More drastic measures will follow.

But the eurozone governance crisis does not sufficiently explain the current legitimacy crisis. I think the disconnectbetween the European political layer and the half billion citizens must be another crucial factor.

In the last twenty years we have experienced a drastic expansion and deepening of the European Union. But a sound national political discussion on the expansion has remained absent in many member states, leading to an audience that basically doesn’t have a clue what happens in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Also the European decision-making process is quite difficult and almost impossible to fit in journalistic reporting, even in quality newspapers. Previously I was a journalist and I couldn’t write about the different roles of the Commisison, the Council or the Parliament. ‘Let’s simply call it ‘Brussels’ would be the response of my editor, thereby basically skipping the entire political dynamics that are so typical of the EU.

Because sound knowledge of the EU also lacks at many national parliaments, we are in the situation that the Union fails to gather a lot of ‘input legitimacy’. Therefor it focuses quite heavily on ‘output legitimacy.’ The countless studies on the benefits of European integration are part of this strategy, as well as the yearly lowering of roaming rates for mobile phones, the cheers on low air travel costs and the free movement of people. Commissioners have an account on social media, especially on Twitter, and in 2012 the European Citizens’ Initiative was launched: 1 million citizens can ask the European Commission to bring forward proposals.

The problem is that the European Union is not here to do nice things for citizens. It is nota consumer organization, but a highly political institute which deals directly with many issues of our daily lives. It has to balance countless interests and take tough decisions. And all this without a proper ‘demos’ of European citizens. As the crisis pushes for deeper integration, the whole system now backfires. People push back and start to blame Europe, instead of praising its necessity and its many advantages.

3. The Next Generation
After these rather harsh and kind-of fundamental issues and problems, I now come to a more optimistic angle to the governance crisis: the next generation of Europeans.

The facts are frightening. We have 5,5 million young unemployed (aged under 24), and half of the young job-seekers in southern Europe fail to succeed in getting employment. Another 7.5 million are ‘NEETs’: not in education, employment or training. The direct costs of this inertness are estimated at 153 billion euros. But the social price for this waste of human capital is much higher. I believe that the next generation has to be part of the solution to the current crisis.

In short: young people are more pro-European than older generations, they are not fearful of a borderless world but see it as an opportunity, are more entrepreneurial and less concerned about losing securities. There is a real generation gap in this matter, for instance in the UK: two-thirds of the young Britons want their country to stay in the EU, while two-thirds of the babyboomer Brits want to get out ASAP.

I am starting up a think-tank in Brussels called The Next Generation for Europe to address this gap, but also to point out the many opportunities we have if we engage young Europeans more structurally. In a continent where everyone is turning their backs on Brussels, we really need them.

But what Europe’s leaders do isn’t particularly helpful. Still it is basically impossible to bring your social rights to another EU member state. The much heralded Youth Guarantee Scheme will not be more than a drop in the ocean. And worst of all: the EU is spending its one trillion euro budget for the period 2014-2020 on the past instead of the future, killing the funds for digitizing and connecting Europe, and maintaining the agricultural policies.

Ladies and gentlemen, the institutions of the European Union are in serious trouble. We may live in the heydays of European integration, but I hope this assumption does not become reality. I don’t think the EU is necessary, I believe in it. I reject the notion that we can’t survive without an integrated Europe, I think it is a goal we should keep striving for and dreaming of.

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