Writer, speaker and advisor on Europe

Six reasons why reporting on the EU is so difficult

Recently, I had to give a couple of presentations on my experience as an EU correspondent in Brussels. Because I now work in communications for the NGO called Climate Action…

Recently, I had to give a couple of presentations on my experience as an EU correspondent in Brussels. Because I now work in communications for the NGO called Climate Action Network Europe, I have taken a little bit of distance from reporting. And I made a short overview of six reasons on why covering EU news (often) is difficult. Here is the overview in text, rather than Powerpoint format.

  1. European integration is technical

Check the national political news of today. You may find discussions about reform of the health, education or social security system. There could be a report on struggles within the coalition. Or a failed privatisation of the railways causes upheaval.

The contrast with the European news cycles usually is big, and the debate in the EU bubble is characterized by a deadly dulness. When I worked for the German press agency DPA, I had to cover digital economy subjects. Sometimes it was about concrete stuff as the abolishment of roaming surcharges for mobile phone users. But most stories were on lengthy and highly technical debates on data protection, cyber security, net neutrality and copyright issues.

As the world becomes ever more complex, so does its governance. On a national level policy developments already are already hard to follow. On a European level, many (fundamental) debates are so detailed that journalists, most of them trained as generalists meaning they can write about everything, will have trouble fleshing out a juicy story that is understandable for a wider audience. Let alone get to the realcore of the issue.

  1. Process doesn’t matter. Results count.

The EU legislation process is all about… process. And if one thing is NOT interesting, it is process. Only outcomes matter. Journalism is about news. And news is about things that happen, have an impact, and can be descibed in simple terms.

Because of the structure of the European process to make laws, a real outcome and a real result often only become visible at the last moment. By that time the draft law – let’s say one on scrapping milk quotas – actually is accepted, numerous rounds of proposals from the Commission, hundreds or even thousands of the amendments by the Parliament, and a lengthy (secretive) negotiation round(s) with the Council (Member States) have been added to the milk quota dossier.

Problematic is that in each of these little steps, communication people from the EU institutions jump up to say that a ‘historic’ vote has passed, or that the Council has now finally reached a compromise on the quotas, while they still need to be agreed upon by the Parliament.

This happened to the TTIP discussion. It may take years before a trade deal with the Americans lies on the table. But in May, a committee in the EP had a ‘historic’ vote, that then had to be repeated by the plenary session. Both the debate and the vote were postponed for months because their was infighting between the Socialists and Democrats Group. And the resolution, on a part of TTIP, will just be nothing more than an advice, that the Commission can easily ignore. So process is being hyped as news, which is in the end counterproductive.

  1. Politics is about real conflicts, sex and scandal

Fans of House of Cardswill agree that there can be no entertaining politics without victims. Yes, politics is drama. Politics is a play. Politics is about winners and losers. Not really about visions on the future or on classic debates between left and right.

Even the more text-book definitions of politics do not match with politics happening in Brussels. The fights are utterly dull, unless there is real fire going on like the eurocrisis or sanctions against Russia. Then the coverage of Brussels’ news becomes better, more lively, more entertaining.

There are several reasons why the EU’s political sphere is so a-political. For a start, there is no real European government, so there is also no real coalition in the Parliament – and neither an opposition. Members of the Commission cannot be sent home or torched publicly on Place Luxembourg. The Council (member states) is a black box that shows very little of the enormous political mechanisms going on, because these are primarily a diplomatic mechanism, and that needs to remain unseen.

The sheer lack of spectacle, of scandals and of sex makes Brussels a very yawn-inducing area for political reporters. Newshounds cannot live without the smell of blood.

  1. Timing of impact

Even when the EU (‘Brussels forbids X’) takes a striking decision, usually there is little real debate in the national media. Because member states have several years, between two and five years usually, to implement the new rules (directives and regulations to be precise). So by the time the EU bans plastic bags, people will respond shocked. Hey, what happened! When was that decision taken? What can we do? The debate was light years away in the viewpoint of national politicians, so they can just say: ‘Brussels imposed this rule on us. Ich habe es nicht gewusst.’

The smart correspondent who did try to get the piece on plastic bags in his paper, will have gotten just a column, but by the time they are really banned, he can start the aftermath-reporting.

  1. One journalist, one entire governance layer
Eurobubble

The estimates differ but between 750 and 1000 journalists roam the streets of the EU quarter. That means one journalist on every Member of the European Parliament (there are 751). But the journalist also has to cover the Commission (28 members, around 25 directorates-general), the Council (28 member states, thousands of diplomats), plus all the thousands of interest groups, lobbyists and other EU bubble related folk.

In other words, one correspondent needs to be able to follow an entire governance layer. Some media send several reporters to Brussels, but often it’s just a solo operation.

How does this affect the work of the correspondent? He/she makes some tough choices on what to report. Stays on the surface. Is susceptible to spinning from all institutions, lobbyists and people who want their angle to lead the story. Unless you are truly brilliant, a savant, it is sheer impossible to follow all the policy developments of the EU. Even staying up to date and well informed on one policy area, like the digital economy, was a daunting task during my DPA time.

At one point DPA asked me to write two articles a day on the digital economy. There was little time for research, going in-depth, expanding the network. I had to grab every news opportunity that I got. Colleagues who work for national newspapers just focus on the eurocrisis and drop everything else.

  1. National political dynamics do not match the European one

The last impediment to reporters is that the political dynamics in the EU, or the European agenda so to speak, do not align with the national political news agenda. Maybe on national level there have been elections, the government has collapsed, or everything is about the revision of the retirement age. In the meantime in Brussels, the debate is on TTIP, copyright reform, saving/dumping Greece, extending sanctions on Greece.

It is hard for journalists operating from the EU level, to make the connection with political debates at home. Sometimes it works, for instance when the Dutch parliament had a serious debate on the second rescue package for Greece. But most of the time the political discussions seem to be taking place in parallel worlds, with little interest from national christian-democrats for their colleagues in the European Parliament.

The European Union’s policy work is technical, blurry, boring, has an inbuilt delayed effect and stands on its own. These matters need to be taken into account before people in Brussels start complaining that the media are not covering their work. There are ample reasons for the lack of attention.

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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.
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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.

Pics:

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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. 

Summary

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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