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Prof. J. van der Harst: ‘At last there’s something to choose between in Europe.’

19 May 2009
Brussels is much more successful and efficient than many voters think. Nevertheless, persistent Euro-scepticism also has its positive side, thinks Jan van der Harst, professor of History and Theory of European Integration at the University of Groningen. ‘These elections will be the first with a real choice.’
Is Europe an ungovernable Moloch? An undemocratic, money-guzzling monster? With the European Parliamentary elections coming up, a great deal of Euro-critical and Euro-sceptic noises can be heard in the political and social debate. This is not justified, thinks University of Groningen professor of International Relations Jan van der Harst. ‘Our food safety, our constantly improving environmental legislation, cheap air tickets and low phone rates, and above all our peace – they’re all thanks to Europe. Europe is a success story. Although our economic problems are huge, just imagine how much greater they would have been if we hadn’t had the euro. It’s bizarre that hardly anyone ever mentions that.’

The first criticism

Until the early 1990s, there were hardly any negative words about Europe in the Netherlands. As far as the major political parties were concerned, the European integration process could not go fast enough – only the marginal parties had some reservations. However, as soon as the Treaty of Maastricht was ratified in 1993, the first serious criticism was aired. Van der Harst: ‘The European Parliament was given more authority, so the democratic level of Europe increased. But Brussels also began to take more on itself, and that’s when people began to feel uncomfortable. Frits Bolkestein was the first to put this into words. The anti-Brussels arguments he used have since been expanded by Fortuyn, Wilders and Verdonk, to mention but a few.’

Brussels is efficient…

Since ‘Maastricht’, voters want to leave less and less to Brussels. Processes of globalization, privatization and deregulation are playing an important role in this, thinks Van der Harst. ‘People feel overwhelmed, uncertain, and the first place they look for security is close to home. For many people, Europe is pretty remote from their reality.’ This means that their scepticism is rather deeply rooted and won’t just blow over, he thinks. The poor image of the EU also plays a role here. Among the causes of this are the journeys back and forth between Strasbourg and Brussels and the uproar over the allowances for Euro MPs. The idea that Brussels is bogged down in bureaucracy is a fallacy though, thinks Van der Harst. ‘The Commission employs only about 20,000 bureaucrats, about the same number as one of the larger Dutch municipalities. A great deal of use is made of experts from all member states, which is an efficient way of governing.’

…but not easy

The criticism that Europe is not a full democracy will remain as long as there is no United States of Europe, thinks the professor. ‘The way decisions are taken in Brussels, in line with higher vote weighting, is something I can explain to my students, but it’s too complicated for European voters. That has to be made simpler and better.’ He thinks that everyone in Brussels is sufficiently convinced of the need to implement better, not just more legislation. ‘But it’ll never be easy. There are 27 countries, after all, and somehow you have to achieve cooperation. That means compromises, and compromises on compromises. Europe is and always will be a question of plodding on.’

Positive aspects

In 2005, 62% of Dutch voters rejected the Treaty of Lisbon in a referendum. Since then, Europe has become a ‘worry project’ for many Dutch politicians, thinks Van der Harst. ‘Our political and bureaucratic elite tends to claim European successes as their personal victories and to shift problems in Europe’s direction.’ In his opinion this is a very bad state of affairs. ‘Politicians can win votes this way in the short term, but in the long term voters are going to become more and more alienated from Europe.’ Nevertheless, the professor can also see the good side of all these Euro-sceptic noises. ‘In the past the debate was a bit monotonous, now the standpoints are clearly delineated. These elections actually look like being the first with a real choice.’

Curriculum Vitae

Jan van der Harst (The Hague, 1957) studied History at the University of Leiden. He gained his PhD at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, with a study of the European defence community in the 1950s. He joined the Department of International Relations of the University of Groningen in 1987, becoming professor of the History and Theory of European Integration in June 2008. In addition, he is co-director of the Dutch Studies Centre Groningen-Fudan, a cooperation with the Centre for European Studies of Fudan University in Shanghai, China.


prof. J. van der Harst

Last modified:12 March 2020 2.38 p.m.
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