The debt crisis has forced the member states of the European Union (EU) to bring their financial policies more in line. It’s about time that Dutch politicians – Prime Minister Rutte in particular – inform the Dutch public of this, according to Jan van der Harst, professor of History and Theory of European Integration at the University of Groningen. ‘Europe having more financial say does not have to pose a threat to the Netherlands, and the prime minister should state that more clearly. In fact, the strict financial policy that the Netherlands has always called for could now be introduced.’
The agreements were crystal-clear: in 1993, the EU member states agreed in Maastricht that under normal circumstances their budget deficits would never be more than three percent. However, in particular after Germany broke the agreement in 2003, more and more EU members have ignored this injunction – and apparently there were no consequences. The situation has evolved to the point where Greece and Portugal are hardly able to borrow any longer and may well drag the EU into bankruptcy along with them. The EU needs to have more say about its members’ budgets, Van der Harst feels. ‘Prime Minister Rutte should explain this openly and honestly. Although he will no doubt meet some resistance, he doesn’t have to end up in hot water. The fact of the matter is that for countries with a solid budget, such as the Netherlands and Germany, more European say is not a threat, but rather an opportunity to convince other countries to toe the line.’
The debt crisis proves that automatic sanctions should have been agreed in 1993 if EU member states did not manage their budgets properly. Van der Harst: ‘Of course it was perhaps inevitable that the lack of obligation would lead to problems. However, that’s all in hindsight.’ The professor thinks it’s an exaggeration to say that the EU member states avoided confronting the problem. ‘The resistance at the time to transferring extra national sovereignty was to be expected – and as long as things are going well, there are no problems. However, the system has now broken down and we simply must take additional measures. Quitting the euro or the EU, which have brought us prosperity and stability, doesn’t seem to be a serious option. Our mutual dependency is too great to do so anyway.’
Prime Minister Rutte should not give the impression that the debt crisis can be solved without additional European measures, Van der Harst feels. ‘If you know that additional measures are necessary you need to explain that clearly. It’s dangerous not to do so, since then you are misinforming the public. Rutte should explain that the crisis provides opportunities as well. The Netherlands has always called for a strict fiscal policy. Now that it’s clear how crucial this is, countries with solid finances can have more say in countries that have dealt with their budgets irresponsibly.’
According to Van der Harst, there is sufficient support in the Netherlands to let Europe have more say in financial affairs. ‘The degree of Euroscepticism in our country shouldn’t be exaggerated. Who really wants to leave the EU or drop the euro? I think there are very few people who actually want to.’ That the PVV is making a lot of anti-EU noise doesn’t trouble Van der Harst. ‘For decades, the Netherlands has taken a pro-EU stance, the elite in particular. Our identification with Europe was always so strong that we ended up fearing debate on the subject. That was totally unnecessary. It’s good that the pros and cons of European unity are finally being debated.’
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, and became professor of the History and Theory of European Integration in June 2008. He is also co-director of the Dutch Studies Centre Groningen-Fudan (a cooperation with the Centre for European Studies of Fudan University in Shanghai, China) and co-director of the Tsinghua-Groningen Joint Research Centre for China-EU relations.
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