Institutions: There’s a place for euro-heretics too
19 July 2012
De Groene Amsterdammer
MEPs and public servants in Brussels are frequently stereotyped as members of a “religion”. This is because they live in a blanket pro-European environment, writes a Dutch journalist. But different voices are now being heard.
Derk-Jan Eppink is a heretic. The conservative Member of the European Parliament does not believe in the basic principle of European integration, that of “ever closer union between the peoples of Europe”, as laid down in the treaties since 1957.
Eppink – a Dutchman holding a seat for a Belgian party – is one of the most outspoken critics. “Everyone who comes here is expected to support that view,” he says. Those that do not, are non-believers – “heretics” – and are treated like pariahs. ”We are given dirty looks as soon as we start to speak. The federalists leave the room or start to talk to each other. We are also given less speaking time. Daniel Cohn-Bendit [co-president of the Green EU parliamentary group], often exceeds the allotted time and there is no intervention. If we do that the gavel comes down.”
The comparison with religion is only slightly exaggerated. Brussels is another world, where many people are zealously committed to the happy tidings of a united Europe. A world where the mention of any other belief – in a purely economic union or, God forbid, in no union at all – is set aside as dark primitivism.
This is particularly the case in the European Parliament, Eppink's arena. The majority are definitely more pro-European than party members at home. They are always in favour of, never against the transfer of more power. Right now they are first in line to argue in favour of the introduction of eurobonds and other community measures to solve the crisis.
“Brussels changes you”
This can undoubtedly be explained by the fact that the more Europhile among them are inclined to move to Brussels. Part of the explanation is also found in the fact that the less Europhile among them tend to convert as time goes by. “They go native,” in the words of a high-ranking public servant. Eppink: “Brussels changes you, as if you have been touched by the hand of God.”
CDA [Christian Democrat] member Wim van de Camp is one of them. He came to Brussels in 2009, after 23 years in the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament, with the idea of stopping the regulatory zeal and reducing the budget. Now he shares responsibility for the new, more pro-European course of the CDA.
“That's right,” he says. “This is partly because I now know more about it. And partly because, no matter how you look at it, people always blend in with the company for which they work. I am now more convinced than ever of the use of and need for the European Union.” The longer you are there, the more you start to believe.
In addition, says Dutch Socialist Party member Dennis de Jong, Brussels is set up in such a way that it pays to believe: “If you show yourself to be in favour of the United States of Europe, doors are automatically opened for you. For example, I will not be invited to Herman Van Rompuy's office very quickly.”
The same applies to daily activities, says De Jong. “If you do your job properly, you might become the chairman of a certain Parliamentary Committee. You are rewarded for your parliamentary work, and that is by definition pro-European. The positive reinforcement is enormous. It is difficult to keep your feet on the ground."
The gospel of “ever closer union”
In addition to the Parliament the Commission is unmistakably pro-European, but as anonymous discussions with three top public servants show, more pragmatic than ideological. “We are not all believers,” says one, who works in the Enlargement department [Directorate-general]. “There are really two groups of public servants: the group that simply does their work and the group that are true believers. The second group is getting smaller and smaller.”
Things were different in the past, say the public servants, two of whom have been working for the Commission for twenty years. In the past they still had the idea they were working on a historic task. These days things are far more business-like. “The EU exists, European integration is a reality,” says someone who works in the Competition DG. “The issue now is: how do you make sure that it works? It is all much more humdrum than people sometimes think.”
There is thus little political discussion on the direction Europe should take now. At the end of the day, they are public servants, no matter how exotic the Commission may appear to be. By definition they are apolitical, technocratic, and talk about football when they hang around the water cooler – not about the pros and cons of a European banking union.
Difficult times for the prophets
Since the beginning of 2010, for the first time, the number of people who don't trust the EU is bigger than those who do. The European Commission is starting to notice this. Public servants recently found stickers on their cars with an illustration of a man who used his tie to hang himself. “Eurocrat, make good use of your tie” [Eurocrate, sers-toi de ta cravate], was the caption. A number of them were given a good scare a month earlier when they were surrounded in the metro and ambushed by “a group of left-wing activists”. The Commission unions wrote in a letter on the topic that there had always been some “attacks”, but since the outbreak of the euro crisis they had increased in both number and size. These are difficult times for the prophets. The crisis is testing their faith. “The believers are starting to have doubts,” Eppink thinks. He says that these days they listen better if he or one of his political brothers is speaking. “We have the intellectual high ground,” he thinks. The elections will show whether the Netherlands thinks the same. More, or less, Europe. “That's a good thing,” the public servant of the expansion department thinks. “It is proof that integration is becoming real. In the past everyone agreed. But then nothing was really at issue. Now it is.”