There seems to be a paradox: whereas the euro crisis has enforced deeper integration, economic and political attention is shifting away from the EU. Europhiles blame the Eurosceptics but EU-watchers should be careful to follow simplistic reasoning.
Dutch Foreign Affairs Minister Frans Timmermans has the reputation to be an EU-believer and was, among others, a convinced member of the Convention that drafted the Constitutional Treaty. When he became minister of foreign (including EU) affairs, the general impression in the Netherlands, and the rest of the EU, was that his appointment was a good sign of the Netherlands becoming pro-EU again. However, now one year in office, Timmermans has shown himself rather critical of the EU. He talked about a ‘Brussels bubble’ that has lost touch with reality, criticised EU salaries and insisted on closer control of the EU Commission by the European Council (i.e. intergovernmentalisation of the Commission). Of course, it is possible to contribute this to pragmatic kowtowing to the political signs of our times or to the more reserved EU attitude of the Dutch liberal Prime Minister Rutte and his coalition government of which Timmermans is a member.
Yet, there is more. Minister Timmermans is also travelling extensively abroad. In fact, he is much more in other parts of the world than in Brussels or in EU Member States. One could could argue that the Dutch international influence via the EU would be more pronounced and, hence, that the use of all his international activism outside the EU is debatable.
In the meantime, across the channel, Cameron has expressed the possibility of an in-out referendum. A part of British industry has been issuing threats of leaving the country, and many in the EU are once again appalled by the Brits who continue to be unsurpassed EU-sceptics. However, rather than condemning – as so often happens – the Brexit discussion ignited by Cameron, we could also try to take the British debate seriously. Similarly, we might need to consider that Timmermans’ external perspective is well-founded. In any case, it has to be admitted that the British are good at thinking outside the box, so maybe there is more substance behind the Brexit debate than simple Euroscepticism.
Studies also show that big as well as small and medium-sized industry in the UK question the relevance of current EU policies and of the importance of the EU. Whereas about half of the UK’s exports go to the EU, the other half is going to other parts of the world and, more importantly, it is there where the growth in export – not just the UK’s ─ is taking place. Discussions about competitiveness are now primarily linked to comparisons with countries such as India, China, Brazil and the USA.
Hence, rather than sticking to European navel-gazing, it seems justified to look at the rest of the world for market opportunities and for new threats. In principle, questioning social policy objectives – maybe precisely because they are more symbolic than real – and other developments in for example the growing tasks of the ECB and in the EU’s economic governance, seems a valid starting point in the current debates on the future of the EU. It is crucial to consider what such trends imply for the EU’s competitiveness. This is important from an economic perspective but one also has to consider that the EU’s international security and influence are intimately related to its economic strength. External benchmarking of the EU’s competitiveness should not suffer from internal euro crisis debates.
The EU may have to come to terms with the fact that we work and live in a post-EU society, which also helps to put the traditional European claims into perspective. There is a keen awareness in the Netherlands that 70% of our trade goes to countries within the EU, especially to countries within 1000 kilometres of our borders. This has actually little to do with the EU. Trade relations with neighbouring countries are bound to be important, irrespective of the European integration project. Although important, extensive trade with countries close by are more or less traditionally given. Trade with other parts of the world is clearly increasing and posing new and painful challenges. To focus trade relations more on the rest of the world seems a natural and necessary development.
We in the EU may have to accept the post-EU society as a reality. Voters, consumers and industry have interests beyond the internal market and internal eurozone worries. This recognition has, in principle, little to do with anti-EU sentiments. It would be a mistake to taboo those who’ cast their nets out further’. On the contrary, accepting this might actually help us to get a better focus on what is important within the EU, e.g. standing together in external relations, and what is potentially dangerous such as, for example, creating a French-type EU. The European Union is important, but there is a lot more in the world that counts.