Although said at a time when the European Community was just six member states in a divided continent, it holds as true now as then. In those days we were in the high noon of the cold war, and it was unimaginable that Europe would ever be united, let alone that a European Union of 27 states would now be striving to create an economic and political union embedded in a European legal order.
Yet an even closer and more durable bond is needed, a bond of a supra-national character. It’s a 50-year old formula that still best describes what is at stake. It doesn’t mean the creation of a “United States of Europe” that would be some kind of superstate to replace the individual national states by a single European entity. But the term superstate has unfortunately persisted, worrying many people uncertain of the EU’s identity, who are already concerned about issues like immigration and the challenges of globalisation. I myself prefer Jacques Delors’ formulation: We seek to create a “federation of nation states”, based on “unity in diversity”. Only such a structure can meet the domestic needs of European welfare, peace and security, while contributing to a more equitable, peaceful and sustainable world order.
Such European unity cannot, though, be taken for granted. So it has been with much sadness that I have observed the way that Belgium and the Netherlands, the two founding member states in which I have spent most of my professional life, becoming divided over the EU’s Reform Treaty. At one point, according to press reports, it became so serious France’s newly-elected President Nicolas Sarkozy had to intervene in the dispute.
Europe can’t afford a dogfight between these two founding member states, so it’s now high time to put emotions aside and review their differences on the future course of European integration. As a former Dutch State Secretary for European Affairs and Benelux Coordinator, I believe the Netherlands and Belgium can once again play complementary roles. From the very beginning, they have been at the heart of European integration, representing the different aspects of its identity. Belgium, as an industrial nation, continentally oriented, bilingual in nature and an intermediary towards the southern part of Europe; the Netherlands with its strong agricultural and trading tradition and its Anglo-Saxon and Atlantic orientation.
Of the two, Belgium tends to be more uncritically supportive of the European Union. Pollsters show more than 80% of Belgians wanting yet more integration, while the Netherlands is far less keen with about 50% of the Dutch describing themselves as eurosceptics. They value the Union for the economic advantages but are wary of its politics.
Belgian-Dutch cooperation has in years past been essential in helping Europe to move forward. The Benelux Economic Union treaty of 1944 was an early testing ground for the Europe of the Six, and it was the joint Benelux Memorandum fathered by the farsighted J. W. Beyen and presented in Messina in 1955 that gave the impetus to the creation of the common market. It was the basis on which Belgian Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak and his colleagues worked towards setting the scene for the EEC treaty.
The Spaak committee devised a system that balanced the voting power of states of varying size. Clearly, a system of one vote per member state would have meant domination by the smaller states. Conversely, a system based on population or size would have gone too far in favouring the big ones. Balance was in part achieved by a system of weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers, where most decisions are taken. With each enlargement of the Union this system of decision-making has been largely maintained. The equilibrium in voting rights between small and large member states was also secured through the exclusive right of proposal of the Commission, expressing the common interest of the Community. That right was reinforced because member states could not overrule the Commission unless by unanimity. This provision has certainly strengthened the smaller states against the larger ones.
As open economies, Belgium and the Netherlands have both been interested in developing the internal market, but differed on methodology. Belgium followed the mainly French monetarist school while the Netherlands shared Germany’s preference for economic convergence before making a commitment to exchange rate parity. Once the joint Franco – German proposal for the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) was made by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, both Belgium and the Netherlands worked together to achieve that common goal. Along with Luxembourg (as an integral part of the Belgian Luxemburg Economic Union) they were an important factor in creating EMU.
In 1991, when the Netherlands held the presidency, Belgium supported its far-reaching draft for a treaty of European Union. The Dutch proposed bringing all European decision-making − economic, foreign policy, justice and home affairs − into a single framework. The proposal turned out to be a step too far and subsequently went down into Dutch history as “black Monday”, named after the day on which the then foreign minister, Hans Van den Broek, faced near-unanimous opposition in the Council of Ministers. Belgium, though, was the one member state that supported the Dutch in this brave venture.
More recently, Belgo-Dutch attitudes have been less cooperative. When it came to voting rights in the European Parliament and in the Council, the Dutch fought doggedly to get one extra vote in Amsterdam in 1991 and another in Nice in 2000. This may have satisfied nationalist feelings in the Netherlands, as the country is one and a half times the size of Belgium, but it did not go down well in Belgium. Belgium and the Netherlands also found themselves in opposing camps over the war in Iraq and, of course in their attitudes towards further political integration.
The Netherlands’ reserved attitude on further political integration in Europe and its defensive and opportunistic national attitude to European issues cannot be in its broader interest. But it is not all one sided. Belgium could have shown greater understanding for the Netherlands’ position after Dutch voters decisively rejected the proposed European constitution in the mid-2005 referendum.
Belgium and the Netherlands need to resuscitate their cooperation efforts within the Benelux framework. The Benelux economy is the EU’s fourth largest. Belgium will for the next two years be serving on the UN Security Council and has indicated that it wants to give its mandate a European dimension. The coming period could therefore be used in both countries to review traditional positions and reflect on way’s that European policy can best serve their common needs. Traditionally, the Netherlands has thought of itself as the smallest of the large member states, but more realistically it is generally seen as the largest of the small. Accepting this view could have a healthy impact on its behaviour in the EU. After all, it is to be expected that the three largest states, Germany, Britain and France, will seek to reach agreement among themselves about the future shape of the Union, so it is in the common Benelux interest to influence their actions and ensure their thinking is acceptable to the whole community.