The recent budget negotiations were nothing but a shadow-boxing match, with vote-hungry, opportunistic politicians out for their own interests, writes Neelie Kroes
British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously once said: ‘I want my money back’. If everyone was to demand his money back there wouldn’t be much of a European Union left but it’s always worth a try.
When I heard that a debate about handing back powers from Brussels had started in the Netherlands I couldn’t wait to hear more. ‘Handing back’ powers means breaking open a EU treaty signed by 27 countries. The debate must be about something very important, I thought.
I came across Thatcher-inspired slogans like ‘Europe doesn’t belong in this world’ and ‘We make a better job of trading right here in the Netherlands’ and ‘That CO2 is ours again’. It wasn’t about anything that really mattered in Europe.
What a disappointment! Nothing but a list of proposals that could have been blocked if the politicians had wanted to. Some don’t even fall under any European directive at all. There are a number of proposals which I’m not particularly in favour of myself but that happens in the best of democracies. You don’t need a treaty amendment for that.
All this just shows how childish the debate on Europe has become. The eurocrisis has forced a great deal of economic and financial sovereignty to be handed over to Brussels and just how far we want to go with this is a legitimate point of discussion. Should Europe have an army to support its foreign and security policies? How do we guarantee energy supplies and how can we bring CO2 emissions under control? Where is our economic growth going to come from? These are just a few things that really matter.
The debate about the EU budget is marred by the same lack of depth. It’s not a negotiation based on vision but a shadow-boxing match meant to convey that ‘Brussels’ has been taken down a peg or two and that politicians have managed to wrest something from the jaws of the Brussels beast for their voters.
It doesn’t matter that the EU has been given more supervisory powers when it comes to financial services, public budgets, foreign policy and crime prevention. Now the EU has been given more tasks and less money, the debate about what Europe should not do is becoming the priority.
The debate about the EU budget should not centre on how big it should be but on how it is spent. It should express ambition, not a dismal compromise between national political opportunism and subsidy dependence.
If leaders don’t lead and fail to come up with vision and strategic choices but do whatever they think will please the voters at home, then Europe is even worse off than the sceptics hoped.
For seven years we will suffer for the opportunistic choices made by the politicians of today. The budget negotiations offered an opportunity to turn the corner towards a stable future for Europe based on growth but vested interests and short-sighted political opportunism have made this impossible.
French statesman Georges Clemenceau said war was too important to leave to the generals. I’m beginning to think Europe is too important to leave to the politicians.
Neelie Kroes is a euro commissioner
This column first appeared in the Financieele Dagblad