Paul Schnabel thinks Europe and the euro are not doing too well in the popularity stakes but how much do we really know about them?
The Dutch know very little about the euro. They don’t like it, don’t think it will improve on further acquaintance and that is how they want it to stay.
The meetings were a crushing bore and nitpicking was the order of the day but you still had the feeling you were witnessing history in the making. I can still see myself, almost fifty years ago now, in the public gallery of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
The trip for politically minded youngsters to the meeting places of the then EEC, or Common Market, was organised by the European Movement, which was given a subsidy for this sort of thing. The EEC only had six members at the time and was in the fledgling stage of its development. Nobody could have predicted that its next incarnation, the European Union, was to have 27 members, soon to be 28 when Croatia joins.
On the way to Strasbourg we had to show our passports at each border and of course we had provided ourselves with the necessary foreign currency. France was still far away, difficult to reach along narrow roads flanked by small, dilapidated towns and villages with their shutters firmly closed. It wouldn’d be long before the free movement of persons and goods between the six countries would become a reality and maybe Great Britain would finally join the new community too. The entry of countries under a dictatorship, like Spain and Portugal, let alone that of countries behind the Iron Curtain was very far from anyone’s mind. I don’t remember if a common currency was being talked of at the time.
When it came, some thirty years later, everybody cheered. The banknotes weren’t as stylish and modern as ‘the snip’ and ‘the lighthouse’, the 100 guilder and 250 guilder notes which took their names from their designs. But we soon got over that. The criticism that did bite was that bars and restaurants were using the transition to turn guilders into euros whilst ignoring the exchange rate. Later, the reluctant admission came that the situation had indeed been taken advantage of. And yes, the Netherlands did accept a rather low guilder to euro exchange rate.
Meanwhile, the true problems of the euro have surfaced dramatically. The euro, the European Union and ‘Brussels’ will definitely help determine voting behaviour in the next elections. The signs are that the outcome will not be positive. In January of this year more than 40% of the Dutch population thought replacing the guilder with the euro had been a bad idea. The EU membership is no longer being regarded as a good thing by the majority of people either
PVV voters are the least positive about Europe while GroenLinks and D66 voters are the most positive. SP voters are also very critical of the Dutch EU commitment but they differ significantly from the PVV voters. People with a higher level of education are generally much more positive about the EU and the euro than people with a lower level of education. The level of education has become the best clue to where the vote will end up. The elite is leftwing, the people rightwing, to put it in populist terms.
The choice for or against the EU is based on very little information. The Dutch may think they know a lot about the EU but often they can’t even answer the most basic of general knowledge questions on the subject. 3% of the population follows developments in the EU intensively via the media while over 50% say they have no interest in the subject whatsoever. The euro is unloved and unknown.
Paul Schnabel is head of the government social policy unit SCP
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