Reflecting on the EU's Future: An Interview with the Former Commissioner Frits Bolkestein

By Hylarides, Peter | Contemporary Review, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Reflecting on the EU's Future: An Interview with the Former Commissioner Frits Bolkestein


Hylarides, Peter, Contemporary Review


MOST people talk about the European Union based on their preconceived notions about it. It is rare to get an insight into that body unclouded by platitudes and the obfuscation of Euro-speech. I was fortunate to have an interview with a man who has both exceptional knowledge of the EU but who speaks in a plain language, Frits Bolkestein, the former European Commissioner for the internal market, taxation and the customs union (1999-2004). Born in 1933, he had had a distinguished career before he entered politics. From 1960 to 1976 he worked in different international capacities for Shell, lastly as Director of Shell Chimie in Paris. His aversion to the most left-wing government the Netherlands had ever had led him to pursue a new career in politics. In those days, the socialist government of Joop den Uyl (1973-1977) tried to create a new society by 'social engineering'. The redistribution of power, wealth and income was a central theme in its approach. Mr Bolkestein entered Parliament in 1978 for the Dutch Liberal-Democrats (VVD), became Minister for Foreign Trade (1982-1986), Minister of Defence (1988-1989) and was a highly successful Chairman of the VVD Parliamentary Group from 1990 to 1998.

Mr Bolkestein, currently Visiting Professor of Intellectual History at the Universities of Leiden and Delft, is a unique politician. Unlike many of his colleagues, he publishes articles and books on a wide variety of subjects. [1] He is not afraid to speak his mind, even if it goes against his party's policies. Mr Bolkestein was the first politician who dared to put the issue of multiculturalism on the agenda, contributing to a more businesslike approach when it came to the treatment of ethnic minorities. His views over the years on European integration have been varied but rather consistent. Mr Bolkestein has never been in favour of a federal Europe, which placed him, in the eyes of his critics, in the eurosceptic corner. As a liberal politician, he sees the European Union mainly as a large internal market, free from the constraints of state interference.

His and my native country, the Netherlands, has always played an ambivalent role in Europe. Until the Second World War, the country pursued a foreign policy that was based on neutrality and free trade. A small nation with the crucially important Netherlands Indies, the Netherlands was ranked as an important power in the world. The Second World War ended this perception. The exiled government in London realized the impossibility of continuing foreign policy along neutral lines. The first steps were taken in 1944, when Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg signed the so-called Benelux treaties. Their aim was to create a customs union, which came into force in 1948. The post-war conflict in the East Indies resulted in the creation of the independent Republic of Indonesia, effectively reducing the Netherlands to a second-rate power. It took some time before new policies were set in motion, but the Cold War made clear that choices had to be made. The European Recovery Programme or Marshall Plan provided economic assistance to European countries under the condition of mutual economic coordination. The Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) was set up for this goal. In the same year negotiations were started which led to the Brussels Pact, a defence organisation, overshadowed by the foundation of NATO in 1949. The Netherlands and the other Benelux countries responded positively and signed the respective treaties. Cooperation, in economic and military matters, had now replaced neutrality.

The Schuman plan (1950), leading to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was initially received with caution. The Dutch were not keen on handing over sovereignty to a supranational authority, which could interfere with their policies and thus decrease competitiveness. The Dutch government got its way with the creation of a Council of Ministers as a link between the High Authority and the nation states, limiting the possibility of supranational intervention. …

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