Montesquieu Institute: from science to society

European policies: a hell of a job with many stumbling blocks


On March 15 and 16, 2012, the students of the Masterclass 2012 paid a visit to Brussels. The group arrived in Brussels on the 15th and had lunch at Nether. After that a lecture was given by Caroline de Gruyter from NRC newspaper about the game between the European political arena and the media.

Just like in The Hague politicians attend a lot of meetings in Brussels: European Brussels has matured. In the European Brussels national ministers, members of the European Parliament, members of the European Commission are the political actors. They are generalists, while the creation of policies also needs specialists. These are also needed to solve the current crisis, whereas final decisions are taken by politicians. They have to try and come up with adequate policies through negotiations between 27 EU member states. This requires that politicians are willing to compromise. In spite of advice from experts, who are supposed to strife for the optimum solution, the results of these negotiations are, due to political interests, not always the best solution to a problem. Politicians have an interest in certain solutions, since they have to sell the outcome of the negotiations at home to national parliaments and the electorate.

The current crisis also sees but a few experts at the negotiating table: Monti from Italy and Juncker from Luxemburg. Foreign ministers are no longer present at this arena. The leaders of government that do attend these meetings are generalists and have to depend on their own skills and knowledge. The advice they received usually consists of a number of scenario’s varying from the best to the least acceptable. Practice teaches that the best scenario is never reached, also because it may vary greatly from country to country. A compromise of sorts is the highest attainable.

Apart from these technical problems there are other matters that hamper the forming of new policies. The Lisbon Treaty gave national parliaments the right to influence policies once they are in the stage of proposal. This might be good for legitimacy, which is the idea behind this, but is in practical terms somewhat more complicated. The ladies and gentlemen at the table in the Council want to be able to defend the outcome of their negotiations at home. Their political life may depend on this. This means that optimum solutions are rarely attained. National politics therefore is an important influence on European policies. This also dictates, to a high degree, how decisions are communicated to national parliaments and, through the media, to the European electorate.

The press tries to monitor all this, which is a tough job. Another matter is that the press does not consist of an entire army, always present everywhere, but has to make do with a limited number of people. They sometimes have, just like the politicians spent many waking hours until early in the morning, in corridors waiting for the results of a meeting. All this creates a situation in which the question might be raised if it is at all possible to communicate to world outside the Brussels arena how and why decisions are made and why certain policies are to be executed.

The item on the agenda for the students was a visit to the PV, the permanent representative of The Netherlands to the EU. During this visit information was given about the task of the PV. The PV employs civil servants a variety of departments of Dutch ministries and agencies. Their activities support the political and commercial interests. An overview was given of their day to day work. It was obvious that this is an important and challenging job.

The first day of the Brussels visit was closed by a dinner in a restaurant close the Grand Place. It meant that the students were able to evaluate the first day in an excellent atmosphere.

The second day of the visit started with a hearty breakfast at the hotel and a cup of coffee at Nether. The lecturer of the day was Ludolf van Hasselt who presently works at the European Commission. The subject was the crisis and the media, which was the same as the day before, but this time form the position of the Commission. The students found out that from this position similar problems arise as form the media position. The crisis is not just an economic crisis, but also a crisis of legitimacy. The fact that the new roles of political actors emanating from the Lisbon Treaty were problematic was confirmed.

The starting point for EU member states are different based upon their economy. This has consequences for the way the crisis can be handled. Interests of EU member states are not always the same, which causes problems. Another thing is that political actors are not always technical experts. This means that optimum solutions are rarely attained. Due to the fact that politicians seeks re-election this plays an important part. As a consequence solutions seem to be short term policies, while long term policies are needed. Yet the past year has shown that the speed by which decisions are made is much faster and the new policies are more fundamental than ever before. New policies are: Sixpack, ESFS and the Stability Pact. They offer institutional and policy chances for solutions and lessen the risk of new and fundamental crises. Another direction given to EU policies is that new initiatives are developed to communicate more and better with the European citizens. These programs are Europe for citizens and the European Tear of the Citizen.

During this meeting it was hoped that solving the economic crisis would not be the only issues on the agenda, but that recapturing legitimacy would also be one of the major issues on the EU agenda. This is also important for the new EU institutions mentioned above, since some people question their legitimacy. The programmes designed to restore the link between the EU and its citizens are not yet well known and it is therefore important that an extra effort will be made to promote them.