Alphen, Netherlands. 18 February. In Life of Brian, freedom fighter Reg, leader of the ramshackle People’s Front of Judea, rallies his incompetent followers with a seemingly rhetorical question, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” “The aqueduct”, suggests Xerxes. “Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That's true”. “And the sanitation!” says Stan, “You remember what the city used to be like”. “All right”, says Reg, “I'll grant you that; the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done...” “And the roads...” suggests Matthias. “Well yes obviously the roads... the roads go without saying. But apart from the aqueduct, the sanitation and the roads?” “Irrigation, medicine, education, health”. “Yes, all right, fair enough” says Reg. “And the wine...that's something we'd really miss if the Romans left, Reg” . “What about Public baths? And it's safe to walk the streets at night now”. “Yes, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it they're the only ones who could in a place like this”. “All right... all right”, shouts an exasperated Reg, “...apart from better sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, a freshwater system, baths and public order... what have the Romans ever done for us?” “Brought peace?”
On Saturday night over dinner with neighbours a similar sentiment was expressed; what has Brussels ever done for us? The news was not good. A neighbour from across the road has just lost his job because his trucking company had gone into liquidation undercut by competition from Eastern Europe. A neighbour on the other side fears she will lose her job because of changes in European contract law that means her company must compete with cheaper labour from Eastern Europe. A climate of fear now extends across the village and with it a growing sense of disenchantment with the EU in what had once been the political heartland of ‘Europe’.
Today’s Europe is noticeable for a profound divide between those that are being paid for by the people of my village and the people of my village who are being rapidly impoverished by the euro crisis. Indeed, ‘Europe’ is now seen as something bad that is being done to them, a sentiment one can trace across much of northern, western Europe.
Thankfully politicians in the Netherlands are slowly beginning to wake up to the deep disenchantment felt in towns and villages like my own. David Cameron’s seminal speech on Europe seems to have acted like a trigger with mainstream politicians much more willing to speak out against the centralizing ambitions of Brussels Centre. Yesterday, Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans warned EU pretend President Herman van Rompuy that he was going too fast with his plans for ever closer union. Moreover, the recent Brussels budget summit suggested the emergence of a new alignment for a Europe that serves its nation-states, not a Europe built on their eventual demise.
This balance of competences battle is the heart of the battle over the future Europe. Iain Duncan Smith, the British Secretary for Secretary of State for Work and Pension, warned of the ever-expanding and creeping powers of a European Commission determined to interpret its treaty ‘competences’ in the most aggressive manner possible. He was particularly concerned by Commission efforts to interpret responsibilities to protect the free movement of peoples as a ruse to interfere in national social security legislation.
It is no longer clear to my neighbours who or what is responsible for the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, health, wine and law and order. European regulation they neither want nor voted for is ever more apparent in their lives. Moreover, they believe it is that self-same regulation that is making them poor in the name of ‘Europe’. Clearly, national politicians too often blame Brussels for their own failings but behind the crisis an almighty power struggle is underway between the northern, western European taxpayer and Brussels Centre and its powerful political allies. Not surprisingly my Dutch neighbours feel powerless and intimidated in the face of such forces and are deeply mistrustful of the political class as a whole.
Of course, the usual self-aggrandising suspects in Brussels Centre trot out the usual mantra about the need for European solidarity. However, on hearing this most northern, western Europeans simply reach for their wallet to see if their money is still there.
The sad truth is that the ordinary people of my village are being asked the impossible in the name of Europe; to bear the cost of an ill-conceived currency and the appallingly irresponsible borrowing it triggered elsewhere, whilst being impoverished by a ‘Europe’ that traps them in a spiral of over-regulation, economic sclerosis and beggar-thy-neighbour politics.
The European Union will only survive if Brussels Centre can clearly demonstrate benefit to the people on my street. If ‘benefit’ is only yet more theoretical or political rhetoric in the mind of a dangerously detached elite or the supine academics that afford them succour then political Europe will inevitably fail.
What has Brussels ever done for us? Brought peace?