Harry van Bommel has a message for the British
no to the EU Constitution, and vote yes to democracy",
he says. The Dutch Socialist MP was speaking at a meeting
of the Centre for a Social Europe, the newly formed left-wing
campaign for EU reform, as part of a tour of Europe's progressive
movements on the issue. He sees the proposed Constitution
as the starting point for a debate on the very future of
Europe, the importance of which has yet to be realised among
Europe's diverse and often divided left-wing movements.
His detailed understanding of the Constitution's text and
his placing of it within the ideological direction the EU
is taking is a stark contrast to the level of the debate
so far in Britain, a point he acknowledges.
To many on the left it is simply a case of being for Europe
not against it. "But this Europe is their Europe, not
our Europe", counters van Bommel. "There are different
visions of Europe - of public services or privatisation for
example, and now we can have a democratic choice. This is
an instrument to start a debate on the future of the EU -
we can't leave it to the neo-liberals."
The neo-liberal drift of the European Constitution is a
recurring theme - one that is influenced by a similar drift
in Dutch politics, much of which will sound familiar to British
"The privatisation of district nursing led to mile
long waiting lists for people to get the care they were entitled
to. In this case privatisation was made undone. After ratification
of the European Constitution, this will be forbidden." It
is a similar story with the national railway company, which
like Britain's has been privatised, and likewise with once
socially-provided dental care.
"After five years, you can tell what people earn by
looking at their teeth. This neo-liberal model is enshrined
in this Constitution. The foundations are being laid for
a Europe in which the free market rules."
This goes to the heart of van Bommel's argument - that
the so-called Constitution does not restrict itself to setting
out the political structures and processes of the European
Union but actually prescribes policy across many of the EU's
competences. Its stated goal is 'an internal market within
which competition is free and unhindered' and the monetarist
economics of the euro are given constitutional status.
"This is not a constitution, it is a political programme," concludes
van Bommel. And it is not only the neo-liberal economic policy
it enforces that exercises him.
"Member states will be obliged to expand their military.
That is unheard of in a document that calls itself constitution.
European countries are forced to spend more money on the
The EU Constitution contains an Article - largely ignored
in the mainstream British media - on defence, setting up
an EU Armaments Agency to drive up defence spending and compelling
member states to 'progressively improve their military capabilities'
so that EU countries pull their weight in NATO.
"The constitution clearly states this connection," warns
van Bommel, "and thus the connection of the EU to the
US. There will be no room for a neutral position outside
NATO, like Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Austria, Cyprus and
Under a Qualified Majority Voting system the EU would not
have had a majority against the Iraq war and van Bommel dismisses
any suggestion that the Constitution would somehow create
an alternative global power to the US. The Constitution also
explicitly gives the EU the right to intervene - with its
newly created 'battlegroups' - outside the European sphere
itself, even if it does not have a mandate from the United
Nations to do so.
"As we have seen in Iraq, war does not provide security," reflects
van Bommel, "militarisation does not help prevent terrorism.
We need better joint intelligence working, not more military
spending, but we can do that without a Constitution. We need
to change the practice, not the rules."
The threat of terrorism is one that is very real to the
Dutch MP, whose country has gone from being a byword for
social liberalism and tolerance to one marred by social unrest
and a right-wing backlash against immigration following the
murder of film producer Theo van Gogh. "Two MPs are
under 24-hour protection and the police are overwhelmed by
security requirements. It wasn't like this even after Pim
Fortuyn was assassinated - now there are churches, mosques,
burning. I don't even know what will happen next week. "
This social tension forms a difficult backdrop to the EU
debate for the left, with right-wing Liberal MP Geert Wilders
resigning and forming his own party on a platform of opposing
Turkish entry to the EU.
"Wilders has said that if Turkey joins, the Netherlands
should leave. He has left the Liberal Party and now, as an
independent MP, he gets more in the polls than the Liberals
do." Van Bommel recognises the danger that the crisis
could allow the right-wing government to paint opponents
as extremists of the right and left.
"But this is not just about left and right. This is
about the elite against the people - the centre supports
the Constitution because they are the political elite, the
establishment. We must have a proper public debate on this
now - about what direction Europe goes in, about whether
we have more privatisation and higher defence spending or
have a more democratic Europe and protect public services."
Raising the level of the debate is a constant theme of
van Bommel's position. He cites the recent example of the
political crisis over the European Commission.
The Dutch nominee, Neelie Kroes, is in van Bommel's words, "a
powerful advocate of privatisation" and he predicts
that "more of the family silver will be sold off." She
led privatisations such as that of the Dutch postal service
and more recently has sat on the Boards of numerous multi-national
companies, a conflict of interest that did not prevent her
appointment as Competition Commissioner.
"When she got an important post the reaction was like
we had won the Eurovision song contest - when actually it
was a sad day for the Netherlands. She will work for private
enterprise, not for the good of the people in the Netherlands.
It was the same with Bolkestein."
Frits Bolkestein, Kroes' predecessor as Competition Commissioner
and also a Dutch Liberal, has drafted the Directive on Services,
a measure with enormous implications for public services
and workers' rights if it is agreed by the Commission. And
Van Bommel sees little hope of a progressive stance from
this Commission. With only six of the twenty five Commissioners
from centre-left parties it is the most right wing Commission
in the history of the Union. And one of those six is Peter
Mandelson, a name that draws a wry smile from van Bommel
"I know about Mandelson, though he is not really known
by the public in the Netherlands. The right-wing drift of
the Commission has escaped scrutiny, despite our efforts
to highlight it. When I write an article in the Financial
Times on the Iraq war or Palestine, I get hate mail, fan
mail, in response. When I write on Europe I get nothing."
The lack of public debate is clearly as big a challenge
for van Bommel's Socialist Party as it is for his left-wing
counterparts in Britain but it is something he intends to
"Our campaign will move the debate away from the political
elites to the people. We must inform people or they will
vote in ignorance. And we must not let the campaign be hijacked
by the right-wing - that is why we have taken the lead." As
in most continental countries, the left is the natural home
for those sceptical of the direction the EU has taken and
van Bommel is building up a grassroots movement to make that
"The Lisbon Agenda will affect peoples' daily lives
- worse pensions, working rights, budget cuts…we are
seeing these things in the Netherlands and we can show that
the Government's right-wing policies are related to those
of Europe, that they are the same political programme. And
that political programme is enshrined in this Constitution.
That is why the European project has gone sour when it was
Van Bommel recognises this traditional support for the
European project amongst many on the social democratic left
in Europe but he dismisses the arguments often put in favour
of unthinking support for EU proposals and institutions.
"By opposing the euro and now the Constitution, we
are not opposing the EU. We are against this Constitution
because it is not a good one. It is a neo-liberal manifesto,
not a proper constitution. There will be a constitution one
day but this is our only instrument to start a debate on
the future of the EU, and it is a debate and a future that
cannot be left to the neo-liberals."
Indeed, the very name of van Bommel's movement - A Different
Europe - emphasises how the Dutch left view the debate.
He has no time for those who argue that a No vote will
force Britain out of the Union. "The suggestion that
countries which fail to ratify the proposed text will be
forced to leave the EU is as senseless as it is undemocratic.
If you won't take no for an answer, then why ask the question
in the first place?"
Van Bommel also brings a message of solidarity to the British
left, and an implicit answer to those who see a No campaign
as isolationist. "We are not alone, we must remember
that. We need to work together for a common agenda in Europe
or the neo-liberals will dominate and there will be no coherent
Preventing that outcome is clearly something that animates
the Dutch Socialist MP. "We are in for an exciting phase,
one which will give the EU's neo-liberal propagandists plenty
to chew on. A 'no' in this referendum will mean the EU elite
will finally have to listen to us. And it's about time that
Harry van Bommel was talking to Nick Parrott.
For more info on the Centre for a Social Europe go