Views of Mark Eyskens on the BENELUX and on current European and International Affairs

Former Belgian Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs

More than 60 yearS of BENELUX

In fact the 60th birthday of BENELUX could be fake news. Actually the BENELUX is much older. The idea of creating a bond started already at the end of the Second World War in London when the three governments of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg, were in exile in London and realized that a new form of cooperation and an intense relationship starting from an economic and commercial union would be necessary to protect the interests of the three countries. But also financially it could be a tool to coordinate the fluctuations of the rates of exchange of the involved currencies. These ideas were in a later phase implemented in European treaties and today we could state that the BENELUX started as an experimental lab for the later integration of the European Union. The BENELUX was an incubator for what later happened. The most important treaty related to the BENELUX celebrated its 60th anniversary a few weeks ago in Brussels.

As far as the BENELUX University Center (B.U.C.) is concerned: this is a rather old idea. It stems from the Netherlands and was created by Professor van der Geld who is a very dynamic man. He is in fact a psychologist and involved in coaching people and organizations. His idea was to have the BENELUX idea imbedded in university circles, to make professors of the three countries disperse their ideas to students of the other countries. I have an important chair in the B.U.C. and from time to time I am invited in the Netherlands, Belgium or in Luxembourg to explain the state and activities of the BENELUX. When I was a minister —
I have been active in different Belgian governments for 16 years — I was always impressed by the coherence and the creativity of the BENELUX.

European integration and the idea of Subsidiarity

During this period European Summits were organised with only 12 member states: it was in the years just before and after the Cold War. Ministers knew each other in a very intimate way: we phoned each other in a direct way, before smartphones existed and we met on a regular basis face-to-face, formally but also informal. Sometimes in beautiful castles and other enclosed environments where confidentiality was the rule. These first confidential meetings were called the gimmick meetings, always following the Chatham House Rule, where the presence of the participants was not disclosed. Journalists were far away. We succeeded in breakthrough compromises that were at the end essential for the future development of the European Union.

In my career I have known several Presidents of the European Commission, but the most creative, impressive and daring one was Jacques Delors. He was President during 10 years. He just had one handicap: his English was not good, so he kept speaking French, which was still a dominating language in diplomatic Europe. Arriving at meetings he was always carrying a small notebook in his pocket. While opening it he said: ‘Last night I couldn’t sleep very well but I came up with an idea’, proposing either a solution for a problem, or new initiatives, starting the discussion. I remember a crucial meeting on the Treaty of Maastricht in Ireland, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were completely blocked by the attitude of the British, Margaret Thatcher and her Minister of Foreign Affairs Douglas Hurt being absolutely opposed to the transfer of political sovereignty to the ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’. Jacques Delors said: ‘When I was a young student I got a lecture on the social doctrine of the Catholic Church.’ When he was young, Delors had been a syndicate militant in the Christian Union, studying the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and a crucial concept in that doctrine is subsidiarity. For the Catholics it related to the Catholic school system. The Catholics wanted to protect their schools and declared that ‘Schools have to be independent, totally autonomous, except when they are unable to realize things by themselves: at that moment government could intervene’. This concept limited the intervention of the government.

Can we perhaps apply the concept of subsidiarity to Europe? Nations continue to do what they can do, but as soon as they can’t — because we are becoming more and more interdependent — then they call on a higher level: and that will be the European Commission, the European Council or the European Institutions. Ms Thatcher replied she would consider this. And after a break in the negotiation process she said: ‘I can live with that’. The concept of subsidiarity became part of the Treaty of Maastricht and a key to the solution. Great Britain remained in the European boat although their interpretation of subsidiarity was a different from ours. For us subsidiarity meant that as many competences as possible should be transferred to a higher level. For the British it was the contrary: to keep the maximum of competences at the lower level of the national states. Today all this is questioned and perhaps over with the Brexit.

The BENELUX as a lab of ideas

I believe that more than ever the BENELUX should play the role of a lab of ideas and a broker of compromises as it was the case in the past. Given the present situation, which is extremely difficult, I think the three BENELUX countries could try to build a solid bridge between the two most important countries in the Union: France and Germany. The relation between the two major players depends often upon the electoral success in both countries. The government of Ms Merkel is weakened today. The BENELUX has a proven record to propose solutions.

Yesterday morning I had a meeting with Manfred Weber, president of the Group of the EPP in the European Parliament. And he explained the intricacies of the European attitude of the different political parties in Germany. And we had the same problems in the BENELUX: in the Netherlands the Christian Democrats are less European minded than we are in Belgium and in Flanders. But this could be also a kind of enrichment by comparing our positions and trying to find a common denominator. So we have several problems in Europe today starting with a lack of leadership. The time of Adenauer and Robert Schuman is the past. But I am convinced that French and German leaders supported by the ideas of the BENELUX, could propose something intelligent resulting in a new model of coherence and consensus within the European Union.

I remember that Foreign Ministers of Eastern European countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and even Hungary would interrogate me: ‘How does the BENELUX work? Could we do the same in the Eastern part of Europe?’ In result the VISEGRAD countries were founded similar to the BENELUX.

Secondly, the enormous challenge of immigration could completely destabilize the European Union if each country is applying its own measures in order to protect its own borders which leads to a negative disruption of the European Union. In the BENELUX we have an extensive experience of migration. After WWII Belgium attracted a lot of Italians and Turks, as miners. The Italians moved in general to Wallonia and the Turks to the Province of Limburg. Recently during the Turkish elections many of these very well integrated Turks in Limburg were voting for Erdogan, but also for the opposition, which led to campaign fights in the streets of Hasselt and other villages in Limburg.

The migration problem is an extremely complex problem. We have to face three categories of immigration. First the war refugees: they have to be protected by article 3 of the European Treaty of Human Rights and they can get asylum when they fulfill well defined conditions. We have to share this responsibility. The number of asylum seekers has decreased in a spectacular way: in two years it has decreased by more than 40% which we should be able to control.

Secondly we are confronted with the economic refugees. How to make the difference between an economic and a political refugee? What about ethics and morality? When you are starving in your country why not immigrate to our wealthy nations? In parallel politicians should explain to the public that the European demography is going down in a rapid way, particularly in Germany.

At the end of this century, we will be confronted in Europe with a demographic deficit of minus 50 million people due to the phenomenon of the aging of the population — which is a very expensive burden because of health services — and the lack of young people. The youth are needed for the labor market and to balance our social security. Birth rates in Europe have fallen down, so we need young people coming from outside Europe and organize this influx. We need a selective policy of immigration, capable to integrate, responding to vacant jobs on the labor market.

Without the demagogy of populism. The BENELUX could play a moderating role by practicing political pedagogy, explaining to the population what the situation is and what the long term problems are.

The problem of a democracy is that democracies function on a short term basis with elections every four to five years. On the other hand long term problems have an horizon of 20/25 years. Take the climate: we urgently have to take measures in order to reduce the warming of the planet for the next decades. In general voters vote for the short term. And politicians want to be re-elected. We have dysfunctions of democracy due to the friction or conflict between short term and long term problems and solutions, the revolution of digitalization and the fact that everyone is active and online all the time. We are evolving towards a formula of government led by a permanent opinion poll. All political parties test public opinion every day. When a measure is unpopular it is bound not to happen and in a way this weakens democracy. I hear the stories and I read in writings that strong regimes with authoritarian governments and leaders are more and more appreciated. In Italy, some are calling back the figure of ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini. President Putin has also many sympathies.

I have already proposed to modify our voting system. I am a great defender of the Belgian obligatory voting system. Take for instance the case of Donald Trump in the United States: he has been elected by 26% of the potential American voters because 48% didn’t show up. The Brexit was only approved by 36% of the potential British voters because 30% didn’t go and cast their vote. So these are minorities, overrunning and overturning completely the economic mechanism and political situation. We are obliged to go and vote as in Greece and Luxembourg.

Secondly, we only have one vote: one man or woman, one vote. In many countries you have many political parties, which results in a great volatility on the political market and a big and intense competition between parties. And people change. In the past 20/30 years children voted like their parents for the same political parties. But that situation has changed. In Brussels, for federal elections you have approximately 13 different parties with hundreds of candidates and thousands of focus points in their electoral programs. But you have only one vote to decide.

At the end you vote for one party and when that party steps in the government with at least two or three other parties we create a coalition government with four parties. This means the party you voted for, can only realize a smaller part of its program, which could frustrate the voter. The party cannot apply entirely what they promised because they are in a government with other parties. I am in favor of what I call ‘point voting’. Don’t give one vote to each voter, but for instance ten or twenty votes. And he could spread his votes like he or she wants for different candidates and different parties.The voter, by spreading his votes, is constructing the coalition and weakening the power of the presidents of political parties. I received a lot of criticism and one of the major criticisms was that technically this would be very difficult to organize. But in times of computerization and digitalization, I think that this should be feasible. We have to (re-)think this election case over and the BENELUX could become a lab to propose an improved alternative of our democracy.

The role of the BENELUX in current international relations

During Cold War, we lived in a bipolar world with two blocks. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War without using arms was almost a miracle in history. Thanks to courageous leaders as Gorbachev, Mitterand, Thatcher and George Bush Sr. After 1989 the world became multipolar with fewer large countries: the United States, China, Japan, the European Union and Russia dominating the field. Today there is disorder and chaos in international relations where alliances are changing according to the topic of the day, One could speak about an ‘a-polar’ world, without a significant polarity. Due to the presidency of Donald Trump and his behaviour the United States are politically weakened. They are no longer taken seriously. Whereas China is making an enormous effort, although they have some economic problems and although — once you travel through China and you go into the villages — it is still a bit of a developing country. But in cities welfare is increasing and in parallel the development of digital industries is widespread. This will have an economic impact on other continents and industries. The car industry in Europe, particularly the German car industry, has been strongly hit by Dieselgate scandal that will cost a fortune. Volkswagen has to pay one billion euro. Meanwhile the technological and market shift from gas engines to electrical cars is happening today. The Chinese have decided to ban all their gasoil driven cars by the latest in 2030 and replace them by electrical cars. They are now already manufacturing electrical cars for export to Europe at an extremely reasonable price: 15 000 euro for a fully electronical car. This will become a deadly competition for the European car makers.

The Belt and Road Initiative is another major Chinese project, rebuilding the Silk Road of the Middle Ages, and bridging China to Europe. In this context China has already acquired big stakes in the harbour of Piraeus/Athens and is building a railway from Peking and Shanghai to Europe with a huge impact on costs. Costs will decrease and be lower than maritime costs. The train connection will go to the sea ports of Northern Europe: Antwerp, Rotterdam, Hamburg, Rostov, Gdansk, increasing competition. We are living in a disruptive world and looking at the global map, Europe is a small peninsula hanging on the Eurasian continent up to Siberia and Vladivostok.

With Russia we have to be more constructive. We should also have the moral courage to imagine if we were in the same situation as the Russians after the end of the Cold War: the explosion of the Soviet Union and the implosion of Communism. Russia lost their ideology and lost 12 republics, evolving from provinces in the Soviet Union to independent countries. For me the annexation of the Crimea is a footnote and knowing that the Crimea was given to Ukraine when it was still a province of the Soviet Union under Khrushchev. The referendum in the Crimea gave a majority of 95% in favor of the annexation by Russia. I don’t believe that sanctions are efficient and are not worthwhile.

The Russians and President Putin today and all his predecessors, beginning with Gorbachev have a history of feeling cheated by the Western countries, the United States and Europe. In 1989-1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western Ministers, obtained from Gorbachev that he accepted the reunification of both Germanies, becoming a full member of the European Union. The Americans added that Germany should also become a member of NATO. For Gorbachev this was a bridge too far. „We are now dismantling the Warsaw Pact. You should do the same with NATO and you should at least neutralize a reunified Germany within NATO: so no American basis, no nuclear weapons on the territory of the big Germany“. The European countries were divided. But Bush Sr said: ‘No, that is impossible, that we cannot accept.’ Helmut Kohl took also a very strong position: ‚If the price for the reunification of my country is that my country should become neutral, then I refuse reunification.‘ President Bush and his Minister of Foreign Affairs Jimmy Baker, a very intelligent man, would solve the situation with Gorbachev face-to-face proposing a re-election scheme with Gorbachev, at that moment the first elected President of Russia. By influencing the supply and demand and subsequently the market prices of oil in collaboration with the oil producing countries in the Middle East, which also had a parallel impact on the Russian gas prices. Enabling Russia to create income by augmenting gas prices, Gorbachev would be able to invest, increase employment rates, build new companies, and finally be re-elected. In this scheme unified Germany would become a full member of NATO again.The first months the oil prices remained stable and on a rising level. But as from the fourth month oil prices started to decrease and even collapsing within six months going against Gorbachev’s naive reasoning. At that moment confidence in the Western partners was shattered and anti-American feelings were nurtured. It is difficult for Russia to trust Americans. That lack of trust was handed over from Gorbachev to Jeltsin and finally to Putin. I think that Germany and France, together with the BENELUX, should improve our contact again to improve our relationship and build trust.

The new French President Macron has created the basis for a renewed relationship with President Putin. Our Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, has been in the Kremlin recently (March 2018) and was treated with great respect. These are positive signs but it should result in an outcome soon.

Barbara Dietrich