Benelux the good light of the North 

Benelux celebrated its 60th Birthday 

While the European Union attempts to manage the Brexit crisis and Eurosceptic and nationalist forces raise their heads in certain EU countries, reinforced cooperations between members of the EU desiring to go forward in their project of solidarity are more indispensable than ever.

To give a new impetus to the European project, the Benelux has an enviable pedigree, its foundations having been laid well before those of the EU. Indeed, it was in London in 1944 that Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg decided to form a Customs Union, which became an Economic Union with the Benelux Treaty of 1958.   

The Benelux celebrated its 60th birthday last June 5th in Brussels in the presence of the three Heads of State: the Grand Duke Henri of Luxembourg, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and King Philippe of Belgium. This illustrious milestone gave the opportunity to measure how this alliance had stimulated the construction of the European Union, and to conclude that it still had a beautiful future ahead of it: „Ever greener and younger Benelux“.

This role as pioneer and laboratory of Europe is recognised by article 350 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, which allows the Benelux to derogate from certain European rules, provided that the Benelux is more advanced in the cooperation and integration in its project and that the derogation is essential for the implementation of the cross-border project. 

Consequently, the Benelux Union enjoys a unique position within the European Union: this is a privilege but also a responsibility towards the most remarkable project of peace, liberty and solidarity in our continent’s history: „Noblesse Oblige“. It is in this context of reviving the Benelux cooperation that I would like to share some thoughts on the link between the Benelux and the European project, under the title of „Benelux, the good light of the North“.

These reflections will focus on three themes: the new paradigms at the origin of the European project, the pioneering role of the Benelux within this project and, finally, what enabled the Benelux to play this role, its „DNA“.

The European Union, in its break with a tragic history, was indeed founded on a change of paradigm in at least two ways:

– A redefinition of what should constitute peace

– The transition from nationalism to patriotism

The word peace comes from the Latin “pax”, sharing a common root with the word “pacta”. For the Romans, peace proceeded from a pact, an agreement, a legal, formal and univocal convention sometimes imposed by force (pax romana). This rule, intended to make life in common possible, is translated into laws that justice will enforce. The adage „Pacta servanda sunt“ highlights the imperative character of the rule of law.

European culture being the heritage of both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions, the idea of peace also comes from the Semitic root „Shalom“ (SLM) drawn from the Hebrew verb „lehashlim“ which means to complete, fulfill, reconcile. This verb implies anintersubjective, dynamic action of personnel engagement, of mutual recognition (symbol) and even of hospitality. Peace is based on the recognition that we need others to fulfill ourselves. This peace is founded on a completeness that also evokes the sweet alliance of lovers and the fecundity of their encounter.

This dynamic conception of peace is thus based on a shared project, an active engagement, a respectful recognition and even a desire of the other, in his salutary otherness, his irreducible difference. The symbolics of peace, its hospitality are based on a shared conception of mankind, of a mutual recognition of everyone’s singularity, source of a natural law. The face of the other breaks the mirror of narcissism. 

Thus unity cannot but be conceived in respect of diversity (“In varietate Concordia”, motto of the EU).

We therefore see how the two spiritual traditions of Europe enrich our understanding of what peace should be: the rational approach commands that the rules of life in common be clearly set forth, unequivocal in terms of rights and obligations, but this formal peace cannot last without its relational counterpart, i.e. a desire for mutual respect, a recognition of my need of the other expressed in hospitality and personal engagement.

These two approaches, rational and relational, are each indispensable and complementary for advancing towards an enduring and productive peace. 

Such was the inspiration of the Founding Fathers of Europe, who were also able to ban nationalism and — to quote Robert Schuman — „free borders of their pernicious character“; i.e. rid Europe from nationalism to the benefit of a renewed European patriotism.

Indeed, nationalism, with Nazism as its most tragic avatar, illustrates the confusion of rational and relational discourses. Nationalism amounts to giving an objective character to a subjective and perfectly legitimate discourse, that of patriotism: the patriotic sentiment is a legitimate pride based on love, that of relatives, of ancestors and of what they bequeathed to us, patriotism is simultaneously subjective, singular (Ubi bene, ibi patria) and shared, without exclusivity. It is not an impersonal or rational discourse and it does not enter into competition with that of another person (each one loves his relatives and admires this sentiment in others; as the fifth commandment of the Hebrew Decalogue recalls: „Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.“ What a beautiful summary of patriotism, linking gratitude and country ! 

On the contrary, nationalism, which is a expression of political narcissism, maintains a rational and thus opposable discourse (therefore open to polemics) based on exclusivity and allegedly superior qualities, all possibly substantiated by pseudo-scientific argumentation. Nationalism often has as an economic corollary: protectionism or even autarchy; the project of autarchy is to refuse to depend on others and, on a strategic level, to prepare for war.

Thus, trade, if it is equitable, can be a factor of peace because, by exchanging with others, I recognise their utility, their talents; I need them (lehashlim). The theory of comparative advantage, as explained by the British economist David Ricardo in the early 19th century, justified and inspired England’s policy of free trade.

It is because they understood this pacifying role of trade (“le doux commerce” according to Montesquieu: l’effet naturel du commerce est de porter à la paix (Montesquieu, De l’esprit des lois, 1758)) that the founders of the Benelux started out from economics (Benelux Customs Union in 1948, Economic Union in 1958) in order to arrive at politics (Benelux Union in 2008). The Fathers of Europe would follow precisely the same path beginning with the CECA and the Common Market.

As a consequence of these paradigm changes, Europe, cured of nationalism, can no longer become an empire; its vocation is to be a house, not a fortress. In ancient Greek, a house is called Oikos, from which derive the terms economy and ecology. This root evokes a project of hospitality, where resources are placed at the service of a humanist and welcoming society. A market economy, but not a market society.

The Benelux anticipated the European paradigm shift, and undoubtedly inspired it as well.

The project of a free trade zone and customs union was negotiated during World War II by the Belgian, Dutch and Luxembourg governments in exile. It was based on a vision of complementarity, of solidarity between the states of Europe. While Europe was again being torn apart by the claws of exacerbated nationalism, the three Ministers of Foreign Affairs Spaak, van Kleffens and Bech, compelled their finance and agriculture experts to focus on the long term and to surpass the logic of zero-sum games and old rivalries. The project of a Benelux Custom Union was launched in 1944 and came into being in 1948.

It is in the iron and fire of war that the peaceful alloy of the Benelux was forged.

Starting from economics, (Treaty of Benelux Economic Union in 1958) to arrive at politics, the new treaty of Benelux Union was signed in 2008, to enter into force on 1 January 2012, providing for intensified cross border cooperation between the three countries in the following fields:

· Internal market and Economy

· Security and Society

· Digitalization and Durability as two core-binding factors

Let us recall a few figures: with 28.5 million inhabitants (5.6%) and an average GDP of 36,000 €/year (7.9%), the Benelux is the 5th largest European economic power. It must be stressed that the complementarity between the three countries is not static, we are not dealing with puzzle pieces that fit together perfectly, but rather with projects for creating cross-border value chains, based on comparative advantage. This complementarity is also open: the Benelux cooperates intensively for now 10 years with the Land Nordrhein Westfalen and more and more with the French regions of Hauts de France and Grand Est.

Benelux has thus been the pioneer of „an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe“, to cite the preamble of the Treaty of Rome. From the very start the Benelux defended this position in the face of protectionist or nationalist temptations; at Schengen in 1985, the Benelux signed with France and Germany an agreement that would gradually be extended to virtually all of Europe, permitting the free movement of persons and thus reinforcing European citizenship and patriotism.

So what is the DNA of the Benelux, what is its „genus“, not to say its genius?

That of transcending zero-sum games; this is also called creativity, imagination, the rejection of sterile rivalries, as attested by the prosperity and the rich artistic heritage of the 17 provinces. Our tradition is innovation.

Tolerance, with a tradition of political asylum: multilingualism encourages empathy; tolerance must not be passive, but rather an attitude of respect towards the others (lehashlim).

Pragmatism: no cults of personality or fanatical nationalism; humanity (and humor) takes precedence over ideology.

Patience: in these regions where nature is not overly generous, nothing is built but in the long term; let us for example admire how the Dutch reclaimed their country from the sea!

Trade, as the fair exchange between goods and people; the XVII Provinces were free traders, following England’s example and Montesquieu’s thought.

A profound determination: „One need not to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere“. The motto of William de Nassau reflects the mentality of the peoples of the Benelux. 

These virtues are at the service of a peaceful ideal, of a prudent yet determined humanism, and they express themselves via a culture of dialogue. This lays the field for an intense cross border cooperation.

Traditionally, there has been no nationalism in the Benelux, but instead loyal patriotisms, which sometimes take a regional form.

Today, the Benelux, in a difficult European context, is working on concrete projects for combating Euroscepticism and hostility to the EU, of which Brexit is one regrettable illustration. In this challenging period, the Benelux must preserve its relevance by remaining true to its vocation.

Nomen est omen, each name bears a destiny, „Benelux“ can evoke a „good light“, this gentle light of the North so highly valued by artists, because it illuminates without blinding; it leads us to the mystery of the human, as do the paintings of Rembrandt or Vermeer.

In conclusion, I hope that the Benelux, conscious of its humanist heritage and its responsibilities, will continue to illuminate the path for Europe.

Thomas Antoine

Secretary General of the Benelux Union