Europe needs to get coordinate and be smart about it

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Series Details Vol 7, No.12, 22.3.01, p16
Publication Date 22/03/2001
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Date: 22/03/01

Dutch State Secretary for European affairs Dick Benschop tells Simon Taylor that member states must work closer together if they want to build a stronger Union

Once seen as arch-federalists to rival only their Belgian and Luxembourger neighbours, these days the Hague's view of the EU and integration is marked more by financial prudence and an almost British pragmatism.

And there is no better advocate of this smart new way of thinking than Dick Benschop, the state secretary for European affairs. Close to Prime Minister Wim Kok and often seen as his master's mole in the ministry, Benschop is a huge enthusiast for closer cooperation between member states.

He is reputed to be the inventor of 'open coordination', in which countries are encouraged to improve performance in areas such as competitiveness or job creation by benchmarking and comparing best practices.

At this weekend's Stockholm summit, for example, member states will compare progress they have made in reducing red tape for business on the basis of scoreboards rather than regulations or directives.

Benschop is quick to reject the suggestion that open coordination is a poor substitute for the political will needed to agree common policies. "If national governments get better coordinated [on policy] that adds to Europe," he says. "It makes the Union stronger."

Crucially, he argues that emphasis on coordination offers the European Commission an opportunity to recover some of the status it has lost in recent years after allowing member states to take the political initiative.

He says the Commission should be "at the centre" of the new European Union, drawing up the targets that member states should meet and judging how they have done. "What the Commission should do - and is starting to do - is to define its role in this method. It can be the most critical factor in appraisal."

Benschop praises the Commission's preparations for Stockholm as more effective than the paper it put forward in the run-up to last spring's Lisbon summit.

"Prodi produced a good report for Lisbon but at too late a stage. The Commission has delivered on everything from Lisbon. Now it's up to the Council."

Benschop claims the EU executive is showing signs of confidence after the slump in morale after the resignation of the Santer team. "The Commission is starting to understand the potential of its role," he says. "It has been too reluctant in terms of the network [we are creating]."

The Commission could and should be the director, motor and stimulator that the network needs to be effective, he maintains.

On taxation, he backs the approach taken by Commissioner Frits Bolkestein. "He did some clever thinking on what the Commission's options are if straightforward harmonisation is so difficult," Benschop says.

But he doubts whether the Commission can create common rules on taxation by using legal challenges to member states. "Can you create the same tax base through the European courts? I don't think so."

Despite the state secretary's vigorous defence of the open coordination methods at the heart of the Stockholm summit, it would be wrong to think that the Dutch have fallen out of love with old-style European integration.

Indeed, his vision for the EU could not be clearer. "This is a political union in the making," he says.

But for this union to succeed, Benschop argues it needs a massive dose of direct democracy to boost its democratic legitimacy.

"We cannot and should not limit the discussion on the agenda on the future of Europe because the elements have to do with democracy and legitimacy." He says European voters should be able to challenge their leaders' decisions through referenda and the direct election of the Commission president.

Turning to more pressing concerns, Benschop agrees that the crisis facing Europe's farming industry intensifies the need for an urgent debate over agricultural policy reform. But he warns that moving farming in a more environmentally-friendly direction will have severe consequences for the EU in forthcoming world trade talks.

"The complicating factor is the external effects," he says, "because higher costs and higher prices compared to the world market are a problem."

"Will German consumers pay four marks for bio butter when there is other butter for two marks?" he asks.

Kok's ruling purple coalition of Socialists and Liberals faces elections in May next year. Given Benschop's commitment to European issues it is clear he will be a central figure in the forthcoming difficult debates.

Dutch State Secretary for European Affairs Dick Benschop says that Member States must work closer together if they want to build a stronger Union.

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