The English adrift

If it is true that all politics is local, then the recent English local elections have drastically affected the British political landscape, with far-reaching consequences for Europe. The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is not simply blowing over. UKIP is in fact an English ‘nationalist party’ which - as a driving force against the EU-membership - deeply divides the United Kingdom.

The natural leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage (49), is a member of the European Parliament and sits just a few meters away from me. When I speak on behalf of the group of European Conservatives and Reformists, I sit next to Farage, leader of an anti-European group, which also includes the Dutch SGP. He is a funny guy, speaking with humour, but also with a sharp tongue during debates, in particular when figureheads of the 'European elite' are present. He considers himself a filibuster opposing both the European and the British establishment. He perorates and ridicules. Farage puts up a show arguing for a British exit of the EU and manages to hit all the sore spots of the anonymous bureaucracy. Outside of that, everything is jolly good, as long as a pint of beer stays within arm's reach.

For years Farage was depicted as a clown. Those days are over. He is reaping the fruits from the 'Stockholm syndrome' that influenced Tory leaders. Even long after the Thatcher tenure, British Conservatives kept being haunted by the label of 'nasty party': the heartless and cold party. Political opponents and the media hammered the point home, as the newly elected leader David Cameron had to steer his party back to the political centre through a narrative of compassion and fervour. He accepted the criticism and tried to turn the British Conservatives into the 'not nasty party'. He visited polar bears on the North Pole as part of the battle against climate change. The budget for development aid was ring-fenced, despite the crisis. He took a mild stance in relation to Europe, at least for British standards. Immigration was off limits as a topic during the elections, because it would come across as 'heartless'. The conservative English countryside started to stir. Cameron was paying more attention to the leftist newspaper The Guardian and the pro-European BBC than to sound and solid core of his electorate.

Champagne socialists

When it comes to scoring own goals, European socialists are true snipers. Tomorrow, on the 1st of May, they celebrate Labour Day; a moment to praise the ideal of equality and to demonise the rich. But greed has touched socialist leaders, especially in France and Germany. In the two core countries of euro socialism they launched a rhetoric "against the rich"; a class, by the way, to which they themselves belong.

The French President Francois Hollande is in trouble. As strategist from the school of his master, former President Francois Mitterrand, he knows that socialists can only win the presidency when the left is united and the right divided. Under President Sarkozy rightist France became divided between centre right and far right. Hollande wanted to force unity among the left by means of a campaign against "the rich". During a debate on TV he said: "I do not like rich people". As presidential candidate he launched the plan to tax incomes over 1 million Euros for 75%. The far left applauded. Hollande beat Sarkozy by a minimal difference.

After that it went downhill for Hollande. Wealthy French citizens emigrated or transferred their money abroad. The announcement of the measure led to a capital flight of 52 billion Euros, while the 75% tariff was supposed to bring in 200 million to the treasury.

The uprising of German economists

After the first party congress of the Alternative für Deutschland, last Sunday in Berlin, Germany has a euro critical force that affects the core of German euro policy. The uprising is being led by economists, many of whom already published an open letter against the German euro policy in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on July 5, 2012. The professors break a taboo to which German politicians have to conform: "if the euro fails, Europe fails." The population's support is waning: the professors offer a credible voice.

The erosion process is fueled by a growing conflict between North and South in the euro zone. The Greek Ministry of Finance has produced a report in which it calculates the extent of the damages Germany inflicted on Greece during the war. Germany is requested to pay as much as 162 billion euros in reparations to Greece, 80 percent of the current Greek gross domestic product. The German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, responded brusquely by saying that the Greek government should focus on reforms of the economy. Since its inception, the euro has been a political currency that has little to do with economic logic. Germany wanted the euro to have friends in Europe. Instead, it creates enemies because the monetary union is a failing construction. Politicians ignored warnings from economists.

German economists are now taking up the political gauntlet: the Hamburg Professor Dr. Bernd Lucke is the leader of the party. There is always a certain occupational hazard with professors in politics. Their starting point is pure analysis and substantiated conclusion, not haggling and political twisting. In addition, they sometimes run the risk of blowing themselves up along with their hobbyhorse. That happened to the Heidelberg Professor Paul Kirchhof, who became the preferred Finance Minister in the 2005 parliamentary elections on behalf of the CDU. Kirchhof's pet was the flat tax, a unitary fiscal rate which he promoted in the campaign, while it was not a party position. Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) recognized the opportunity and branded Kirchhof as an "advocate of the rich". The SPD campaign crucified Kirchhof upside down. He resigned and left the CDU to deal with the mess.

Tsar Vladimir I

During the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Netherlands next week, Prime Minister Rutte will not meet a leader who wants to appeal to the flattery of Europe, but a contemporary equivalent of a Russian Tsar. The end of the Soviet Union in 1991 reversed the result of centuries of Russian imperial policy. Putin called it ‘a disaster’. He is determined to restore that sphere of influence by founding the Eurasian Union (EU) with several neighboring countries in 2015. Next to the ‘Brussels EU’ a new EU emerges with Moscow as its center and with Putin as its big boss.

The European Union underestimates the scope of what Putin has in mind. Officials in Brussels look to Russia with a feeling of moral superiority, as a country of political chaos, arbitrariness, Gazprom, oligarchs and unrepentant vodka drinkers. Brussels is, after all, the center of political modernity with all its connaiseurs of the better wines. That makes Brussels blind to the strategy of Tsar Vladimir I.

Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan are the hard core of the 'Moscow EU’. The three countries already have a customs union - a kind of Russian Benelux - with agreements on free trade and movement of people. Power is the cement. The Russian army and security services form a unity with the two partners. Russia may use military action in Belarus at its discretion and the bulk of the officers in the Kazakh military consist of ethnic Russians. Remarkably, the President of Armenia, Serzj Sarkisian, also attends summits of the customs union, although Armenia is not a member. However, the Armenians are in trouble with Azerbaijan and Turkey, so support from the mighty Moscow is more than welcome.

Disunited States of America

Proponents of a 'United States of Europe' received quite a slap in the face during the recent battle for the EU budget. Instead of the eternal 'more Europe' mantra, the multi annual budget for the period 2014-2020 has been reduced and European taxes are out of the question. Europe is forcing citizens to save; Europe itself should lead by example. Better results with less money: there is a change of mindset in Brussels.

After all the big words, a sense of reality finally sets in. It is time to put to rest the concept of a federal European entity - the United States of Europe. Not because its ideal is not legitimate, but because it does not work. The 'United States of Europe' is the intellectual self-delusion of a small elite.

The ideal is fed by reference to the 'United States of America'. In order to imitate the American example, Europe would have to harmonize various policies. Therefore, European federalists are staunch advocates of tax harmonization. The European Parliament recently voted in favor of the harmonization of the corporate tax base. That has to be the first step towards harmonization of the tariff. The ' unique social model' is of vital importance. Harmonization of working hours has already been arranged. The next goal is the introduction of a European minimum wage. Uniformity on a European scale is paramount.

Herr Schulz

Presidents of the European Parliament are usually self-inflated town mayors with pastoral skills. They perform solemn speeches on stage and they are affable and pleasing. But not the current President Herr Schulz, Martin Schulz to be precise. Although he started as mayor of the German town Würselen, he lacks pastoral qualities. Schulz is a man who wants power and who, if necessary, ruthlessly imposes his will. His next ambition: President of the European Commission.

The 27 EU leaders who reached an agreement on the European Multiannual Financial Framework do not yet fully realize who they are dealing with in the person of Schulz. They see the village mayor from Würselen and the celebrated Rhineland carnival orator. In short: the farcical Provinzprinz. The European Council, however, faces a man who led his Socialist Group in the European Parliament in - according to a former member of the group - a "tyrannical manner". He ruled with an "iron fist". Some group members felt that the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had a point when in 2003 he jokingly depicted Schulz as prison camp guard. With that comment, Berlusconi also made Schulz world famous. German Chancellor Schroeder immediately pushed Schulz forward as leader of the European Socialists.

Behind the Italian theatre

The Italian election campaign seems to be a political version of a popular theatre with farcical characters in surreal situations. In reality, a dangerous situation is developing for the Eurozone. Ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, somewhat prematurely presumed dead, represents the gut feeling of Italians on austerity policies, which he portrays as a German diktat. "We must have this showdown with Germany. Otherwise the reality will force many countries, one after another, to exit the euro.

Italians nearly match the Greek in their dislike of Germany. Berlusconi is responding to anti-German sentiment, while current Prime Minister Mario Monti evokes the image of a German vassal. Monti, a senator for life, has never fought an electoral battle. The centre coalition which wants to keep him in power is favoured by the Italian establishment, but not by the man in the street. This is proven by the rise of the Five Star Movement led by the clownish Beppe Grillo. The leftist candidate Pier Luigi Bersani, furtively criticises the austerity policies. Bersani knows that he might need Monti as kingmaker. His left wing desperately wants to get rid of Monti's policy. Desertion threatens the leftist coalition.

Italy struggles with a dilemma: it embraces the euro as a symbol of European unity, but economically it cannot afford the coin. To Italians, the crown of European unity is a crown of thorns. Since the introduction of the euro, the Italian economy barely grew, meaning that the rich North of the country is increasingly unable to maintain the poorer South with an annual funding of 50 billion Euros. The Italian professor of economics at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Claudio Borghi, recently said this in Brussels: "The Italian economy is a reflection of the European economy. The North is Germany, France is the middle part and Greece is the South. Rome is Brussels." He argued that Germany should leave the Eurozone, but for now that statement is similar to cursing in church.

King in embalming fluid

The Belgian former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Deheane once sighed that King Albert II should be king as long as possible. "We will put him in embalming fluid if necessary". Abdication is not likely in Brussels. There will be elections for the Belgian federal parliament and the regional assemblies of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. In Wallonia the socialists dominate and in Flanders the Nieuwe Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance) is at 40 percent in election polls. Albert has to steer Belgium through murky waters.

Last week, I was at the Royal Palace in Brussels as a guest to the Reception of Constituted Bodies, the New Year's reception of the King. Constituted Bodies are the lead figures of the Belgian state institutions and it is a literal translation of the French corps constitués. As a result I was sitting there among ministers, party chairmen, leaders of parliamentary groups, generals, magistrates and editors of newspapers. I ended up there as the chair of the Belgian delegation (and also only member) in the group of European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament. A fragile basis for a Dutchman in this select company, admittedly. Nevertheless the King asked us to continue to inspire the Belgian state.

It was the day after Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands announced her abdication. Many Constituted Bodies came to me stating that this is not possible in Belgium. "We cannot do without Albert", was their conclusion. Albert's father, King Leopold III, abdicated in 1950, though perforce, after he visited German leader Adolf Hitler for a cup of tea during the Second World War. King Boudewijn died unexpectedly in 1993, after which his brother Albert took on the mantle of leadership. A Dutch Queen abdicating does not have to worry about a Frisian declaration of independence or Limburg separating itself. The integrity of the Kingdom is not at stake. Yet that is exactly the main concern of the Belgian King.

The hearts and minds in the battle for Britain

Together with a group of British conservatives I watched David Cameron’s speech in a small room in the European Parliament, something that always brings up a bit of a ‘Dunkirk-feeling’. In the big meeting rooms it is usually yelled that Cameron isolates himself that he is anti European and lives in a fantasy world. Yet he answered with a speech which will determine the European agenda for the next couple of years. The Brits aim for a new arrangement with the EU while the euro zone is going through further integration. At the end of that process the British citizens may decide in a referendum: yes or no. Citizens truly have a say in it! Try explaining that in the main buildings of the EU.

The speech Cameron delivered was not only for British, but also European consumption. “People are increasingly frustrated that European decisions taken further and further away mean their living standards are slashed. We are starting to see this in the demonstrations on the streets of Athens, Madrid and Rome. We are seeing it in the parliaments of Berlin, Helsinki and The Hague. At the same time, Europe is locked in a downward spiral. Europe represents 7 percent of the world population, but the European share in the world economy will decrease by a third in the next decades, while Europe makes 50 percent of all social welfare spending in the world". Cameron is asking the ‘difficult questions’ Europe likes to circumvent.

Those who want an answer to these crucial questions in the EU, get as a response: We need more Europe. Cameron: “The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy. In its long history Europe has experience of heretics who turned out to have a point. More of the same will not bring the European Union any closer to its citizens. More of the same will just produce more of the same: less competitiveness, less growth, fewer jobs”. He favours a more flexible Europe, because it answers better to European diversity. By the way, the Euro zone already includes 17 of the Member States, 10 do not participate. Schengen has 26 countries, 4 of them outside the EU, while 2 within the EU do not participate. When it comes to military intervention, such as in Libya, the British and the French have to do the dirty work, while for instance Germany stays out. The European federalist slogan of an ever closer Union is therefore a myth.

The Netherlands, game maker in Europe?

For the first time in decades, the Netherlands is offered a unique opportunity in Europe's engine room. Until recently, The Hague was either a first-rate know-it-all, or a yapper sitting at the sidelines. The Netherlands combines many opinions with little influence. The latter will change as soon as Jeroen Dijselbloem, minister of Finance, becomes the President of the Euro Group. Following that, Prime Minister Mark Rutte will be right in the middle of the battle on the renegotiation of the British position in the EU, as an ally to both London and Berlin. These bridging roles provide European opportunities and have domestic consequences.

After a stumbling start, Rutte II is sitting on two power axis, albeit somewhat unintended; Berlin-Paris in the Euro zone and London-EU. This means that Rutte II, in comparison with Rutte I, is going through a metamorphosis. Not a ship horn of its own opinion, but the whisperer to the ears of the powerful. The Netherlands act as go between: who would have thought that when Rutte was attacked in Europe because of the "Poland-hotline". The Netherlands as, what the Belgians call it, a facilitator in the battle among elephants: Great Britain, Germany and France. Of course there is also the self-interest of the Netherlands at play- a Euro zone based on rules of budget discipline and a British ally in the EU. A facilitator should never forget itself.

Right now Brussels is dominated by unfounded triumphalism: the Euro crisis is over. That is an illusion. For more than a billion Euros, the European Central Bank (ECB) has bought time. Time, both precious and limited. The new President of the Euro Group will realise this soon enough.