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“I am for Europe so that is what I wrote. You wouldn't believe the number of hate mails I received”

“I am for Europe so that is what I wrote. You wouldn't believe the number of hate mails I received”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Thierry Béchet

European Studies celebrates fifteenth anniversary with lecture by Europe correspondent Caroline de Gruyter

Brexit was inevitable; the British had been in “sabotage mode” for years, says Caroline de Gruyter, Europe correspondent for NRC Handelsblad in Vienna. Their constant hacking away at Europe was disruptive and fuelled Euroscepticism in other countries. The tide now seems to be turning. De Gruyter is the keynote speaker next Saturday during the celebrations of the fifteenth anniversary of the bachelor's programme of European Studies.

Don't misunderstand her, she is well disposed towards the United Kingdom, but Caroline de Gruyter can do no more than conclude that the British have been “checking out slowly and inarticulately” for years. They always had one leg in and one leg out of the European Union, she continues. They did not join the euro or the open borders of Schengen, two subjects that have always been high on the EU agenda. “The British were traditionally very active when it came to foreign politics and trade, issues that they believed in and where money could be made. That was when they sent their best people to Brussels, where they appeared exceptionally prepared. I saw their attitude change when I was a correspondent in Brussels from 2008 until 2013. When someone from Britain took his or her place at the conference table, it was no longer the top man or woman, sometimes nobody at all from Britain was present. All dominant discussions - euro, refugees, and migration - took place without the United Kingdom. They felt less and less part of the story and were focussing on themselves more and more. The only thing they wanted was to make cuts in the budget.” The increasing Euroscepticism in the UK also infected countries, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. “Prime Minister Rutte joined in as well. The UK became a kind of token woman: whatever the British said about Europe, was always worse. A British ambassador in Brussels, he is no longer there, once said to me: ‘because we set ourselves up as outsiders, we were better able to overlook the battlefield and ask confronting questions. We held up a mirror to the rest, but we grew in that role to such an extent that we became the mirror.’ That is correct. The British pushed for the expansion of the EU: their trade would grow and at the same time, political decision-making would lose momentum. A small group usually takes decisions more quickly than a large group. But with that expansion, the heart of Europe has moved to the east, it is now here in Vienna. Germany's role has become more important, the debate is moving from Brussels to Berlin and the UK seems further and further away.”

What is to happen with European defence? How far will we go with countries such as Poland and Hungary, which stray further and further from European values and standards? De Gruyter feels that those critical questions posed by the British were useful. “It is a good thing that they put the cat among the pigeons, but that should happen with one's heart in a matter. If that is not the case, you are left with cynicism. Towards the end, the British had no respect for the sensitivities of others, while the others did take them into consideration.”

So, a Brexit was inevitable and eventually the most favourable outcome, De Gruyter argues. “Just imagine that the Brexit had been narrowly averted, then we would find ourselves with 49 per cent of disappointed Yes voters and Cameron as Prime Minister. He would have had to tackle the Eurosceptics in his party and would not have been able to achieve much in Brussels. It would have been a disaster.”

The Brexit seemed to be advantageous for the populists, who already swayed along on the waves of the “British hacking away at everything that Europe stood for. Objections by Wilders, Le Pen and other populists are partly justified: there is fear of globalisation, there is fear for mass migration. On the other hand, there are the often coarse and rude statements by both the extreme right and left. For a long time, we didn't have an answer for that, it worried me that a disagreeing voice was hardly ever heard. I am for Europe and that is what I wrote. You wouldn't believe how many hate mails I received, but also messages from people who wrote: ‘Keep it up!’ Why don't you write a letter yourself, I asked more than once. ‘I don't want to be subjected to a barrage of abuse,’ was the answer.”

At the end of 2016, after the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, De Gruyter saw the tide turning. “In Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen (a former leader of the Greens) was chosen as President in December, in France, Emmanuel Macron made headway. At the time, I wrote: keep a watchful eye on that man, he says what the French want to hear. In European cities, pro-European clubs arose, in Spring Wilders lost and Macron became president. The large political centre is worried, wants to be heard, and is finding its voice again. Europe is gaining self-confidence again. It is not a coincidence that Germany is intervening in countries such as Hungary and Poland, which are drifting away from European values and standards, conducting an anti-European campaign, but at the same time being the largest receivers of subsidies.”

The Netherlands is taking up an interesting position in Europe, De Gruyter explains. “We participate in everything, but we also followed the UK in its role of Eurosceptic. We looked too much towards London when we wanted to block plans. That is no longer possible. The whole political game is changing now that the north has less power. The Netherlands will have to forge new alliances; we will have to work better with Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Austria because maintaining the internal European market is of vital importance to us. It is worth much more than our trade with the UK. The government will have to take responsibility for Europe and explain to its citizens that our interests need to be safeguarded by European civil servants that we ourselves have appointed.”

She ends with a prediction: “Now that a great Eurosceptical power has dropped out of the union, the smaller countries will become more European.”

Who is Caroline de Gruyter?

Caroline de Gruyter has been a Europe correspondent for daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad in Vienna since 2013. Before that, she worked as a correspondent in Brussels for ten years, five years in the Middle East (in the Gaza strip and Jerusalem), and four years in Geneva. She also writes for the Carnegie Europe think tank and has written three books. She is a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In 2013, she received the Anne Vondeling Prize for political reporting. The jury stated, among others, that she was “formidably well informed”. In 2015, she won the Heldring Prize for best columnist with her weekly NRC column 'In Europe'.

The conference with the lecture ‘Future perspectives of Europe’ by Caroline de Gruyter is on Saturday, 10 June (11:00hrs until 13:00hrs) in the Franz Palm Lecture Hall, Tongersestraat 53 (SBE building). Everyone is welcome. For more information: https://baes15.wordpress.com/

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