“I’m going to sound like a Marxist now”

Students debate with European politicians


Working, studying, safety and migration in Europe. Those are the topics to be discussed at the student debate with European parliamentarians, organised by the Institute for Transnational and Euregional cross-boarder co-operation and Mobility (ITEM) in La Bonbonniere last Tuesday. But soon it becomes clear that - regardless of the topic - what it really boils down to is how much will we leave up to Europe?

“I feel that’s a member state issue.” Jannes de Jong, running for election on behalf of the ChristenUnie, will say this many times. Of the three politicians present - the others being Felix Klos for D66/Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) and Jeroen Lenaers for CDA/European People’s Party - he’s the one who is the most in favour of a ‘small’ Europe. Klos is at the other end of the spectrum, proposing the creation of a European university, directly electing the EU president, having a European Minister of Defence and federal taxes. Lenaers covers the middle ground. A forth debater - Jacques Michel Bloi for the VVD/ALDE – had to cancel due to illness.

All debaters are from parties that represent the middle of the political spectrum, a deliberate choice of the organisers. “We wanted a content-focused, constructive and educational debate about the future of Europe,” says organiser Pim Mertens. “Both extreme left and extreme right show an anti-European mindset and we were afraid that the discussion would take away time and focus from the students’ opinions and ideas, when what we wanted was to actually give a lot of time to that. That also influenced our choice to only invite four politicians.”

The four themes – working, studying, safety and immigration – are each introduced by statements from students. After that, the – not very large, although registrations were filled up – audience is invited to ask questions, which they did in depth. Kicking off is a proposal to harmonise European minimum wages. Klos is in favour but doesn’t think the EU is ready for it yet. “Nor will it be in the next ten years. First we need to bring the member states’ economies closer together by investing in Eastern European countries.” Lenaers thinks it will take even more than a decade. “The Treaty of Maastricht officially prohibits interference of the EU when it comes to salaries – it states that this is a member state issue.”

And rightly so, feels De Jong. “It would be a one-size-fits-none solution.” Although he likes to add that he is in favour of minimum wages in general and thinks member states that don’t have them yet should introduce them. “And they could go up too. I’m going to sound like a Marxist now, but over the past few decades we have seen that profits have gone up, but wages have not or only very little. I do think that this is the cause of some of the unhappiness we see among some voters.”

Lifelong learning

Another statement suggests an EU-funded but locally managed job guarantee programme to end unemployment. “This reminds me of Melkert jobs,” says Lenaers. Named after the Dutch Minister of Social Affairs at the time, Melkert jobs were subsidized work places for people who couldn’t find a job in any other way. “That didn’t work, because you’re investing in jobs that don’t exist. You have to subsidize them indefinitely. What we need is adequate policies to create jobs. The EU can help with that, but it’s also up to the member states to reform their labour markets if necessary.”

De Jong agrees. “I believe in investing in teaching people skills, in lifelong learning. That is what will help the weaker economies. It will solve structural problems instead of setting yourself up for endless subsidizing. Interact with the labour market, as locally as possible, to find where the changes are needed. In Romania for instance there is a high unemployment rate but also a lot of jobs in certain areas. That’s a mismatch of skills.”

Klos doesn’t feel much for a job guarantee programme but could see the EU experiment with a universal basic income. “Although you first have to experiment with that on a national level. And the EU would have to be a federal state, able to collect its own taxes and have a single Minister of Finance. But if you want to invest in young people, let’s make it mandatory to have paid internships. I interned with US senator Bernie Sanders – the only American senator who pays his interns.” “Really?” Lenaers says. “How much did he pay you?” “Twenty dollars an hour.”  “Not bad.” “Indeed, that was what made it possible for me to do the internship.”

More money for Erasmus

The discussion goes from there to studying in Europe. Why not introduce a European loan system for students? De Jong and Lenaers don’t fancy that, they feel tuition fees and student grants or loans are national issues. The EU, they feel, should only be involved in cross-border projects, like Erasmus, the programme that enables students to go on an exchange visit to another European country. “Now it’s only for a select few, I would like to see it extend to practical education,” says De Jong. “It should be fairer,” says Lenaers. “It should take into account from which country you come and to which country you go.” Klos agrees, he would even like to make the budget ten times higher than it is now – even though the EU already tripled it recently.

With regards to the European loan system, he’s only for it if people go to a special European University. Talking enthusiastically, Klos shares his idea of a university – “In Strasbourg, to make up for the fact that we shouldn’t meet there anymore as EU – where the best European teachers gather to teach in multiple languages. “To bring people together and understand each other better.”

Voting directly

What about education on the EU, the students ask. Many people don’t understand how it works, shouldn’t there be a European Agency for Political Education? Yes, says Klos. “In my high school we got one hour of European political education. My high school was later voted the best in the Netherlands. More knowledge is the best antidote to the current historical illiteracy that we have.” De Jong disagrees. “We already have school groups coming to Brussels and we provide educational materials. Besides, I don’t think lack of knowledge is the reason that people vote for populists.”

“You’re clearly blind to what’s outside the European bubble,” reacts Klos. “I’ve never heard of these educational materials and I’m very interested in the EU. The EU has to speak more to the people. We have to directly elect the EU president, need a more effective European Commission and have real European parties instead of national ones in the Parliament. And we need to educate. People need to understand how much courage and effort was necessary to build something that is unique in history.” His statement gets a round of applause from the students.

Lenaers still has his doubts. “I think the problem is much wider. When I talk to people, they also know little about how the national, let alone the provincial government, works. Yet, nobody wants to abolish those.”

European Army

Even though the debate was 2.5 hours long, time is running out when the last two issues, safety and migration, are introduced. The debaters quickly go over the highlights of their views. De Jong says he’s in favour of close co-operation when it comes to defence and security, but sees nothing in a European army. “I’d rather see all the member states actually spend the 2 per cent of their budget on defence as stated in the NATO agreements.” Lenaers feels the member states already have a large defence budget, but need to spend it more efficiently. “We don’t need six different weapon systems, the US only has one. An army wouldn’t work. We already have EU battle troops that can be sent to crisis situations. Do you know how many times they have been sent out in the last ten years? Zero. Because we couldn’t get political agreement on when to do so.” Exactly why we need a European army and a Minister of Defence, says Klos.

When it comes to migrants, all three agree that the refugee crisis has not been handled well. Lenaers: “National governments refuse to look beyond national interests.” De Jong: “The camps are a disgrace. We need a quick system to separate refugees from economic migrants. So that people can get clarity: either they get asylum – and then we really invest in them - or they need to go.”

“I’m going to sound like a Marxist now”
In the middle (standing) Jeroen Lenaers. Sitting in the background Jannes de Jong and Felix Klos