“If we did not have a European Union, we would have to invent one. However, certain things would have to be done differently, starting with the single currency”, says former EU commissioner Frits Bolkestein (born in Amsterdam in 1933) in the interview that Europe Calling! had with him in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty.
Bolkestein, a former leading Dutch liberal politician, was long regarded as a confirmed Eurosceptic. These days, he has softened his stance, even though he continues to highlight the deficiencies in the functioning of the EU.
The current size of the EU following the expansion to include several economically weak countries is a particular source of concern to him, as is the fact that certain countries – both large and small – do not observe the Maastricht criteria. “When I look back on the twelve Member States and I compare them with the current twenty-eight members, I can only conclude: that’s the way we should have kept it.”
The ‘Europe of Maastricht’ is too important to yield to various national (read: anti-European) sentiments, according to Bolkestein. He does not therefore understand the decision of the UK to leave the EU. “In my opinion, the Brexit is a terrible development. I did not expect it. I thought: ‘the British cannot be that naive’. We will have to wait and see what the consequences are.”
Frits Bolkestein (originally a philosopher, classics scholar, economist and legal expert) was born into an eminent Amsterdam family. His father was a lawyer who eventually advanced to become the President of the Amsterdam Court of Appeal. Grandfather Gerrit set an example to his grandson by being a politician at national level. After his retirement, the former teacher and educational inspector became Minister of Education in the Dutch governments just before and after the Second World War.
After attending the Barlaeus pre-university school, Bolkestein studied mathematics in the US and Amsterdam, before finally graduating in philosophy and Greek, and later economics and law.
Bolkestein, who is now 83, can look back on a varied career. In addition to being an EU Commissioner, he was chairman of the VVD liberal party in the Dutch House of Representatives, State Secretary for Economic Affairs (responsible for foreign trade) and Minister of Defence. After years of criticising EU policy, he moved to Brussels in 1999 to work within the European Commission on the internal market, the customs union and tax matters.
From 1960 to 1976, he worked for Shell in East Africa, Central America, London, Jakarta and Paris. He subsequently worked for an engineering firm. In 1978, he joined the VVD liberal party group in the House of Representatives, and in the 1980s he held two different positions in the first and second governments of Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers. From 1990 to 1998, he was chairman of the VVD party group.
During his time as an EU Commissioner, Bolkestein was the only member of the Prodi Commission to oppose opening accession negotiations with Turkey. He was also an ongoing critic of the failure by various EU Member States to comply with the Maastricht criteria and warned of the possible consequences of a further EU expansion to include several former Warsaw Pact countries. The Prodi Commission resigned in 2004. He was succeeded as a Dutch EU Commissioner by Neelie Kroes.
Despite his criticism, Bolkestein is an enthusiastic supporter of the modern Europe. He believes that young people, in particular, benefit. “Europe has much to offer young people. The possibility to study elsewhere. The possibility to participate in the Erasmus exchange programme. I have a nephew who studied for six months in Heidelberg. Splendid opportunities that were previously unheard of. And it is, of course, easy to be able to pay in so many countries with the euro. These are all practical matters for which they should be grateful. And they are.”
In 2004, Bolkestein was appointed professor at the universities of Leiden and Delft. During his career, he received several distinctions. He is, for instance, a Commander in the Order of Orange-Nassau and a Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion. In Germany, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.