“During my commissionership, all matters concerning foreign policy were in the hands of the Italian president Romano Prodi and the British commissioner for international relations Chris Patten. Israel was not a much-debated topic in the Commission. Patten occasionally put it on our agenda.”
“EU positions on the Middle East were largely determined by the heads of state of the large members. These more or less said to the Commission, ‘Don’t touch the issue, we deal with it.’”
This interview was published in European-Israeli Relations: Between Confusion and Change, 2006.
Frits Bolkestein was during 1999-2004 the commissioner responsible for the European Union’s internal market, taxation, and customs union. Before that he had been the leader of the Netherlands’ Liberal Party, VVD, and its defense minister. In 2005, he became professor on the intellectual background to political developments at both Leiden University and the Technical University of Delft.
Helping the Palestinians
“Occasionally, the EU assistance to the Palestinians came up in the Commission. One matter I recall was that the harbor in Gaza was to be built, but Israel opposed this. I remember this specifically because Dutchmen are always interested in big waterworks.
“Another snippet I recall is that Chris Patten in a full Commission meeting once said that one could oppose aspects of Israel’s foreign policy without being an anti-Semite. I replied: ‘That is true, but it is also true that anti-Semites sometimes dress up as anti-Israelis.’”
Bolkestein says this was a short exchange without personal undertones.
“On another matter, if my memory is correct, when there were inquiries on the issue of Palestinian misuse of EU funds, Patten replied: ‘We are sure that all the money has been put to good use.’”
Bolkestein interprets the attitude of many British toward the Middle Eastern question in the light of his own experience: “When I was young I lived and worked for four years in East Africa, mostly in Tanganyika, which was then a Trust Territory. The strategy of the British colonial power there was to defend the blacks against the whites.
“I find the argument plausible that during their mandate in Palestine the British looked upon the Jews as the whites and the Palestinians as the blacks. Their sympathy with the Arabs has deep roots, like everything in Europe. The British used Lawrence of Arabia and controlled the Arab Legion, commanded by Glubb Pasha.” He suggests that this attitude may still survive in some circles.
The Israeli File
Bolkestein stresses that commissioners have to focus their entire effort on the areas they are responsible for. “In my own area there was only one problematic issue concerning Israel: customs duties for items produced in the occupied territories. I had been invited to Israel for a conference by my friend, law professor Amnon Rubinstein, and on that occasion met the then minister for industry and trade, Ehud Olmert. We reached an agreement that products manufactured there would not benefit from the free trade agreement with Israel.”
Bolkestein notes that: “The Israeli ‘file’ is a difficult one because so many factors come into play. In recent years, Israel has undoubtedly lost a publicity battle. This is due to the intifada and perceptions about the fence. Israel is seen by many as the oppressor of the Palestinians, both those outside Israel and inside it, i.e., the Israeli Arabs. In the Netherlands, former Christian Democrat prime minister Dries van Agt promotes this view.
“This, however, is only one factor that plays a role. Another is that people bow to numbers. There are hundreds of millions of Arabs and seven million Israelis. It is like overestimating China’s power. The number of one and a half billion Chinese is much more impressive than the actual size of their trade and level of their technology.”
Arab Oil and European Muslim Votes
“Third, there is the oil issue. Oil contracts are negotiated on a bilateral basis, and this makes them highly political. The Arabs have much oil and could again someday impose an embargo. The Netherlands already had that experience when we were embargoed in 1973. Fortunately enough, the major oil companies helped by switching supplies to us from other countries.
“A fourth factor is the influence on foreign policy of so many European Muslims with their electoral power. I met French prime minister Dominique de Villepin at a Bilderberg conference when he was still foreign minister. I asked him directly how much French foreign policy had been affected by the presence of five to six million Muslims in France. He replied: ‘Not at all.’ This was not very convincing.
“In an interview earlier in 2006 in L’Express, I said some rather forthright things about the French. I wondered what the French policy toward Europe was, as the French seem to have no idea what they want. The French were masters in Brussels, or at least so they thought. Now, however, they have lost Brussels and no longer know what their role is in Europe.
“I was also told that in Belgium the socialists did not want to support the official recognition of the Armenian genocide. The reason was that they wanted the votes of the Turks living there.”
Guilt and Anti-Semitism
“A fifth factor that further complicates the issue is a guilt complex toward Jews and Israel. This applies first and foremost to Germany. But it is important in the Netherlands, too, mainly because about 75 percent of Dutch Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Nowadays that feeling has rather faded, and I do not think it is still substantial in other European countries.
“Sixth, there is anti-Semitism, which in Europe may also influence the political sphere. It often dresses up as anti-Israelism. David Pryce-Jones in a Commentary article discussed in detail the barely concealed anti-Semitism in the French foreign service.1
“I am not expert enough to assess whether that is true. I recall, however, de Gaulle calling the Jews ‘a domineering and arrogant people’ in 1967. I remember well Le Monde‘s cartoon on that occasion, showing a Jew in concentration camp clothes, standing in a provocative pose like Napoleon, with one foot on barbed wire.
“We cannot say: ‘De Gaulle was just a general who said many other foolish things.’ He had followed World War II closely, albeit in free London. One doesn’t make such remarks innocently, which is why I attach much importance to it. If the French say, somewhat heatedly, ‘We aren’t anti-Semitic, and certainly not our foreign service,’ I take the liberty to put a question-mark next to that.”
Bolkestein recalls that he spoke at the remembrance ceremony in Amsterdam for the sixty-fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht on 9 November 2003. There he said that the new manifestations of anti-Semitism often come from poorly-integrated Islamic youngsters, and that their actions are largely linked to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. Bolkestein added that Muslim countries propagate the anti-Semitism via state media. Many Muslims in the Netherlands watch television from these countries.
On that occasion, Bolkestein also reiterated his view that the heart of the Middle East conflict is Arab unwillingness to accept Israel’s existence. He now remarks: “Muslim terrorism against Europe is not the result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if that dispute were settled, it would go on. This terrorism is directed against Western culture, which many Muslims see as a threat. As the West will not change its culture, Islam will have to adapt itself to modern times.”
Bolkestein likes to quote Bassam Tibi, a Syrian-born scholar of Islam who is a university teacher in Germany. Tibi proclaims that minority groups in Germany have to accept Germany’s dominant culture; otherwise a parallel Islamic society will develop where essential European values are not upheld. Bolkestein notes that in Tibi’s view, the emergence of a Euro-Islam can be compatible with European culture and is the best weapon against Muslim fundamentalism. The key question is which type of Islam will prevail in Europe: Euro-Islam or sharia Islam?
Fear, Threats, and Intimidation
Bolkestein comes back to the meeting on the anniversary of Kristallnacht: “I can accept that the Turkish speaker on that occasion did not refer to the major role of Muslims in anti-Semitic incidents. I can even somewhat understand that Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, though Jewish, also avoided this fact. He claims he has to keep all the various populations together. What surprised me, however, was that even the representatives of the Jewish community who spoke did not mention Muslims’ role in the new anti-Semitism in the Netherlands.
“Why did they remain silent and why do others in Europe take a similar attitude toward the part European Muslims play in anti-Semitic incidents? The only answer is: fear. Many Dutch are afraid of the Muslims, whose number is constantly increasing. Nobody knows what the future will bring when, for instance, they form a majority in Amsterdam. Hence, these people think they should not burn their fingers.”
Bolkestein adds: “A few years ago there was a demonstration in Amsterdam by Moroccans in favor of Palestinians. A young Jew wearing a kippa was chased by a group of Moroccan youngsters. He fled into one of Amsterdam’s major hotels, the Krasnapolski, which is located on Dam Square where the national war memorial stands. Such an incident would have been unthinkable a few years earlier. I was furious, and said so on television.
“By now it has only become worse. Those who dare to speak their mind about Islam, such as the parliamentarians Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Geert Wilders, are ostracized. Rather than getting the support of society, people shy away from them. They need protection by the police. The same is true of my colleague at the University of Leiden, Afshin Ellian, who is of Iranian origin and critical of Islam.”
The European Context
Bolkestein says all the aforementioned issues have to be seen in the context of Europe’s present problems. He is a frequent speaker and commentator on these issues. One subject that preoccupies him is what he calls European “self-hatred.”
In the inaugural lecture for his new professorship, he said:
“It is an important question why and when the West Europeans in general, and the Dutch in particular, have lost their self-confidence. In my view this goes back to World War I, the confusion of the interbellum, World War II and the murder of the Jews. All this has been reinforced by the cultural revolution of 1968 and the years thereafter….
There are many who deny that Western Europe has lost its belief in its own culture-who maintain, to the contrary, that the West suffers from a “triumphalism” that expresses a deplorable lack of appreciation for other cultures. I, however, believe that my observation is correct, and I will present three examples:
First, there is the complex that the French call le tiersmondisme [third worldism]. The assassinated Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was a typical example of this: “What we do is oppression, what they do is their culture.”
Second, multiculturalism and all that relates to it. The immigrant was the Good Stranger on whom no demands should be made. Initially he did not even have to learn Dutch. At the time it was called “integration while maintaining identity.” Fortunately the situation has changed. It seems to me that multiculturalism can be traced back to our guilt feelings about World War II.
The third example is the success of Edward Said’s book Orientalism. It is a bad book-both as far as content and composition are concerned-and merits no fame. Yet it fits perfectly the culture of self-denial that I perceive in Europe.2 “
Bolkestein mentions that his views of Islam were shaped when twenty-five years ago he read Elie Kedourie’s book Islam and the Modern World. He reflects: “I think Kedourie, had he still lived, would have agreed with my words.”
These motifs recur frequently in Bolkestein’s lectures and articles. In regard to self-denial, he also emphasizes that the European Commission lacks self-confidence. “I saw how my colleagues were fearful of the European Parliament and of the EU member states. Member states were afraid to criticize the Russians about their oppression of the Chechnyans and their treatment of the Georgians. The old EU members in particular behaved in this way.
“The Poles and the Lithuanians, for instance, did not. We had a conflict with the Russians, who claimed we had to compensate them for problems arising for Kaliningrad-the former Konigsberg where the philosopher Kant was born-due to the EU’s expansion in 2004. We should have replied, ‘Where is the compensation for all the Latvians who have been deported to beyond the Urals?’ The Latvian commissioner at the time had been born in the Gulag.
“The Commission was also afraid of the Arabs. And it was timid as well toward the Americans. The latter wanted to have the passenger lists of planes arriving from Europe. As my mandate included data protection, I had to deal with that matter. Some European parliamentarians said we should not hand these over as it was against European law. I thought the Americans were fully entitled to decide who could enter their country. Several of my colleague commissioners said: ‘We have so many issues at stake with the Americans. Let’s agree to what they want.’”
Bolkestein devotes much of his attention, however, to the issue of multiculturalism in the Netherlands. He often refers to an article he published as early as 1991 in the major Dutch daily De Volkskrant. His first point was that: “The existing policy of ‘integration while maintaining cultural identity’ had to change to ‘integration into Dutch society even if that means adapting one’s culture.’
“The second point was that where Islamic values of immigrants came into conflict with essential values of Dutch society, the latter should prevail.” Bolkestein says Europe’s main current problem is finding a modus vivendi to live peacefully together with its Muslim minorities.
“The third assertion I made was that judged by the standards of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the dominant civilization of Europe at present is superior to Islamic civilization. All civilization is based on making judgments. I believe that the civilization of Rome was superior to that of Gaul. I also consider Unionist America superior to the slaveholder Confederacy, and democratic postwar West Germany superior to communist East Germany.”
Bolkestein adds: “Why do so many Muslims who live in the Middle East want to settle in the West? Mainly because they think they will be happier here than where they are now. One might interpret what they say as ‘Yankee go home, but please take me with you.’ The blindness of the multiculturalist ideologists does not enable them to see this.
“Fifteen years ago my arguments emphasized essential values of Dutch society such as the separation of church and state, the equality of men and women, and freedom of speech and of religion. I also wrote that a lax integration policy would lead to ethnic ghettos. I foresaw that these would be areas marked by major unemployment, high crime, little knowledge of the Dutch language and society, and discrimination against women. I proposed reduced immigration, support for integration, and fighting discrimination.”
Multiculturalism’s Dark Sides
“For me one of the dark sides of multiculturalism was the phenomenon of political correctness. Self-appointed experts decided for society which thoughts were permissible and which were not. By now, fortunately, this has disappeared in light of the many problems multiculturalism poses for Dutch society. Since the murder of media-maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004, the discussion in the Netherlands about immigration and integration is no longer politically correct, but frank and open.
“Almost half of Amsterdam’s inhabitants are now of non-Western origin. This will lead to an increasing Islamization of the city, accompanied by a flight of the white population. Also unavoidable in the future is the rise of a national Muslim party. In the past we had, for instance, a Catholic Party in the Netherlands.
“Such an Islamic party will wield electoral power. Combine that with high oil prices and an increasingly fundamentalist Middle East. Add furthermore the Muslim radicals who promote violence. The outlook is for many future problems both in my country and elsewhere. The autumn 2005 riots in France were a taste of what is to come.”
Bolkestein remarks: “We should look much more at the United States to understand what is happening in our country. It is not that we are a solution ahead of the Americans, we are a problem behind. We are just beginning to face the minority-related problems they have confronted for many years.”
Almost a Racist
“In the European Commission I twice tried to raise the problem of the multicultural society and the risks of unlimited Muslim immigration. My colleagues were ten years behind the Netherlands and did not want to discuss the issue. I said to one commissioner that they almost considered me a racist. He replied: ‘Drop the word almost.’”
Bolkestein has consistently opposed EU membership for Turkey. He gives three reasons. “First of all, Turkey is too big, too poor, and too different from the EU. To become an EU member, a country should have undergone the major formative events of European history.
“Second, if Turkey becomes a member it will be followed by additional countries. One cannot then refuse membership to Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, perhaps even the Caucasian republics. Already the entrance of Poland with about forty million inhabitants has caused many problems.
“The third reason is that all polls show a majority of Europeans opposing Turkish membership. I was the only commissioner to vote against the Verheugen report, which concluded that Turkey sufficiently met the Copenhagen criteria for EU accession.
“Europeans have forgotten how to say no. Foreign policy in Europe seems to have been reduced to being nice to others. I know foreign ministers of European countries who at home say Ukraine could never become an EU member. When they visit Kiev, they say that if Ukraine meets the criteria it can be admitted. These are small-minded people concerned only with the short term. They have lost all sense of history and of the art of geopolitics.”
A decade ago, in some of his writings, Bolkestein was more optimistic. When asked about this, he answers: “Perhaps I have become more of a realist since I was a member of the European Commission.”
* This interview is part of a JCPA research project on Dutch attitudes toward Jews and Israel, sponsored by the Israel Maror Foundation.
1 David Pryce-Jones, “Jews, Arabs, and French Diplomacy,” Commentary, May 2005.
2 F. Bolkestein, “De Europese Unie en haar toekomst,” inaugural lecture presented in The Hague, 9
November 2005, to mark his visiting professorship at the Universities of Leiden and Delft. [Dutch]