EU: dense material of fundamental importance
If it were up to Melle Garschagen, every day would be ‘Europe Day’. “The role of a journalist is to follow the EU critically and comprehensively,” says the UM alum and deputy editor of NRC. He recently returned to the Netherlands after almost five years as a correspondent in England, mainly covering Brexit.
War no more: this was the hope of the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, when he called on 9 May 1950 for the French and German production of coal and steel—key raw materials for warfare—to be placed under joint control. The idea was that this would secure peace on the European continent. It turned out to be the first step towards European cooperation that would culminate in the establishment of the EU as we know it today. As a result, 9 May has been declared Europe Day. “I find it a bit forced, creating a Europe Day and trying to connect everything to it,” Garschagen says. “To my mind, it’s always important to emphasise what the EU is doing. For the first time in years, I followed the Dutch election again. The parties all act as if they’re in charge here in the Netherlands, when so many important issues are partly or largely decided at the European level. That the EU belongs in our DNA was entirely absent from the campaign.”
Melle Garschagen studied European Studies and International Law at Maastricht University. He has worked for the NRC since 2007, including as economics editor and Southeast Asia correspondent. From 2016 to January 2021 he was a correspondent in England. His book on the divided British society, Stem van het Britse volk, was published last year. As of 1 March 2021, he is deputy editor of the NRC.
Europe Day is not particularly useful to him as a journalist either. “It’s agenda journalism. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s the same with King’s Day, but I’d prefer the Dutch media to take a different approach to reporting on the EU. We have that debate at the NRC too. We have a correspondent in Brussels, two reporters assigned to the EU, and authoritative columnists who write about Europe. So the NRC does a lot. That’s good, but I do think the focus is often on the political game: Merkel’s doing this, Macron’s doing that. Journalists see that as a political mecca.
“We don’t need to explain it, it’s up to the policymakers to do that themselves, but we should monitor more closely how the European institutions work. Just as we do with the House of Representatives. You rarely see a ruling by the European Court of Justice in a Dutch newspaper, even though it can be game-changing for the business sector or for how we treat one another. You rarely see anything about how European policy is implemented in detail and what the consequences are for the Netherlands. It’s dense, slow and not very exciting, which also means it’s difficult to change. Things like that may feel further away than national politics or economics, but they’re very important.
“A French colleague from Le Figaro returned from England to Paris to report on the internal market. He’s now exclusively dedicated to that; stories at the interface of macroeconomics and business economics. We don’t do that in the Netherlands. Here it’s either international—the IMF, the World Bank—or national: the CPB, KLM, Ahold. Viewing Europe as a single, occasionally messy economic entity, which is what makes the EU such a powerful institution, we neglect all of that. If you want to write well and in depth about Europe, then you have to sink your teeth into that dense material. The role of a journalist is to follow the EU critically and comprehensively.” Garschagen himself aspired to this type of journalism, but fate had other plans for him. The invitation to join the editorial board was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
You rarely see anything about how European policy is implemented in detail and what the consequences are for the Netherlands. It’s dense, slow and not very exciting, which also means it’s difficult to change. Things like that may feel further away than national politics or economics, but they’re very important.
Born in Amsterdam, he was raised in Belgium and the US as well as the Netherlands. His father Oscar Garschagen was a journalist and correspondent; the family travelled with him. At first Melle had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. What he would do, he didn’t know; perhaps politics or lobbying. He settled on European Law School in Maastricht, attracted by its international, small-scale nature and use of PBL, but when he attended an open day of the newly established European Studies programme, he found his calling.
“I really liked the combination of economics, political science, history and law. It was very inspiring; I remember a guest lecture given by Martin Schulz, the future leader of the [German] SPD, largely in Dutch because he’d grown up in the border region. That highlighted for me that here in the Euregion there’s such a thing as a European identity that transcends the nation state. It was an important lesson for me. A lot of what I learned back then—analytical thinking, a multidisciplinary approach—has stayed with me as a journalist. I see the Brexit vote as a combination of political and economic factors.”
A lot of what I learned during my study—analytical thinking, a multidisciplinary approach—has stayed with me as a journalist. I see the Brexit vote as a combination of political and economic factors.”
The EU as lubricant
In his view, Brexit is less about the functioning of the EU than it is about dysfunctional British politics. “I was shocked by the state of parts of the UK: the poverty, decline, lack of investment. The situation in parts of England is similar to what happened in Limburg when the mines closed. But here, the university was opened, DSM came, the tax authorities opened a branch. You don’t really see those kinds of investments in England. Traditional industries disappeared without being replaced by anything. That breeds poverty and discontent. The 2016 referendum gave Britons the rare opportunity to say something about the EU, which they took not only by voting against the EU but also by settling scores with their own political establishment.
“The consequences of Brexit have yet to be felt. The real economic damage will only be measurable in the next decade or two. But there’s already disquiet in Northern Ireland. The customs border required between the UK and Ireland, an EU country, has been drawn in the Irish Sea. So Northern Ireland remains part of the European market, giving it a separate status from the rest of the UK. When both countries were still members of the EU, customs controls were regulated by the Maastricht Treaty. Now everything has to be negotiated again and that leads to friction, not only at the political and diplomatic level but also in society. Therein lies the significance of a body like the EU. It’s a kind of lubricant where individual interests become shared and contradictions vanish.”
Fact and fiction
Prince Philip died shortly after Garschagen left England. Does he regret not being able to report on it? After all, the British royal family is a newsworthy topic even outside the UK, thanks in no small part to the Netflix series The Crown. “The Crown is really well made, but that it’s become a kind of pseudo-nonfiction is dangerous. I hear that quotes from the show have been used to illustrate the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Philip. That’s a slippery slope, because it’s entirely invented. When I moved from Jakarta to London in 2016, he was already struggling with his health. At the time, I found it terrifying. I’d done European Studies and International Law, I’d worked as an economics editor and written about the Eurozone. Brexit, that dense material—fine, bring it on. But a member of the royal family? I had so little understanding of that, how was I supposed to approach it? I did a lot of reading, and after about a year that fear dissipated. My colleague from the Volkskrant, Patrick van IJzendoorn, who’s been in England for a long time and knows the country well, always says: the death of Elizabeth will cause a bigger shockwave in England than all of Brexit put together. I don’t know whether it’s true, but it’s certainly thought provoking.”