Obituary: Sicco Mansholt
Tuesday 04 July 1995
If any one human bull can be said to have sired the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy, that bull goes by the name of Sicco Mansholt.
In 1953, it was Mansholt who presented the historic plan for the agricultural section of the European Economic Community. Years later, in 1976, Pierre Lardinois, by then himself theAgricultural Commissioner, told the late Mark Hughes MP, Labour's agricultural spokesman in Europe, and me - as members of the indirectly elected European Parliament - that Mansholt had conceptualised, formulated and written most of the plan himself. "Those like me," Lardinois said, "who worked closest to him had the greatest admiration for him. Truly, Sicco was one of the real half-dozen or so creators of modern Europe in the league of Konrad Adenauer, [Alcide] de Gasperi, Walter Hallstein, [Jean] Monnet and Robert Schumann."
Mansholt was born into a family at Ulrum, near Groningen, in north Holland, which had been in the small-farmer milk and butter business for centuries. Everything in his later life reflected his concerns for the millions of hard-working, frugal, prudent small producers from Bayonne to Messina, north to Flemsburg. Mansholt's Europe - and it was to be very much Mansholt's Europe - was geared to the small farmer, the then backbone of European society, from whose stock Mansholt emerged.
After what he himself described as an unexceptional schooling in Groningen, Sicco was sent by his father to the School for Tropical Agriculture in Deventer which trained boys for service in the Dutch East Indies, much as Haileybury and Imperial Service College did for India. The Dutch emphasis was agricultural rather than military.
At the age of 26, after experience of a number of varied Dutch farms, Mansholt went to Java for three years (1934-36). This experience too was a seminal influence on Mansholt's thinking: that European prosperity should take into account the legitimate requirements of the Dutch and the French Empires and equally that of the erstwhile Belgian Congo. It was a matter of acute disappointment to Mansholt, fluent as he was in the English language, that Britain did not seem to him to comprehend the help that could be forthcoming to her emerging colonies and to her former empire in India and Pakistan by linking in to the European Community. And as a socialist his scorn for shilly-shallying as he perceived it by Harold Wilson over British entry knew no bounds. Wilson, on 3 October 1972, referred in anger to Sicco Mansholt (then president of the European Commission) as "an interfering international civil servant". And Mansholt replied tartly, "I am a politician."
Mansholt desperately wanted Britain to join the community to balance the growing prosperity and power of Ludwig Erhard's Germany. Mansholt also had a very real concern for tropical countries; and this seemed to be reciprocated. When my wife and I were entertained to breakfast by President Sukarno in Jakarta in 1966, in the dying embers of his power, the Indonesian president was full of "my friend Sicco Mansholt", whom he had known as the most enlightened Dutchman in all Indonesia in the 1930s. Mansholt was an opinion former in the Netherlands in favour of reconciling themselves with the end of Empire and putting their collective heart into Europe.
Coming home in 1937, partly for family reasons and the education of his children, Mansholt worked on the Wieringermeer Polder - land reclaimed from the sea. Had he had a coat of arms the Mansholt motto would have been "Constructive co- operation". He was about human beings working together for the greater good and against wasteful competition. Basically he was a tolerant but determined socialist.
In 1940, Mansholt was appalled both by the fact and then by the manner of the German occupation of his country. At first he concentrated on organising a food supply for the severely underfed populations of Western Holland. He was particularly active in helping to keep those who might have got into the clutches of the Gestapo from going to concentration camps. A gentile himself, he was one of the moving spirits in the creation of the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam.
Towards the end of 1943 Mansholt became a resistance commander. He was greatly moved by the courage of the British airborne paratroopers at Arnhem and once, after one of his denouncements of the British Labour Party, he said in my presence: "You owe it to those of your comrades who went to Arnhem to become immersed in the European Community." Making sure that European conflict would never again occur became the same kind of imperative for creating a common market as it did for Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Heath.
After German capitulation, Mansholt became by acclamation Burgomaster of the Wieringermeer. He was perpetual Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from 1945 to 1958. He was minister in charge of the negotiations for the creation of the Benelux union in 1946. But in 1953 came the Mansholt plan. This was about the system of levies on important products and the phasing out of tariffs and quotas which had previously been used by member countries of the EEC to protect their farmers.
In 1972 Mansholt became president of the European Commission, succeeding Franco Maria Malfatti who was leaving Brussels to re-enter Italian politics. He had been vice-president since the pioneering days of 1958. It was not so much his political experience or convictions that gave Mansholt strength - he was a socialist of the liberal kind. It was the force and evident uprightness of his character, his openness; all the Brussels cognoscenti of the day remarked on his tremendous presence. I know that my Labour colleagues and I agreed that he was the sort of person to whom one was afraid to say anything silly or even banal. He had vision of a strong modernised European agriculture with guaranteed prices in certain sectors. He also envisaged majority decisions within the community.
Mansholt should not be blamed for all the distortions and surpluses which have subsequently come about. On 19 April 1972 he addressed the European Parliament as president of the Commission for the first time. He called for a guaranteed minimum income within the EEC. He also movingly advocated the removal of impediments to travel within it.
He had just returned from the third United Nations conference on trade and development in Santiago. Discussing the future of the community, Mansholt said that a clear political statement would have to be given about a boost to regional policy in the developing world. The community's citizens had a right to be able to appreciate its profound significance; borders at which papers had to be shown were just not part of this. Those who moved from one country to another to work must be able to exercise the ordinary rights of citizenship and should no longer be treated as foreign labour. This should be an important contribution to the community spirit.
Mansholt welcomed as a good omen the narrowing of the margins of fluctuation of the community currencies. Monetary union could not be achieved without far-reaching economic co-operation and must be linked with social progress. It was central to what Mansholt was about that human beings must be placed at the very hub of the community's development.
He was a real founding father and those of us who had the good fortune ever to meet him will revere Sicco Mansholt as one who symbolised our practical idealism.
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