Pieter Dankert

Passionately federalist President of the European Parliament

Wednesday 02 October 2013 04:15

Pieter Dankert, politician: born Steins, The Netherlands 8 January 1934; Member, Dutch Parliament 1968-81; MEP 1977-89, 1994-99; President, European Parliament 1982-84; Minister of State for Foreign Affairs 1989-94; married 1962 Paulette Puig (one son, two daughters); died Prades, France 21 June 2003.

The accidents of alphabet can make huge differences in political life. Might not the recent history of the British Labour Party have been other had not Bl(air) and Br(own), adjacent in name, been allocated by one of the Sergeant at Arms' staff to share an office in the Commons in the year that they were elected in 1983?

I would never have known Pieter Dankert so intimately well had not Dal(yell) and Dan(kert) been required to sit next to each other, both in the chamber of the European Parliament in Luxembourg and Strasbourg between 1977 and 1979 and on the Budgets Committee - the budget sub-committee dealing with audit - in Brussels. Along with his Dutch socialist colleagues Caisse Laban, who died tragically early, Schelto Patijn, later Governor of South Holland and Mayor of Amsterdam, and Wim Albers, the trade-union leader, Dankert was a real friend to the first delegation of tardily arriving British Labour MPs who fell under the leadership of Michael Stewart, the former Foreign Secretary.

After studying history at Amsterdam Free University during a period of strident student unrest, which, he told me with a typical grin, "I did something to ferment", Dankert became chairman of the Dutch Young Socialists, and at the age of 24 he was elected, a young Turk, to the Estates-General - the Dutch Parliament - in the Hague.

Dankert was at that stage a most aggressive interrogator of the establishment and uncomfortably to the point. On one occasion, implying serious corruption in the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), he exasperated his formidable fellow countryman the Dutch Agricultural Commissioner Petrus Lardinois. Lardinois, a heavyweight of the commission in 1973-77, turned round to the very serious German chairman of the Budgets Committee, Erwin Lange, and wryly remarked, "You might spend a little time teaching Mr Dankert the Etonian manners of Mr Dalyell!" I could have disappeared into the floorboards with embarrassment, but we all recognised that Dankert's aggression partly stemmed from a passionate desire that his Federal Europe should be a success. He thought the CAP was discrediting us all.

On my left-hand side both in the chamber and in the Budgets Committee was an ample and formidable lady from rural Denmark, Kirsten Dahlerup, who had been elected on a ticket against the European Commission and most of its works. I would pull back my chair during the many intervals in business and let Dankert try to convert Dahlerup to his pro-Community views. Her response was to take out her knitting, which she solemnly stated was for her grandson and, if Dankert ever got his way, that grandson would be seriously disadvantaged in life. Dankert was not to be deterred in his proselytising.

I remember Dankert as a most effective member of the European Socialist Group under the chairmanship of Ludwig Fellermaier. This was partly because as a superb linguist he would answer anyone who challenged him - British, French, German, Italian or Flemish - in their own language. Ann Clwyd, now MP for Cynon Valley and the Prime Minister's special representative for Iraq, was between 1979 and 1984 one of the first group of directly elected members of the European Parliament from Britain. She remembers Dankert as a

dynamic, attractive colleague who by force of personality could drive measures on and often through the group when they were undecided. We British regarded him with affection.

Just as the 1979 British indirectly elected MEPs were leaving for the British general election, Dankert was the prime mover in the rejection of that year's Commission Budget. This was the first real flexing of the muscles of the European Parliament. It was natural that his colleagues should elect him as President of the parliament. Julian Priestley, now the parliament's Secretary-General, but then a senior member of the Budgets Committee, recalls:

Piet Dankert had been a superb rapporteur for the 1979-80 budget, tackling for the first time the flaws in the CLP. It was largely because of this outstanding performance that, against the political arithmetic of the day, as a minority socialist group candidate he beat Egon Klepsch of the Christian Democrats, many backbenchers voting in his favour. Dankert had a remarkable ability to switch language in mid-speech (often to the dismay of the interpreters in the box) but was extremely effective in chairing plenary sessions of the parliament. At first hand, I know how he would stay

up late at night organising the following day's votes in blocks, thereby saving a significant amount of parliamentary time.

It was Dankert who first thought of and put in place the inter-institutional agreements between the Council of Ministers and the commission, and the parliament, as the basis of a multi-annual approach. This improved the effective use of European funds immeasurably. In my opinion, he was a quite outstanding president of the parliament.

As Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs Dankert arrived at a summit meeting in Edinburgh. He told me late at night:

I despair of you British. I like you English, Scots and Irish so much personally - but I cannot understand how you are so aloof when it comes to a Federal Europe.

Though he did not get the federal decision-making European government of his dreams, he did help to achieve much closer co-operation in areas such as crime and overseas aid.

It is received wisdom that all political careers end in failure. It would not be true of Pieter Dankert's 30-year struggle to enhance the role of elected members against the bureaucracy of both the European Commission and the Council of Ministers. His most passionate belief was that if the union was to be healthy it had to be democratic, and if it was to be democratic the European Parliament had to achieve ever-increasing powers.

Tam Dalyell

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