Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Shape of Dutch EU Policy

This article has been rattling around my head for a while - since before the official formation of the Dutch government - but I never got around to writing it. At the very end of September, I attended a lecture by Wepke Kingma, Chief Director for European Integration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the challenges facing Dutch European policy. Of course, this was before the new government came in (though we were pretty sure about how the coalition would turn out), but it was very interesting to hear about how the Dutch government generally sees itself in the EU.

The Dutch EU role:

When it comes to how the Dutch government view the changes in the EC/EU over the decades and how the power structures affect its influence, it sounded familiar to me. I've often argued that increased power for the Council (or European Council) is counter to the interests of small states, and that the supranational aspect of the EU generally serves small states better. This seemed to be the Dutch experience, with worries over the growing power of the European Council as the Commission is weakened, as well as enlargement. Vetos are of little use as they are a "nuclear option" in negotiations and make you unpopular and less influential in future negotiations; also, it benefits big states more as smaller states are more easily pressured under a unanimous voting system. The Dutch strategy for dealing with enlargement and the "big 3" is to have well-developed positions on all European policies to ensure that the Netherlands is a reliable negotiating partner; and this also feeds into coalition-building on issues. I was a bit surprised that coalitions in the Council are very stable, but it makes sense as it is hard and time consuming to constantly form new voting/negotiating coalitions.

One aspect of the Dutch relationship with the EU that is different from Ireland, and perhaps other small states, is the "founding member" status of the Netherlands. Enlargement seems to be seen as a dilution of identity and influence - the original 6 were described as a "nuclear family", and I couldn't help thinking of the Dutch word "gezellig", which is a bit untranslateable, but means something lke "cozy". Money and the dilution of identity seem to be at the core of Dutch worries over the direction of the EU. However, it seems important to note how integration and supranationalism is seen as an important way of defending the influence and role of small states in the EU struture. While sovereignty may be viewed as being lost through the ending of the veto and supervision by the Commission, small states seem to view this as (generally, though it depends on the area), as protecting their position and opening up new opportunities to influence Europe's direction. Supranationalism can be a goal of nationally-minded member state governments too, it seems.

Multi-annual budget:

This is a big issue as it will be decisive in the EU's capabilities over the next few years (and therefore also decisive on how new Lisbon institutions such as the EEAS develops, and it is being decided in an atmosphere of austerity. Though there's undoubtedly a large element of self-interest in the EP's defence of the budget, and lobbying for increases, there is a good argument that you cannot increase the responsibilities of the EU institutions without having the money available to effectively carry out its duties.

The Dutch position seems to be that they are quite happy to continue paying as a net contributor, as the internal market is so important to the Netherlands, but CAP and the Cohesion Funds are areas where the Netherlands wants to see cuts and reforms. They want the EU budget to be set at around 1% GNI, and have priorities for the EU: Frontex (immigration control at the EU border), energy & climate, and the EEAS, among others. Therefore they want cuts in CAP and Cohesion funds to pay for increases elsewhere. The Dutch seem to view agriculture spending as necessary to aid declining villages and for the maintanence of the countryside ("landscape preservation"), but are otherwise looking for the CAP section of the budget to be reduced heavily. Cohesion funds are viewed as a good policy to help make the poorer member states wealthier, and therefore more able to buy more goods from the richer member states (the thought also occured to me that this is also a good strategy to steadily increase the number of net contributors; or rather slowly spread the burden of contributions). However, cohesion funds should focus on the poorer member states and not be directed to the wealthy countries' poor regions as well. There was a mention of asking for a rebate if the Netherlands didn't get its way, but this was heavily downplayed (my impression was that they viewed it as a childish strategy that wouldn't win them any friends and would be counter-productive in their coalition-building strategies).

My own thoughts on this are that CAP clearly needs to be reformed (as Kingma pointed out, the newer member states will soon join the CAP fully and this will add to the strain on the budget), but I doubt that restricting cohesion funds to only the poorer countries is a good idea in the long run. Perhaps I'm biased because I come from a poorer region, but I think that all member states need to be involved in the cohesion fund, and that if you break their link with it (in that they feel that they're not getting anything out of it), it will come under increasing pressure for cuts despite its value for the good of the internal market. What is clear is that the EU is definitely a "transfer union" and always has been. It consists of a number of different policies transfering money for different projects to help out poorer regions and areas, as richer areas benefit from larger and freer markets. I would personally defend this transfer union as being a social and economic good, though it could do with reform. Still, the battle over the budget is likely to be vicious, as the EU is in some ways a rudimentary welfare state for states, and battle lines have already been quite firmly drawn.

Introducing rebates into the equation would be highly damaging, as rebates are paid for by other countries (I'm reminded of a story of the Polish government asking the British government how much more they would need to pay to join the EU because of the British rebate [it was a sore point obstructing enlargement negotiations]. That image of a poorer country asking how much it would need to pay a richer country - and a champion of enlargement at that - due to its own obstructionism of the budget is something that sticks with me as a symbol for just how selfish and immoral rebates are).

Immigration and asylum:

With Geert Wilders' PVV supporting the minority coalition government, this is obviously a big issue in the Netherlands today. Justice and Home Affairs may be a big European focus for this Dutch government, as Kingma suggested that JHA was an area where the Netherlands wanted to see more action. The Lisbon Treaty moved JHA firmly into our "Union method", so this area could see a leap in activity. The challenge for the Netherlands here is to convince the other member states that they don't want to re-nationalise immigration, but to toughen the rules on illegal immigration. Immigration is such a big issue across many member states that they might be able to win some support for changing the system. Also, there are lots of "Dublin cases" before the European Court of Human Rights on the current system, and this could generate pressure for refrorm as well (the Dublin system is where immigrants into the EU are sent back to the country they first entered so that they can't "shop around" the member states - there have been complaints particularly about the Greek processing of applications).


This touches on the identity, money and influence concerns of the Netherlands. The Dutch government wants tougher enforcement of the enlargement conditions to ensure that there is the legal and institutional change necessary to join, and that the EU moves away from the old practice of giving in to pressure to enlarge quickly. Kingma raised the prospect that a Dutch parliament may end up refusing to give the green light to enlargement if it felt that the candidate country hadn't fully reformed.

Naturally Turkey is a big topic, but it wasn't really directly addressed on its own. However, in the question-and-answer session, it was suggested - but not directly said - that the Netherlands may be negotiating or hoping that the Turkish government would accept some conditions on its voting weight. I stress that this was not directly or explicitly said, and that I am getting this impression from something said by someone talking in their second language rather than their mother tongue. Still, enlargement has seen restrictions on the free movement on workers and access to CAP funds, so if a "privillaged relationship with the EU" is unacceptable for Turkey and other member states, then I wouldn't be surprised if the idea of gradual integration and gaining of rights in the institutions hadn't surfaced in some national administration. If such an idea has surfaced, I hope it will be resisted.

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