Dutch Presidency: Helping Europe find its mojo

Written by Colin Mackay on 21 December 2015 in Opinion
Opinion

In spite of recent crises, the Dutch EU Council presidency is optimistic that Europe's best days still lie ahead.

In January 2016, the Presidency of the council of the European Union will pass from Luxembourg to the Netherlands. This will be the first time the Netherlands has held the Presidency since 2004. 

Much has changed in the Union in the last 12 years; in May 2004, the EU had just undergone the biggest expansion in its history. Ten new member states had joined, many of them from the former eastern bloc.

It was a time of great optimism for the European Union. So much so that the 2004 Dutch Presidential Priorities included a commitment to "making a success of enlargement."


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Yet looking back at the other priorities from that time, many of them would seem appropriate to the issues of 2016. 

Notions such as "Strengthening the European economy and reducing the administrative burden"; "freedom, security and justice" and "an effective, coherent and committed external policy for the EU" seem equally relevant today. However, what has changed is the mood in Europe; it no longer seems to have that optimism.

Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Bert Koenders says; "Europe has got to get its mojo back." It seems less optimistic than it did 12 years ago, and this is shaping the principles and priorities of the upcoming presidency. The size and scale of the refugee crisis, along with recent acts of terrorism, are placing the EU under unprecedented pressure.

Cornerstones of the European project, such as Schengen, are at risk, with increasing fragmentation and a rise in geopolitics at Europe's eastern borders. The EU needs to find unity and resolve to help weather these challenges. It demands a coordinated, unified response.

"Yes, we must work on the current crises at hand, whether it is stemming the flow of illegal migrants, securing our external borders, or stopping international terrorists in their tracks," says Koenders. "However, we cannot afford to let the pressing problems drive out the important issues."

He continued; "The paradox is that while we were under duress, politically we built at the speed of light. However, people are becoming increasingly critical."

"Although we rationally know that we can only tackle these great crises together, emotionally our Union is not self-evident in these days of turmoil. We all face the challenge of reconnecting with our citizens."

This is why the Dutch believe that solutions will come from a combination of pan-EU and national measures.

They want their Presidency to be characterised by a focus on making reconnections, enhancing relations between member states. They strongly believe that mutual solidarity forms the basis of European cooperation. 

This is why they also want to see a stronger bond between the EU and its citizens, recognising that there is more that unites Europeans than divides them, making us stronger together. 

Finally, they are seeking to enhance connections between layers of government, building legitimacy at all levels.

The Dutch will structure their Presidency around three basic principles for the European Union. The first principle places a strong focus on the essentials. 

They want to concentrate on what is truly important to European citizens and businesses, as set out in the European Council's strategic agenda. The second principle is on creating innovative growth and jobs; the third is on connecting with society.

These principles will provide a framework for their four main Presidency priorities:
• Sustaining Europe as an innovator and job creator
• Embracing comprehensive approaches to migration and international security
• Developing sound and futureproofed European finances and a robust eurozone
• Adopting forward-looking policies on climate and energy

The first priority, that of sustaining Europe as an innovator and job creator, is an issue that urgently needs attention. Recent events have conspired to push this out of the spotlight, but it needs to become 'front and centre;' once again.

With the economy now returning to health, it is incumbent upon the Council, Commission and Parliament to ensure that this positive trend continues, and it is the duty of the Presidency to drive the process. The main element for success - the largest single market in the world - unites member states and provides the platform for growth.

Koenders believes that, "the internal market is the superglue of the EU. We must therefore also work implementing existing commitments, making it deeper and fairer too. This is becoming urgent."

The second priority is timely; finding comprehensive approaches to migration and international security.

The rapid rise in the numbers of people seeking safe haven in the EU has demonstrated the pressing need for a common border, asylum and migration policy. Some of the differences currently on display need to be set aside; member states have a collective responsibility to demonstrate compassion. 

They need to use their capabilities and resources to alleviate the humans suffering caused by war and poverty. The challenge is to make migration flows manageable and more effective.

The Dutch are keen that the EU does not forget that it has a role to play in solving some the causes of this crisis.

The EU needs a common foreign and security policy (CFSP) that lets engage with a single voice to support EU-level solutions. The Dutch Foreign Minister recognises the potential difficulties this poses. 

"We cannot do this all alone. All of us must engage more with the national parliaments in this endeavour. However, we can only achieve this by working together with the European Parliament, the only directly elected institution in Brussels and Strasbourg."

The third priority will be on developing sound and future-proofed European finances and a robust eurozone. Europe is emerging from a deep economic crisis, and there are signs of recovery in an increasing number of members states. 

The current global conditions, including historically low oil prices and stagnating growth in the Bric economies, present an ideal opportunity. Countries can use the current climate to drive much-needed structural reforms and to coordinate economic policies. This includes complying with EMU commitments.

The fourth and final priority is the importance of adopting forward-looking policies on climate and energy. Europe needs a model for sustainable growth that balances sound economic goals with the responsible and sustainable use of natural resources. 

As part of this, the Netherlands will be pushing to establish a European energy inion that will strengthen and secure energy supplies, develop an internal market for energy and decrease the EU's energy dependence while boosting research and innovation in renewable energy sources. The recent developments at COP21 in Paris will clearly shape discussions for the duration of the Presidency.

Like all Presidencies, the Netherlands aspires to delivering a lasting legacy that benefits the Union.  However, it also recognises the inevitability that new EU legislation can take a long time and cover several Presidencies before arriving at any substantive decisions.

Undoubtedly, that will be the case with this Presidency. However, this will not discourage them from seizing opportunities.

They see the clear value of putting important issues on the agenda, adopting council concisions and helping unblock deadlocked discussions.

It is also a reality that the success of a Presidency cannot be properly assessed without hindsight and historic perspective. 

The true landmark events and decisions will only become apparent after the event. There are also those unforeseen events; those crises that cannot be predicted. 

Each Presidency will face such challenges, be it the horror of the events in Paris to the Eurozone crisis in Greece. How they react, and how they contribute, shapes the reputation of both the Presidency and of the Union.

Clearly, the Presidency will also bring benefits to the Netherlands, providing it more influence than it usually wields. That said, although the country has its own positions on many issues, it shares a common objective of maintaining a fair and effective Europe, characterised by collective responsibility, solidarity and decisiveness. 

The coming six months will give the Netherlands the chance to steer the Union towards the core essentials of creating growth and jobs through innovation and connecting with society.

Undoubtedly, the upcoming Presidency will present the Netherlands with a substantial challenge; these are challenging times. However, the country is an old hand in the EU, and despite facing a different environment to 2004, it has a depth of experience to call upon. 

In addition - given the objective they have set themselves of creating connections - it can call upon a political history of consultation and coalition building. As a medium-sized European country, it has the necessary resources to manage the demands of the Presidency.

So, will the Dutch Presidency deliver a lasting legacy? Koenders believes it will. "An inter-institutional agreement better regulation may be a heaven for diplomats, but it won't make hearts beat. I understand that," he said.

"However, once we start delivering better laws and rules that help kickstart growth in the real economy, with real jobs for real people, citizens will thrive and the EU will flourish. I am confident that we can do this, and I am convinced that our best days lie ahead of us."

Recent events have demonstrated that the Union - the European Commission, the European Parliament and the member states as members of the Council - is properly equipped to deal with major issues. 

The historic experience of the Netherlands in building consensus will help keep the European Union focused and on course during the coming six months.

The value of this should not be underestimated; peace, security, prosperity and democracy are often only noticeable by their absence. 

An effective EU, focused on the essentials of delivering innovative growth and jobs and on making connections, is the ideal way to preserve this for all Europe's citizens. With the Netherlands, we are in a safe pair of hands.

 

About the author

Colin Mackay is a Brussels-based writer and editorial consultant

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