Dutch Foreign Ministers on the future of Europe

The future of the European Union is a fashionable debate among politicians and academics with the European Parliament elections in sight, set for May 2014. However, there is a huge information gap amongst the general public – they do not know when the next EP elections are.

On 11 December, 2013, the Hague Institute for Global Justice organized a panel discussion with four former foreign ministers of the Netherlands – Jaap G. de Hoop Scheffer (christian democrat, CDA, 2002 – 2003), Bernard R. Bot (CDA, 2003 – 2006), Maxime J. M. Verhagen (CDA, 2007 – 2010) and Uri Rosenthal (liberal republican, VVD, 2010 – 2012) – on the topic of the effectiveness of Dutch foreign policy. The most discussed topic was the European Union. This should not come as a surprise though. The Netherlands is greatly dependent on the European Union in many subject areas, and most of its trade is with EU countries, most notably with Germany, Belgium, the UK, and France.

The foreign ministers all were convinced of the relevance of the European Union and the need for the Netherlands to remain part of it. Bernard Bot believes that Dutch politicians need to underline the good things from EU rather than stressing only its problems, because “Europe is indispensable for the Netherlands.” The topic then moved to the possibility to the UK leaving the European Union. Interestingly, the opinions were mixed. Bernard Bot does not want to see the United Kingdom leave the Union, but does not consider it to be an impossibility. Uri Rosenthal on the other hand, said that it is “beyond imagination” that the majority in the UK would vote against the EU. Lastly, Maxime Verhagen countered Rosenthal and reiterated that it was a surprise back in 2005 that the Dutch population voted against the European Constitution, so do not be too confident of the population of the UK to vote against an exit from the EU.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer believes that, in the run-up to the European Parliamentary elections of May 2014, the “traditional parties” need to better inform their electorates about what the European Union is about. He uses the term “traditional parties”, because the far right has been on the rise and have taken over the most prominent role in Dutch/EU politics. He admits a key failure from the foreign policy elite, which has been the idea that the European Union is an automatic process which does not need the efforts it so desperately needs now. De Hoop Scheffer argues that the EU has been a success and the important next step is to convince the public as well.

Bernard Wientjes, the chair of the largest employer’s organization in the Netherlands, VNO-NCW,  was also invited to share his thoughts on the topic of Dutch foreign policy, since he has been actively engaged with governments representing the Dutch employer’s at home and abroad. On the topic of the EU Wientjes stated: “don’t think about leaving Europe, we will lose jobs.” The European Union has allowed the Netherlands to enter into free trade agreements with countries like Japan, and potentially with Indonesia. This has only been possible due to the fact that the EU acted as a common economic bloc. Otherwise, Japan or Indonesia would not have considered a free trade agreement with such a small country like the Netherlands.

Turning to the incumbent FM Frans Timmermans (Labour, PvdA). On 14 November, Timmermans wrote an opinion editorial for the Financial Times where he laid out the Dutch government’s proposal to reform the European Union. In offer to re-establish the political balance in the EU, it proposes three measures to get would further democratise the EU and decrease the size of the European Commission. The downsizing of the EC would bring more legislative power back to the national governments – as Barroso said, “the EU needs to be big on big things and smaller on smaller things.”

First, negotiate a European Governance Manifesto, stipulating the course of action for the next five years. “It should lay down what Europe needs to focus on, and also what Europe needs to leave to the states. This will mean more Europe in some areas, and less in others.” Second, the EU needs a smaller European Commission with fewer policy clusters. “The vice presidents would have the sole authority to initiate legislation. This would restore the commission’s focus and strengthen its clout.” Third, “encourage national parliaments to bring Europe back home where it belongs and strengthen their co-operation with each other and the European parliament. They should have the right to summon commissioners to capitals. And if one-third of national parliaments raise subsidiarity objections to a legislative proposal (the yellow card procedure), the commission should not just reconsider, it should use its discretion to take the disputed proposal off the table.”

Frans Timmermans has been a vocal supporter of the European Union but recognizes its inefficiencies and problems. The economic crisis has led to large distrust and dissatisfaction among the general public of the ability of national governments and the European Union to deal with the crisis. Timmermans believes that the public has been “lured by the europhobic populist Pied Pipers who portray a glorious nationalist past that never was as a model for a future that will never be. Europe’s leaders cannot sit back and let history unfold, we need to take charge of Europe again.”

So, while the last four former and the incumbent ministers of foreign affairs of the Netherlands all see the need of the Netherlands to be part of the European Union, and do not want to imagine not being part of it, the populist threat looms. Timmermans’ proposal, or one similar to that, could pave the way to a smaller, more flexible European Commission that has to hold accountability to the national governments. In addition, politicians in all of the 28 member states have the task to inform the public of the relevance of the European Union for their domestic state of affairs. Such changes in the structure and approach to the EU can make it a more successful actor, in Europe and beyond.

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