1. Eastern Neighbours and Russia

Dutch perspective on future relations with Russia: MH17-dominant.

There is no clear Dutch perspective on relations with the Russian Federation given their complicated nature. The official position of the Dutch government, supported by a large majority in the national parliament, is to maintain a tough line as regards the annexation of the Crimea and the Russian intervention in East Ukraine – and thus support the sanctions – but to remain open to dialogue. For the moment a lot depends on the successful implementation of the Minsk II agreement. For that reason the official view is that pressure has to be maintained. Good trade relations – especially in the energy sector – have for a long time determined Dutch policy. They remain important but are no longer the sole determining factor. The recent decision of Shell to participate in the construction of Nordstream II, a new pipeline bypassing Ukraine, raised questions in Parliament. There have been complaints from the business sector about the negative consequences of the sanctions and lost investment opportunities, while others have doubted their effectiveness – President Vladimir Putin has not given in so far, they claim. The government has not responded to these criticisms but has nevertheless indicated that it will investigate the possibility of dealing with trade issues related to the EU association process with Ukraine and others through the newly established Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, as a kind of concession to Moscow. The downing of MH17, which killed 196 Dutch citizens, was a dramatic turning point. It had a huge impact on public opinion and on Dutch foreign policy, which from then on opted for a much tougher line on Moscow due to its support for the separatists in Ukraine who are seen to be the perpetrators of the heinous act. There is a broad consensus that the airplane crash completely altered the Dutch perspective on Russia, with much more emphasis on the huge gap that divides the two countries in terms of values. The Netherlands is in charge of the official international enquiry into the shooting of Air Malaysia 777 and its outcome might further complicate relations with Russia. In October the first part of the report about what caused the downing of the plane will be published. In the beginning of 2016 the second part dealing with who did it, will be ready. Already, the Russians are trying to undermine the credibility of the investigation and have opposed setting up a UN tribunal to try those suspected of involvement in the act.

The crisis in Ukraine and the Dutch view on EaP countries: Lack of real commitment.

The crises concerning Ukraine and the threats to its existence have certainly had an impact on the Dutch position with regard to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries. Due to the huge increase in media attention there is more awareness of the region, its internal differences, and its conflict potential. Surveys show that the general public has major worries about the security situation in Europe. There was support for the Maidan protests and also for association with those countries that have chosen to link up with the EU. The general view is that their independence and integrity deserve support, and that Russian territorial ambitions should be contained. But this commitment has its limits. Even in the case of Ukraine, which deserves special attention for obvious political reasons, there is scepticism about its ability to carry out the reforms that would bring it close to EU standards. That, coupled with a general aversion to further EU expansion, explains why the Dutch do not support EU membership of the three EaP countries that have expressed that ambition. As regards security guarantees, NATO enlargement is also not very popular, as is the case for direct military engagement in Ukraine. Some – a minority though – use the additional argument that the West should not try to push Russia further back as it has done in the past by expanding NATO and the EU eastwards. Others have, on the contrary, proposed to deliver weapons to the Ukrainian government.

Riga was not Vilnius

Although Riga was the first Eastern Partnership Summit after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, it received less attention than its predecessor. There was, of course, a marked difference. While Vilnius was not (yet) perceived as being inimical to Russia – which was then also the attitude of most Dutch politicians – Riga was. But even if it had become impossible to ignore the ‘Brussels-versus-Moscow’ character of the Riga summit, this did not lead to an upgrade of the status of the newly associated partnership countries – with the support of the Netherlands and other EU governments that did not want to further aggravate relations with Russia. Reconfirming the Partnership process was considered to be the main thing to do. The Dutch Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bert Koenders, made it clear once again that his government does not consider the Eastern Partnership as the antechamber of EU membership. In a letter to the Dutch parliament he later added that differentiation of the partnerships is unavoidable since each of the countries involved should decide itself on the nature of its relations with the EU. This should be a core element of the upcoming ENP review. One commentator expressed his bewilderment at the presence of Belarussian representatives at the summit, since the leader of that country has often been labelled as the last dictator of Europe – an indication that even most journalists do not have much knowledge of the Eastern Partnerships.

More hard, less soft power but no European army

As in many other EU countries, defence policies are being reconsidered in light of the changed security situation in Europe and elsewhere. It is not only the aggressive attitude of Moscow and concerns for NATO partners in the East that have pushed the Netherlands toward a limited increase of its military expenditure. Some from the think tanks consider this to be not enough while others – populist parties of the left and the right – reject it as a wrong reaction. A further increase in the budget for 2016 is expected. Dutch participation in the international alliance against Islamic State, but also commitments in Mali and Afghanistan, for example, have contributed to this change after many years of budget cuts. Dutch armed forces participate in military activities in support of NATO members that are ‘on the frontline’. The Netherlands has always been in favour of more EU cooperation on defence and it has itself developed specific forms of cooperation with, for example, Belgium and Germany. More could be done in terms of a better division of military tasks and a more efficient production of military hard and software is the official line. There is, however, hardly any debate about the eventual establishment of a European army. The idea lacks credibility in the eyes of many. Where will the budget come from given limited resources? Would it mean the centralisation of decisions on the use of military power – something that is seen as a national prerogative, especially in the Netherlands, where the parliament is closely involved in such decisions? And how would such an army affect NATO and the US security guarantees?

2. EU Enlargement

No positive fallout from the Ukraine crisis

Though Dutch reactions to the change of regime in Ukraine have been positive in general, and although Dutch support for the new government in Kiev is not contested internally, offering EU, or for that matter NATO, membership to that or other Eastern Partnership countries is not on the agenda and will not be for the foreseeable future. Any suggestion of a linkage between further enlargement of the EU and the signing of the association agreements with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia has been carefully avoided. References to the EU perspective of these countries have been muted due to the pressure of countries like the Netherlands where a very critical parliament – and not only the populist parties – wants to draw a line as far as further commitments are concerned.

The ratification of the association agreement with Ukraine by the Dutch Parliament has instigated the so-called EU citizens committee to start the procedure for a corrective referendum, opposing the agreement by claiming it would lead to further enlargements of the EU. The new law makes it possible to hold a plebiscite after legislation has been adopted by the two chambers of parliament in order to try to correct it. It also applies to the verification of treaties. The government can however decide to ignore the outcome. Since July of this year it has been possible to initiate such a referendum if 10.000 people in a preliminary phase sign up to it, which would then unlock the second phase in which 300.000 signatures would have to be collected within 6 weeks. That is not an easy task, though some parties and a very influential blog support it. End of September the organisers announced that they had garnered enough support before the deadline took effect. This now will be verified by the national electoral council and if this body will confirm the result there will be a referendum in spring. Its result would only be valid if at least 30 % of the voters show up. It is considered to be somewhat unfortunate that the campaign and the vote will take place during the Dutch EU presidency. Many expect heated debates about enlargement and the EU as such which is the general idea behind the initiative that was started by known eurosceptics. It is difficult to predict whether in the end The Netherlands will withdraw its signature form the association agreement with Ukraine and how the EU would react to that.

Enlargement: Strict conditionality and limits to the free movement of labour

Though Eurobarometer polled in 2014 a large majority against enlargement, this has not altered the official position of the Netherlands and the ratification of the most recent accession – that of Croatia – was not an issue. Commitments made by the EU concerning the Western Balkans and Turkey have to be honoured, but whether these countries will ever achieve membership depends on their ability to fulfil the strict criteria. There is scepticism about their capacity to do so in the years ahead. Many in The Netherlands agree with the statement of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that new admissions will not take place before 2019. There is broad support for the much tougher approach to the negotiations with candidate countries, with a heavy emphasis on the negotiating chapters dealing with rule of law issues, especially corruption. Since the ‘No’ of the referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, which was partly explained as a ‘no’ to enlargement, Dutch policy makers have consequently opted for a hard line. As elsewhere, Turkey is a separate topic. There have been calls to stop the negotiations with the country and to cut the financial assistance. The government has opposed this as being too ‘hands off’ and as impossible to realise since it would demand unanimity in Brussels.

The negative perception of new member states of course affects the discussion about further enlargements. There is a general lack of trust and little solidarity. A major issue in this respect is the fall out of the free movement of labour and of the liberalisation of the services sector. The EU enlargements of 2004 and 2007 have – after a transitional period – led to a considerable flow of workers from East to West, from low to high income countries. These workers are prepared to work for lower salaries and accept bad working conditions. In this way collective wage agreements are undercut and the principle of the same salaries for the same work violated. In some inner cities housing and other problems have been caused by this influx of migrant labour. The Dutch government has decided to make this issue a priority of the upcoming Dutch EU presidency. It has already proposed to the change the EU legislation regarding posted workers – which in the present situation allows them to be outsourced to do work in the Netherlands, while they pay for their social security in their homeland, which of course makes them cheaper.

This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.

The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.

This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website:

The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.