Future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’

1. How does the future of the EU after the Irish ‘No’ look like?

 

Most attention with regard to the European Council meeting of December 2008 was given to the ‘historical agreement’ reached on the climate and energy package, and to the efforts agreed upon to revive the European economy. With regard to the fate of the Lisbon Treaty, the concession granted to Ireland to keep the right for each member state to nominate one Commissioner, received most attention.[1] According to the Dutch government, a considerable concession is made to the Irish. In its official report of the European Council, it mentions the initial preference of the Netherlands for a smaller number of Commissioners.[2] The chances for survival of the Lisbon Treaty are generally estimated to have increased, but it is not taken for granted by the press that the Irish population will approve the treaty in the second referendum.[3] In newspapers, considerable attention is given to the opponents of the Lisbon Treaty, most notably Declan Ganley. His efforts to build from an office in a prime location in Brussels a cross-European political party, Libertas, are followed closely.[4] Newspaper articles speculate on how the activities of Ganley are financed and who could become his allies in various EU member states. Although no Dutch political parties are known to have an interest in aligning themselves with Libertas, a trend towards more Euroscepticism can be witnessed among the Dutch political parties, most notably in the populist-conservative parties (“Freedom Party” of Geert Wilders and “Proud of the Netherlands” of Rita Verdonk). The Freedom Party has announced it will participate in the elections. Currently it is doing very well in the polls. The same is the case for an outspoken pro-European party, the social-liberal “D66”, which is doing remarkably after a period of decline.

With regard to the elections to the European Parliament, there has been some attention to the elections of the leading candidates of the political parties. At the time of writing the nominees of the liberals (VVD), the social-liberals (D66), the social-democrats (PvdA), and the green party (GroenLinks) have been decided upon by a vote among the party members. The leading candidate of the Christian-Democrats (CDA), the Socialist Party (SP) and the protestant religious parties (CU/ SGP), have been decided upon as well, either by the party or by silent approval of the members. It is not yet known who will lead the Freedom Party in the elections.

Some newspaper articles refer to the people that are named to be candidates for the most important political positions in the EU after the elections, such as the position of the High Representative and European Council President (in the circumstance that the Lisbon Treaty enters into force). Names mentioned include Tony Blair, Anders Rasmussen and Carl Bild. Perhaps most importantly, the Dutch Prime Minister Balkenende, has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the position of Commission President.[5] Although newspapers indicate that the chances for a second term for current President Barroso are still relatively high, they refer to the relative seniority and solid reputation of Balkenende within the European Council. Balkenende himself has declared support for a second term by Barroso and denies to be interested in the position.[6] Other Commission nominees that have been mentioned include the former Minister for Agriculture Veerman, the Minister of Social Affairs (and formerly Justice) Donner, and Minister for Europe, Timmermans.[7] Soon to retire NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has been mentioned as possible nominee for the position of High Representative for the CFSP. It is considered unlikely that the current Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes will continue, since the political party she is a member of, is currently not participating in the coalition government.

2. Transatlantic relations renewed after President Bush: top priorities

 

US – EU relations and global challenges

The Netherlands has high and numerous expectations of new President Obama, but the most important one is that he will restore the transatlantic relationship.[8] Foreign Minister Verhagen has pointed out on several occasions that close cooperation between Europe and the US is needed in order to combat global challenges.[9] The government has indicated that it looks forward to cooperation on a broad range of issues. There are however four particular policy priorities that are mentioned most often: the financial crisis, climate change, the conflict in the Middle East, and international terrorism. These issues are also frequently referred to in the Dutch media.

Early initiatives by Obama with regard to these priorities have already been received positively by the Netherlands. It welcomed for instance, his decision to close Guantánamo Bay, as well as the appointment of top diplomats George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke as Special Representatives to the Middle East, and Afghanistan and Pakistan respectively.

Foreign Minister Verhagen has made the observation that the traditional position of the US as a dominant power has changed, and that Europe and the US are increasingly positioned in the same playing field. This has consequences for the way in which the US and Europe should interact. For the US, this means that it will have to take into account European ideas and interests. At the same time, it implies that one can expect more of a more equal Europe, both in the political and the military area.[10]

The government deems it of vital importance that the EU behaves itself as an active and constructive player in the international arena. This is essential in order to ensure involvement of the US administration with global challenges, considering that American attention for the world necessarily will have to be shared with its domestic problems, the reasoning goes.[11] Furthermore, Europe needs to take its own responsibility in the world to ensure that the transatlantic relationship is advantageous for both partners. What is needed to this end, is a Europe speaking with one voice, and an investment in both soft and hard power.[12]

In line with this position, the government has indicated that when the Dutch mission in the Afghan province of Uruzgan ends in 2010, it wants to leave the door open for a contribution elsewhere in the country. It hereby responds to the expectation that the US government will ask the Netherlands to stay. Both the Parliament and the public, however, are very sceptical about this.[13]

3. Financial crisis and challenges of global governance: the EU response

 

The Netherlands and the financial crisis

Dutch public opinion concerning the EU response regarding the financial crisis shows a watershed between the period before and after the agreement on the EU economic recovery plan. Before the December European Council in Brussels, the Netherlands witnessed a strong national coherent sentiment to fight this crisis, which was perceived as being a legacy from foreign origin. Prime Minister Balkenende describes this attitude as typical Dutch: “when cycling against the wind, Dutchmen will only pedal faster”.[14] In this period, concerns on the absence of the EU in the financial crisis started to mushroom.

After the European Council, the public attention focussed more on the Dutch benefits of the single European market and the strong monetary system for the Netherlands. On the whole, the European approach to the financial crisis received relatively little attention in Dutch media. Most attention was awarded to Minister of Finance Wouter Bos, who received broad praise for his decisive approach in times of crisis. The Dutch government’s policies of nationalising and supporting vital banks (Fortis, ABN Amro, ING), guaranteeing inter banker loans, and fiscally supporting small and medium enterprises, are aimed at securing capital flows within the national economy, and received national and international praise. Minister Bos was even voted politician, and more recently, Dutchman of the year by respectable media.

Since most of the national measures to address the economic crisis had already been taken before the European plan was agreed upon, the general Dutch expectations of the EU vis-à-vis the crisis were moderate. In the Netherlands, they are perceived as a ‘toolbox’ for national policies in the field, a guidebook listing the possibilities and actions for the member states’ governments. The added value of the European recovery plan has to be found, according to Minister Bos, in the coordination of the 27 national policies.[15]

By the end of the year, however, Prime Minister Balkenende praised the European Union’s response, and stated that the relatively small effects of the economic crisis within the Eurozone have demonstrated the benefits of European cooperation.[16] The Euro, according to Balkenende, has demonstrated to be a protective wall against the monetary violence of the international financial crisis, which has to be seen as an opportunity to strengthen European cooperation. Most likely, the Prime Minister deemed this plea necessary, since the praise for the EU approach to the financial crisis had not been given as much coverage as the negatives. These negatives consisted in particular of the lack of financial control also on the European level, and the constant quarrels between the capitals and Brussels, in the period leading up to the agreement on the European recovery plan at the European Council of December. Several national members of parliament, who deemed the EU recovery plan to be unnecessary, and a ’rubber stamping machine’ for national plans, voiced these negative concerns.[17] Also, the alleged leniency towards state aid and the stabilisation pact has received mixed reactions among Dutch parliamentarians.[18]

However, these diverse opinions can be explained when one considers the position the Netherlands took before and during the negotiations of the recovery plan. Balkenende openly stated just two weeks before the European Council, that the 1.5 percent contribution of the member states to the recovery plan was too high, and that the Netherlands had already taken enough measures to combat the crisis.[19]

Debate in the Netherlands on the international power constellation concentrated on the (economic) downfall of the US as a world power. In reaction, pleas to form a strong voice of the EU vis-á-vis international financial affairs have started to mushroom, with some ministers openly supporting the French offer to continue to lead Eurogroup, after the end of the French Presidency.[20] However, this does not mean that the Netherlands is keen on having a single EU seat within the governing bodies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Worldbank, which would imply it to give up its own permanent seat. Instead, Minister Bos and Prime Minister Balkenende called for an increased mandate for improved capacities of the IMF in the international crisis, strengthening its leading role in the world economy.[21]

 

 

 

[1] Bert Lanting and Marc Pepperkorn: EU-lidstaten behouden eigen commissaris, De Volkskrant, 12 December 2008.
[2] Kamerbrief inzake het verslag van de bijeenkomst van de Europese Raad, d.d. 11-12 december 2008 te Brussel, Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken, 17 December 2008.
[3] Frans Dijkstra: Concessies aan Ieren maken weinig indruk op nee-campagne, Trouw, 12 December 2008; NRC Handelsblad: Ier stemt opnieuw over EU-verdrag, 12 December 2008.
[4] Bert Lanting: De Ierse vijand is in Brussel neergestreken, De Volkskrant, 13 December 2008; Martin Visser: Ierse miljonair schudt Europa op, Het Financieele Dagblad, 12 December 2008.
[5] Telegraaf: Naam Balkenende zingt nog rond in Brussel, January 2009.
[6] Telegraaf: Vervolg Barroso belangrijk voor EU, January 2009.
[7] Trouw: Balkenende genoemd voor topfunctie EU, 21 January 2009.
[8] De Volkskrant: Obama moet kloof EU dichten (Obama needs to bridge gap with Europe), 21 January 2009.
[9] See e.g.: Press release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 05 November 2008, available at: http://www.minbuza.nl/nl/actueel/nieuwsberichten,2008/11/Verhagen-verkiezing-Obama-nieuwe-kans.html (last access: 26 February 2009).
[10] Raad Algemene Zaken en Externe Betrekkingen, Tweede Kamer, vergaderjaar 2008-2009, 21 501-02, nr. 859.
[11] Press release of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 3 November 2008,available at:

http://www.minbuza.nl/nl/actueel/nieuwsberichten,2008/11/europa-moet-de-vs-bij-internationale-zaken-betrekk.html (last access: 26 February 2009).
[12] Opening Academisch Jaar, Universiteit Leiden, 1 September 2008 door Minister Verhagen, minister van Buitenlandse Zaken, 1 September 2008.
[13] Het Parool: Kamer: geen Afghaanse missie meer (Parliament: not another Afghan mission), 12 January 2009.
[14] Jan Peter Balkenende: Op karakter (With character), Het Financieele Dagblad, 20 December 2008.
[15] Kredietcrisis. Iedere Europese regeringsleider heeft zijn eigen recept voor het bestrijden van de recessie (Credit crunch. Every European head of state has his own recipe to solve the recession), NRC Handelsblad, 11 December 2008.
[16] Jan Peter Balkenende: Op karakter (With character), Het Financieele Dagblad, 20 December 2008.
[17] Brussel had beter geen herstelplan kunnen maken (Brussels better had not made a recovery plan), Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau, 1 December 2008,available at: http://www.nu.nl/economie/1865767/brussel-had-beter-geen-herstelplan-kunnen-maken.html (last access: 26 February 2009).
[18] Algemeen Dagblad: Kamer verdeeld over coulance met Europese regels (Parliament divided over leniency towards European rules), 26 November 2008.
[19] Nederlands Dagblad: Premier bekritiseert EU-plan voor economie (Prime Minister criticises EU recovery plan), 26 November 2008.
[20] Bos neemt voorstel Sarkozy over Eurogroep serieus (Bos takes Sarkozy’s offer concerning the Eurogroup seriously), Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau, 24 October 2008.
[21] Le Monde: La stabilité financière, bien public mondial, 4 November 2008.