The Netherlands EU Presidency has to use all the pragmatic, problem-solving skills

The Netherlands will hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union from 1 January to 30 June 2016.

Questions:

1. The Netherlands took over EU presidency on January 1. In general, what does it mean for the country as the EU is right now dealing with many crisis, especially with refugee crisis?

2. The Netherlands will be in trio presidency with Slovakia and Malta. For both countries it is the first time presidency. Is this fact advantage or disadvantage for the Netherlands or basically it does not matter?

Answers:

Hylke DijkstraAssistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Maastricht University

1. When The Netherlands wrapped up its Presidency in 2004, it hoped that would be the last one. It had been a lot of work. And with the Constitutional Treaty still on the cards it looked as if the system of the rotating Presidency would be phased out.

My impression is, however, that The Netherlands now is very much looking forward to the EU Presidency in the first six months of 2016. It has put a lot of emphasis on preparation and has an ambitious programme. Naturally a lot of the work is about ongoing business, and indeed crises, but I think we can expect an engaged Presidency in service of the Union.

One key point is naturally that EU foreign policy role of the rotating Presidency is considerably smaller since Lisbon. The Netherlands no longer has to coordinate the work of the EU embassies in other countries or forge common positions in the international organizations.

What also needs to be pointed out is the critical role of the First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans. I expect a lot of informal cooperation with him.

One potential risk on the horizon is the upcoming referendum in The Netherlands on the EU association agreement with Ukraine. In April, Dutch citizens will go to the ballot box. In case of a negative vote, ratification of the association agreement will be seriously affected.

2. The Trio Presidency is an underutilized instrument. It’s really every Presidency for itself. Prior to Lisbon, some work was ‘burden-shared’ particularly in foreign policy, but that no longer seems the case.

I am however confident that Slovakia and Malta will do an excellent job. There was initially some doubt about the qualities and capacities of some of the newer and smaller member states. Such doubts have proved completely unfounded.

Carine Germond, Fellow, Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies, Assistant Professor of Contemporary, Maastricht University

1. The recent crises, from the mass influx of migrants and refugees of the past few months to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, have substantially altered the agenda of the forthcoming Dutch rotating presidency by shifting its focus on migration and terrorism/security. They have also put the Netherlands at the forefront of the European debate on these issues. The main challenge for the Netherlands will be to ensure that these new pressing challenges and the other overarching priorities (e.g. growth and employment, energy and climate) of the Presidency are addressed properly and effectively.

Achieving a compromise over migration and cross-border security issues is likely to be a difficult endeavour and to significantly complicate the task of the Dutch Presidency, however. Both subject matters are highly sensitive for member states and their public opinion; and there is all but agreement among EU partners. Discussions over how to tackle and stem the flow of migrants may also create difficulties within the Presidency Trio. The Netherlands, whose governmental coalition almost collapsed over the treatment of asylum seekers, has kept a relatively low profile while French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were the most vocal proponents of a European answer to the refugee crisis. Moreover, Slovakia, which will take over the Presidency in the second half of 2016, is a fierce opponent of the migrant quota system proposed by the Commission and has just filed a law suit at the European Court of justice against the EU’s decision to redistribute asylum seekers across member states. Conversely, while there is an EU-wide agreement on the need to combat cross-border terrorist activities, member states greatly diverge on how to best achieve this objective. In the run-up to the EU Presidency, several Dutch politicians, including Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Finance Minister and Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem, have emphasized the need to appropriately secure and control the EU’s (internal and external) borders and to overhaul the Schengen Agreement of 1985. Forging a suitable and acceptable compromise on these crucial, yet contentious issues will undoubtedly require all the pragmatic and problem-solving skills of the Dutch negotiators during the next six months.

2. The Presidency Trio was introduced in 2007 to allow all member states, especially the newer member states who joined in 2004 and 2007, to hold the EU Presidency within a reasonable period of time and to ensure coherence and continuity from one Presidency to the next. Considering that it has worked well in the past, I would not expect any major problems for the Netherlands from working with Slovakian and Maltese officials whose country will take over the rotating EU presidency following the term of the Netherlands, respectively in the second half of 2016 and the first half of 2017.

The three countries have worked closely together since 2014 to jointly formulate the priorities and the 18-month programme for the European Council. They have established ways of cooperating in the run-up to the Presidency that will facilitate mutual collaboration throughout and beyond the Dutch tenure. Moreover, given the small size of Slovakia and Malta and their inexperience it is very likely that Dutch officials will assist them in chairing the numerous meetings that will take place at all levels in Brussels and abroad and in facilitating dialogue between member states and EU institutions. If anything, and beyond the continued mobilization of Dutch civil servants throughout the presidency, this should reflect positively on the Netherlands, whose officials will be able to share their extensive experience of the rotating EU presidency, both in terms of organization and negotiation, and act as counsel and facilitator for their Slovakian and Maltese counterparts.

Karin van Leeuwen, Assistant Professor Modern European History, European Studies Department, University of Amsterdam

1. You are probably aware that the presidency since the Lisbon treaty doesn’t have the weight anymore it used to have before. This is also what especially the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs continues to emphasize when asked about the presidency: the famous reputation of Dutch presidencies (think of the Maastricht treaty in 1992 and the Amsterdam treaty of 1997) just cannot be continued, because the institutional arrangements have changed. But obviously, also the Dutch political situation has changed since the 1990s. In spite of the still rather positive position of the government vis-à-vis the EU, there is especially since the constitutional referendum of 2005 a strong anti-integration tendency among the Dutch people. And in that respect, next to the refugee crisis (which is not my expertise and on which it is hard to predict anything, so I won’t go into that further) I think two more issues might be interesting for the Dutch during their presidency:

– A referendum that is to take place on April 6th in the Netherlands on the ratification of the EU Association agreement with the Ukraine. It has been organised after a citizens’ initiative that was initiated by GeenPeil . The government does not want to take position on this. However, it will have to deal with the rather critical tendencies behind this referendum (which is certainly not only intended to deal with Ukraine, but rather with integration in general) and it will have to deal with the consequences if it results in a No vote. So far the topic is hardly discussed yet in Dutch society but the whole discussion might be very painful since it coincides with the presidency.

– The debate on the British exit. I am no expert on this either but it is drawing closer and the Dutch have traditionally been very keen on British membership. At the same time, the Dutch are dealing with Euroscepticism themselves (as you can read in the previous point).

2. Regarding your second question, I cannot say that this aspect roused much attention in the Netherlands (yet). As one of the founding members of the EU, the Netherlands (by mouth of its ministry of Foreign Affairs) merely feels proud to be able to ‘help’ both your country and Malta in building up experience with the presidency.

Arnout Mijs, Research Fellow, Fellow, Netherlands Institute for International Relations Clingendael

The are many issues that come to mind, especially concerning the definition ‘for the country’

a. The role of EU-Presidency:

  • The big decisions on crises such as migration, but also still the eurocrisis will be made in for a to which the role of the EU-presidency is very limited. These all have become Chefsache, were de facto decision-making is being done in the European Council. In the case of the eurocrisis this would be ECOFIN, and especially the Eurogroup. Regarding the latter our Minister of Finance is president of the Eurogoup so this will not change a lot.
  •   ‘As a country’ doesn’t really apply because the Presidency is predominantly the result of what goes on in all the different Council formations, Coreper, Working groups, so it is very difficult to measure what will be achieved by ‘the Dutch EU Presidency’. For example, as it appears, one of the criteria for a successful presidency is  how much legislation will pass. This is my view is highly dependent on the Commission’s Work Programme, which is not favourable to the Dutch presidency.

b.  One of the arguments during the Convention on the Future of Europe is: Why keep a rotating Presidency? The EU institutions are much more efficient. One of the main counter-arguments is that it gives ‘Brussels’ a sense of what is going on in the Member States. In general, the Dutch are pretty vocal and consequently this would add to the position of The Netherlands in the policy debates.

c.  For the country itself it is an opportunity for citizens to become more aware of what goes on in the EU, since it there will be more media coverage.

2.  In my opinion this doesn’t really matter for several (mainly historical) reasons.

a.  The role and impact of the EU Presidency in general has decreased. ‘Uploading’ of national interests has been pushed back. This makes it increasingly difficult to become an agenda-setter or policy entrepreneur. At the moment the coordinated strategy for public officials is to stick to the role of ‘honest broker’. The room for big ‘presidency’ initiatives as we have seen in the past, such as deregulation, sunset clauses, environment, will be limited I expect.

b. The effectiveness and efficiency of the institutional Trio set-up is still up for debate.

c.  One of the arguments that brought up the Trio-presidency remains: that small (new) member states have a limited pool of human resources and knowledge gaps. There they have a choice between shouldering on the EU institutions or on their Trio-partners.  So it might be an advantage for the Council in general, and in practice The Netherlands if they’d prefer The Netherlands. Then they would be more active during the other Presidencies.

Henri de Waele, Full Professor of International and European Law, Faculty of Law, Radboud University Nijmegen

1. For the Netherlands, on the one hand, these are certainly difficult times – endless streams of refugees pouring in, the Schengen/Dublin system on the verge of collapse, a looming Brexit, rising number of terrorist threats, strained rule of law situation in Hungary, and not always consistent signals being sent out from the German capital. Thus, it might indeed become one of the most challenging EU presidencies the Netherlands has held so far. At the same time, we should not forget that it also faced quite a struggle in the early 1990s when preparing the Maastricht summit (which, as you may be aware, led to an initial diplomatic catastrophe), with simultaneously the erupting conflict on the Balkans to take position on. Moreover, we should not forget that a country holding the EU Council presidency is nowadays less expected to take the lead and set the agenda as it was before, since the Commission and European Council President, alongside the High Representative for Foreign Policy, nowdays have a much more powerful part to play. Especially with a leading figure like Mr. Juncker setting the policy agenda, Ms. Merkel dominating the intergovernmental scene and Mr. Dijsselboem in charge of Euro affairs, it might be relatively more easy for the Netherlands to ‘lean back’ and expect the major impetus to come from elsewhere. For example, a new design for the EU asylum and migration system is perhaps more likely to emerge from an initiative of the Commission rather than the country holding the rotating presidency.

2. It is difficult to say whether this will matter all that much. After all, it so far does not seem that the ‘trio’ system has really led to that more efficient continuity than before. Moreover, on crucial dossiers, it is likely that Slovakia and Malta will have to ensure a good follow-up anyway, whether they like it or not. In addition, as remarked already, other important figureheads shall undoubtedly take the lead and try to maintain momentum. In terms of capabilities and inexperience, for sure it might seem a disadvantage that it is the firm time for Slovakia and Malta in these taxing circumstances, but then again, we should keep in mind e.g. the primeur of Slovenia many years ago – a relatively small country that in the end still managed to conduct a pretty smooth presidency. Thus, Malta and Slovakia may equally exceed expectations, depending on the quality of the staff they are able to assign.

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