January 15, 2016
After yesterday’s State of the Union address by US president Barack Obama, it is about time to look at the current state of affairs in the European Union. What are the challenges the EU and its Dutch presidency are facing at the beginning of 2016? In short, it seems like the Dutch face quite the challenge. With the anti-European Liberty Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders gaining support according to recent opinion polls and the prospect of a national referendum on the association treaty with Ukraine, the country has to balance its duties as president whilst bolstering the image of its presidency. As if that were not enough, the presidency faces problems that reach beyond the flat landscape of the polder and stretch throughout the largest part of the European Union. It remains in question whether this presidency can achieve its envisioned goal of a ‘Unifying Union’ by 30 June 2016 – or 30 June 2017 after the cooperating presidencies of Slovakia and Malta have ended. Will the proposed cocktail of goals lead to a Union, which truly innovates, unifies and focuses on key-issues?
For instance, if we look at the first of the Dutch presidency’s goals, a Union which innovates, this in itself seems hard to achieve. By innovation, the Hague means that the European market should further strengthen itself as a global economic player. The key to do so would be through further development of the digital market. While it is hard to deny that the development of the digital market has the potential to greatly increase the relevance and strength of the European market in the global economy, it does not solve bigger problems underlying the European economy. First, it would be questionable if every member state would benefit from a developed legal framework for digital marketing. With the most affluent markets attracting digital talent, the contrast between a European periphery and core could exacerbate. Therefore it shall be interesting to see which measures the Dutch presidency will propose to further develop the digital market. Secondly, and more strikingly, the economic situation of member states such as Greece are in need of special European care to re-establish the strength of the market as a whole. To think that prosperity and competitiveness of Europe could merely be improved by venturing into new markets would seem as wishful thinking.
Luckily the Dutch seem to agree in this field as their presidency also emphasizes on the development of a European Union that focuses on its key-issues. One of the core programme-points of the Dutch presidency is therefore dedicated to budget cuts, simplification of administrative processes that could bring Europe closer to its citizens and the ideal to have presidency meetings with an overall modest character. These aspects clearly show how the young presidency has been modified to reflect the current state of the Union. Yet, if one applies a more concise approach to the problems Europe currently faces – the refugee crisis, the 2015 terrorist attacks in France and the geopolitical minefields regarding Syria and Ukraine (which has a particularly bitter dimension since the 2014 MH17 drama for the Dutch) – it seems like Brussels has more key-issues than it can handle, let alone the sequence of Dutch, Slovak and Maltese presidencies in brief campaigns. A partial explanation for this difficulty is tied to the fact that the responses to the majority of these crises remain confined to national governments. The most painful example of this is the lack of exchange of information between Member States in the fight against terrorism following the 2015 Paris attacks. Meanwhile, the upcoming Dutch referendum on the association treaty with Ukraine has taken the issue hostage within national confines. As Jean-Claude Juncker rightfully emphasized three days ago, this referendum can potentially be very harmful to the European sense of unity on the global stage.
It is exactly the concept of unity that not only stands central to the set of goals of the Dutch presidency but also embodies the myriad of factors that threaten its success. Continuing on the multitude of crises in the European Union, the refugee crisis has shown yet another divide within the European Union. While German Chancellor Angela Merkel positively faced the influx of refugees with a clear one-liner, “Wir Schaffen das”, countries such as Hungary and Slovakia have started or shown interest in closing their borders. Meanwhile, the Polish government stated to only take in Christian refugees and has diverged from common EU practice in other fields, such as media-control. It is clear that more divisions have appeared in the European Union. Apart from the old East-West divide left since the Cold War and the economic North-South difference, the new divisions seem to be smaller and yet more problematic. The current Polish and Hungarian governments freely re-interpret their obligations to European liberal democracy, while the United Kingdom seems to be daydreaming about a return to the days of splendid isolation. To make matters worse, the Dutch face a domestic divide on the value of Europe and an upcoming referendum might severely tarnish the credibility of its presidency.
What the three aforementioned problems show is not necessarily that the Dutch presidency is inadequate in all of its aspects. The programme has a strongly economically oriented set of goals and is realistic in the utilisation of the complicated mixture of competences at the EU level. But, in the end, the programme for a more unifyied Europe seems to lack teeth. The national attempts to deal with European problems show that Europe lacks proper mechanisms to deal with these issues on the right level. Instead of regarding this as a pitiful state of affairs, it could also be regarded as a time of opportunities. In spite of turbulent times and the rise of Euro-scepticism, it is about time to hear a strong voice in favour of European progress again. It is clear that without it the Dutch, and subsequently the Slovaks and Maltese, can try to promote as much rhetorical unification and parochial cooperation without challenging current limitations and not achieve anything. The European presidency is only a short office and has to be adapted to cooperation. Yet, the Dutch have facilitated big steps during their past presidencies such as the Treaties of Maastricht (1992) and Amsterdam (1997). It would be a shame not to continue this tradition.
By Thomas Kerstens1989 Generation