Tension is building up in the Dutch diplomatic service. Within a year, the Netherlands will take over the Presidency of the European Union (officially of the Council), as part of a rotating system amongst the EU member states. In the first half of 2016 Dutch diplomats will chair countless meetings in the Brussels bubble (and in Amsterdam), while ministries, cities, companies and NGOs organise a range of events in the lowlands.
Not surprisingly, the Dutch have been planning these six-months-of-fame for quite some time, with task forces, clearing a floor for extra staff at the EU embassy (officially: the Permanent Representation), and preparing the priorities for the Presidency. These have been announced last week in a letter to Dutch Parliament.
What can a Presidency do?
The last Dutch EU Presidency was in 2004, but since then the role of the rotating presidencies has changed considerably as both the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council have a permanent President. So the member state that acts as chairman, can only help push negotiations on dossiers forward – and there are plenty of them already on the table.
This Dutch Presidency will undoubtedly be less sexy (or politically explosive) than the previous editions. In 1992 and 1997 the Netherlands was in the lead of crucial treaty negotiations, resulting in the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam. In 2004, the Dutch managed to open accession negotiations with Turkey.
With the new Commission-Juncker now initiating an ambitious reform programme for Europe, a lot of new European legislation proposals will be on next year’s agenda. And the Netherlands will have to tread carefully to keep everyone on board, from the other member states to the European Parliament (EP) which is becoming ever more vocal and even aggressive. In so-called ‘trilogues’ – secret negotiations between the member states, the EP and the Commission – deals have to be struck on several hot topics.
Priorities: copy-paste of the Timmermans mandate
But which hot topics will be in the Dutch basket? That is not entirely clear yet, as Juncker has just started and it is not sure which negotiations will still be ongoing in a year’s time. But in the 28 January letter to Parliament, the minster of Foreign Affairs has already published his following priorities. (press release in English here)
1. The Dutch want a Europe that focuses on the essentials, meaning a clear task division between the member states and the EU institutions. The quality of the legislation from Brussels has to be improved, ‘making it simpler and more workable’ and resulting in a reduction in the administrative burden for businesses, citizens and governments. (Is it a coincidence? The Dutch Commisisoner Frans Timmermans has exactly this portfolio)
2. Also in line with the Juncker agenda, is the second priority of an Innovative Union focused at growth and jobs. The Netherlands envisage an EU that stays competitive and keeps innovating. Concretely, that entails steps as removing barriers to innovation in the internal market, focusing EU funds on innovation research, supporting the Digital Single Market strategy of the Commission (to be announced in May), keep pushing for economic reform at member states’ level. The Dutch minister for Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher, stated that he wants to focus on Europe’s labour market. Concrete policy measures include a plan against social dumping and a revision of the directive on posting of workers.
3. The last priority of the Dutch EU Presidency is aimed at a better connection between the institutions in Brussels and the 500 million citizens. As the trust of Europeans in the EU has plummeted (mainly because of the eurozone crisis), ‘strengthening democratic legitimacy’ will be one of the key issues for the Netherlands. They want an ‘active involvement by people and civil society organisations’ in policy debates and promote transparency in the EU decision-making process. Further on, the EU should focus on concrete results – and this is, again, one of the specific tasks of Timmermans as given by Juncker.
But which dossiers?
Of course the role of the chairman is limited, in achieving such results, especially in just half a year. More importantly, which dossiers will the Dutch get on their plate?*
There will be dozens and a few can already be identified. The Commission has big ambitions to stimulate growth and jobs, partly by completing the internal market – especially on services – and also by kickstart investments in the member states. The 315 billion euro European Fund for Strategic Investment should be up and running by the time the Dutch take over, but as the construction of this fund is kind of controversial (it has been called voodoo work), it will probably not run smoothly from the start. Also the trade talks with the Americans (TTIP) will still be ongoing, but there the Commission has the lead. Other economy-stimulating plans include a capital markets union, a proposal to fight youth unemployment (to be launched this week), and probably a reform of the European Semester – structural ‘advices’ on how the eurozone members can improve their economy.
On the digital economy, I expect that the Netherlands will have to conclude the negotiations on data protection rules (they have been running for years), start up discussions on reform of copyright law (proposal expected in September), and breathe new life into EU laws on the auctioning of spectrum for mobile communication. As mentioned above, the Commission will announce a strategy for the Digital Single Market in May 2015.
Energy and climate will be high on the agenda: soon the Commission will launch its plans on establishing an Energy Union, including investments in an EU-wide energy grid, de-nationalising the market for energy companies, promoting joint negotiations for gas purchases, and investments and policies to establish more energy efficiency. It cannot be predicted when the lawmaking process of all these difficult issues will start up, but the Netherlands will have to deal with a part of it. Certainly, the EU 2030 framework on CO2 reduction will need attention, including the reform of the emissions trading system. The Dutch diplomats will also need to formulate an answer to the outcome of the UN summit on climate change that will take place in December 2015.
Foreign policy will remain very tricky, with continuing debates on the relations with Russia, an upcoming review of the External Action Service and dealing with the unrest in the Middle East. Connected to these topics – where the Netherlands will not be in the lead as there is a permanent presidency for foreign policies – are dossiers in the field of Justice and Home Affairs. Think airplane passengers data, new anti-terrorism plans, migration policies. Also several trade deals may be on the desk, for instance with Japan.
Working with other Presidencies
To prevent member states from deciding priorities on their own during their Presidency, they now formulate them jointly. Three Presidencies establish an eighteen-month working programme for the European Council, for the Dutch this entails cooperation with the Slovakians and the Maltese who will hold the Presidency after them. Given the small size of these member states, Dutch diplomats will probably assist them in charing the many, many meetings in Brussels and abroad.
*The aforementioned list is not exhaustive. If I missed certain topics/law proposals which will be playing during the Dutch Presidency, please send me a mail on email@example.com