EU 2016: Dutch at the Helm
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd January, 2016
On 1 January the Netherlands took over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, with pledges to facilitate Europe’s economic growth and competitiveness, to enhance the EU’s role in the world, to promote forward-looking energy and climate policies, to improve cooperation on security as well as migration and asylum, and last but by no means least to empower European citizens by making them more involved in EU decision-making. These are in summary the five pillars agreed for the next 18-month period by the so-called Trio which will be at the helm until 30 June 2017: the Netherlands and their successors Slovakia and Malta. The role of the EU presidency has changed somewhat in recent years with the appointment of a President of the European Council — the gathering of EU Heads of Government — rather than that job being rotated twice a year along with the EU presidency. The incumbent as President of the Council since December 2014 is Donald Tusk, a former Polish Prime Minister. But the country that has the EU rotating presidency can still have a big influence in managing EU affairs, as well as hosting many meetings of the 28 member states. In the case of the Netherlands, well over 100 of these meetings will be held at the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, underlining the importance of the EU’s being outward-looking.
The elephant in the room, not specifically mentioned in the Dutch programme of works, is trying to keep Britain as a member of the European Union. At a European Council meeting next month, the UK’s EU partners will respond fully to Prime Minister David Cameron’s four demands for EU reform, which he hopes can be the basis for then recommending that Britons vote to remain in the EU in a referendum that is likely to take place later this year. This could well prove to be the most tricky Council over which Mr Tusk will have to preside, as at least one of Mr Cameron’s demands — considerably extending the period during which EU migrants are unable to access benefits when in another member state than their own — has met great resistance, not least from Poland. Mr Cameron foolishly took the Conservative Party out of the largest European grouping in the EU, the European People’s Party (EPP) several years ago, which meant that he sacrificed a valuable opportunity to lobby and negotiate with EPP leaders, not least the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Yet paradoxically one of his greatest allies is neither in the EPP nor in the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), which the Tories formed with a rag-bag of right-wing parties from a few other countries, but instead with the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. Mr Rutte leads the more conservative of the Netherlands’ two liberal parties, the VVD, and is therefore part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), to which the British Liberal Democrats belong. But he has an excellent working relationship with Mr Cameron and as the Netherlands now has the EU presidency, 10 Downing Street will doubtless be hoping that the Dutch will facilitate a compromise that will deliver what Mr Cameron wants.