Following the recent Grexit and Eurozone crises, the Dutch started the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at a particularly challenging moment. The Dutch Presidency took over during an unprecedented migration crisis, terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe and a challenging Russia. The main challenges faced by the Dutch Presidency were tackling the migration crisis, stabilizing the Eurozone, managing Euroscepticism particularly in The Netherlands and in the UK, and dealing with Europe’s security and its troubled neighborhood. On top of all that, the Dutch Presidency has led the no less challenging strategic exercise of developing a new Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) for the years to come. This commentary analyzes three of these challenges.
Tackling the migrant crisis was an important priority for the Dutch Presidency. The large number of refugees crossing from Turkey to Europe continued to grow, and almost every single day saw devastating news of migrant boats sinking and people dying. In 2015 alone, at least 3,700 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean. After a long series of negotiations, the European Union reached a deal with Turkey in March 2016. As part of the agreement, the parties decided that any new irregular migrants would be sent back to Turkey. In return, the EU Member States will accept one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every one sent back, and speed up visa liberalization for Turkish nationals.
On the one hand, the Dutch, who were essential in introducing this formula into the negotiations, deserve credit for striking the agreement with Turkey. Prime Minister Rutte’s promise to reduce drastically the influx of migrants into the EU has, in this sense, been kept. From this point of view, the deal can be seen as effective at least in the short run. However, it may prove to be problematic over the longer term, as it received criticism from several international organizations and human rights NGO’s concern over compliance with EU law, the UN Refugee Convention and international human rights standards. Critics have also asserted that the EU made itself far too dependent on the Turkish government. Some worried that the situation would crucially undercut the Union’s leverage in promoting human rights in Turkey itself. The deal has also not solved the issue of migration altogether – while the number of migrants from Turkey decreased, the number from Libya to Italy increased. In its attempt to mitigate the negative effects of this challenging migration influx and concerns over Schengen arrangements, the Dutch Presidency opted for a pragmatic approach accepting the EU’s limitations. While the Dutch Presidency tackled the broad European challenge of migration, it simultaneously faced a major Eurosceptic crisis of its own in early April.
Referendums and Euroscepticism
Prime Minister Rutte’s statements early this year at the European Parliament declared that “Europe must be relevant to people’s daily lives” and his Presidency’s intent was to “help make that happen”. However, these assertions were challenged at home soon after by the negative results of the Dutch referendum on the ratification of the Association Agreement with Ukraine. Although ratified by 27 member States, the agreement with Ukraine remains provisionally in force but will not be fully implemented until ratified by the Netherlands. This was a major political blow, damaging the image of the Dutch Presidency, normally expected to be a beacon of unity for the Union.
It is yet unclear how the Dutch government will get out of this unpleasant situation, particularly after the historically shocking developments in the UK following the Brexit referendum results to leave the EU. Just as to date the Dutch referendum results hijacked EU’s foreign policy towards Ukraine, the UK referendum results have taken the whole European Union hostage. Certainly holding the EU Presidency under these critical developments have shown to be trying for the Netherlands. However, they show a wider tendency of growing disappointment and mistrust in EU institutions and its technocrats across Europe’s far-right political parties, far beyond the control a rotating EU Presidency could handle alone. It is perhaps too soon to tell how far reaching these developments will affect and shape the Union in the years to come. What remains clear, however, is that the continent will never be the same after this major blow of confidence to the European project.
The EU Global Strategy
Finally, the Dutch Presidency had the daunting task to support the development and adoption of the new EUGS at a time of growing insecurity in Europe and across the world, as well as emerging uncertainty regarding the future of the Union. High Representative Mogherini and the European External Action Service lead the effort of coordinating the foreign policy interests of each member state while protecting the Union’s core values. This challenging and demanding process –in which The Hague Institute for Global Justice, among many other renowned think-tanks, played a supporting role, and the authors of this commentary provided a Report with recommendations during the Strategic review process – culminated with the presentation of the Strategy at the EU Summit on 29 June.
In contrast to the European Security Strategy of 2003, the EUGS shows a more mindful approach regarding the EU’s limitations, now coined as “principled pragmatism”. This is clearly shown in a new approach balancing on the one hand EU value promotion with fragility reduction, and on the other hand soft with hard power. This is done in an attempt to promote ‘resilience of people and societies’ and achieve ‘strategic autonomy’ respectively. More importantly, for the first time ever the Strategy defines the interests of the Union, which include European security, prosperity and equality, democracy and rules-based global order. At a time of increased insecurity and uncertainty the Union needs more than ever a shared vision and the EU Global Strategy seems to provide it. It is now up to the next EU Presidencies to provide coherent common action to implement it. While increased Euroscepticism and Brexit results have no direct and serious substantive impact on the EUGS as such, they have nonetheless clouded the horizon and will most definitively affect its implementation due to a loss of EU’s credibility within and beyond the European continent.
The Netherlands is now leaving the Presidency to Slovakia at a historically critical moment shortly after the Dutch and “Brexit” referendums, which resulted in an alarming victory of Euroscepticism, and after a devastating terrorist attack on Europe’s doorstep. In Mogherini’s words, “the purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned … our citizens and the world need a strong European Union like never before”. The Slovak Presidency, who will be holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time, can surely learn from the traumatic yet resilient experience of the Netherlands. It will, however, have to deal with two major challenges ahead. On the one hand, the Presidency will have to lead the way in narrowing the growing gap between the disillusioned electorate and the disconnected technocratic elites. And on the other hand, in view of the growing Euroscepticism, the Slovak Presidency will have to find a delicate balance in a divided EU, between those advocating fast and further integration, and those calling for a more mindful and slow paced way forward.