Going Dutch – looking back at the presidency

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In the first half of 2016, The Netherlands held the presidency of the European Council for the fourth time since 1986, a record in the Union. Many think the country’s stance towards the EU has been changing for the worse, in fact, the Financial Times even named The Netherlands ‘the most obstructive’ EU-member state. 

In line with their reputation, the Dutch went cheap on their presidency. All meetings were held in the same location, hardly any trips were organised outside of Amsterdam, and there was no grand opening or closing. This was to accommodate the increasing anti-EU sentiment in the country. At the start of the Dutch term, Rutte had already been Prime Minister for six years, and was fairly familiar with the EU routines and key players.

During the Dutch presidency, Rutte had three major challenges on his agenda: the refugee crisis, Brexit and the Dutch referendum on the Ukraine Association Treaty. Meanwhile, the absence of economic recovery and the unwillingness of some member states to reform continued.

The refugee crisis was addressed on 7 March, when German chancellor Merkel, Turkish PM Davutogly, and Rutte came together in Brussels. When an agreement was finally reached, Rutte brought together Merkel, Hollande, Cameron, Tsipras, Anastasiades, Mogherini and Renzi to allegedly, have them agree. This became the signature approach of the Dutch presidency: get key people to commit in small groups before involving the wider group.

The two referendums were a sore spot for Rutte. It was clear that the Dutch government didn’t know how to deal with the Dutch referendum on the Ukraine Association Treaty. Without a notable campaign, the referendum was held in the middle of the Dutch presidency term. 61% of Dutch voters voted against the association treaty with the Ukraine, which was motivated by a widespread negative sentiment towards the EU. Consequently, Rutte was accused both in The Netherlands and in the EU of not having done enough to promote the Union and the Treaty.

In the meantime, Dutch officials continued to work on strengthening the internal market to speed up economic recovery. In this, the Dutch leadership was widely acknowledged in the Union. Unfortunately, this hasn’t yet led to concrete results on issues such as the internal market for digital services or services passports.

Given the reputation of the Dutch, one might have expected a less cooperative stance from Dutch officials. However, looking back – The Netherlands operated pragmatically, which was precisely what the EU needed.

Words Willem Bonekamp (Burson-Marsteller The Netherlands)
Photos CC/Flickr EU2016 NL

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