European Council on Foreign Relations

Why Europe needs the Netherlands

On Monday evening we had a discussion on the third edition of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard in The Hague, hosted and moderated by former NATO Secretary General and Scorecard Steering Group member Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. I left the event thinking that the Netherlands could play a pivotal role in the post-crisis reinvention of Europe. At times during the last three years, the Netherlands has seemed more German than Germany - along with Finland, it has taken the toughest line on fiscal responsibility within the eurozone (for example last year it came up with the controversial idea of a “budget commissioner” based in Greece). But it is also the most Atlanticist of contintental European countries and on some issues shares attitudes with the UK - especially as it has become more eurosceptic during the last decade.

The starting point for the discussion, held at the Hague campus of Leiden University, was the role of the Netherlands in European foreign policy in 2012. We had identified the Netherlands as a “leader” in six components of European foreign policy and as an engine of coalitions among member states on foreign-policy issues. Han ten Broeke, the foreign-policy spokesperson of the liberal VVD party (the senior partner in the new coalition government under Mark Rutte formed after last September’s elections), said it showed the Netherlands punched above its weight. But Louise van Schaik of the Clingendael Institute said we had been too generous to the Dutch. The Netherlands was cutting its defence and development aid budgets and there was a lack of strategic thinking in the Dutch foreign ministry. “What is the Netherlands afraid of?” she asked.

What particularly struck me during this discussion about foreign policy, however, was the euroscepticism of the panellists, several of whom rejected the idea of “more Europe”that most Germans seem to see as the solution to the crisis. Martin Sommer, a columnist for De Volkskrant, the leading centre-left newspaper, questioned whether Dutch citizens still believed in“ever closer union”. Van Schaik even said that the Scorecard had a “federalist bias” because implicit in it was the judgement that more unity meant more effectiveness. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer responded and pointed out that, although “unity” is one of our three criteria for grading European foreign policy, that doesn't automatically mean we are federalists; we believe in co-operation between member states but not necessarily in the further transfer of competences to the EU institutions.

Van Schaik made the interesting point that countries such as the Netherlands were facing a “double identity crisis”: firstly, like all member states, it was facing a sense that its own influence was shrinking; secondly, Europe, which it saw as its only way to amplify its power in the world, was in crisis. “We’re pretending we’re a foreign-policy player but realising we can’t be”, she said. In particular, although the Dutch seem to believe Europe needs military capabilities and see the logic of pooling and sharing (in which the Netherlands has played a innovative role) citizens were resistant to the idea of transferring sovereignty on matters of life and death. After Srebrenica, Sommer said, “people do not trust other nations when it's about their body bags”.

The questioning of “more Europe”, the focus on sovereignty, the belief in military force but scepticism about European defence – it all sounded rather British. Whether or not one agrees with these views, I left thinking they may make the Netherlands the perfect country to mediate between Germany and the UK, which these days seem to be talking past each other and are in danger of “sleepwalking” into a British withdrawal from the EU that would be disastrous for them both. I’m not sure whether or not the Netherlands can continue to punch above its weight in European foreign policy as it did in 2012. But perhaps the most important thing it can do in the next few years is to help keep Europe together and in particular to find a way to reconcile British and German interests in order to keep the UK in the EU.

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