Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Shape of Dutch EU Policy

This article has been rattling around my head for a while - since before the official formation of the Dutch government - but I never got around to writing it. At the very end of September, I attended a lecture by Wepke Kingma, Chief Director for European Integration at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the challenges facing Dutch European policy. Of course, this was before the new government came in (though we were pretty sure about how the coalition would turn out), but it was very interesting to hear about how the Dutch government generally sees itself in the EU.

The Dutch EU role:

When it comes to how the Dutch government view the changes in the EC/EU over the decades and how the power structures affect its influence, it sounded familiar to me. I've often argued that increased power for the Council (or European Council) is counter to the interests of small states, and that the supranational aspect of the EU generally serves small states better. This seemed to be the Dutch experience, with worries over the growing power of the European Council as the Commission is weakened, as well as enlargement. Vetos are of little use as they are a "nuclear option" in negotiations and make you unpopular and less influential in future negotiations; also, it benefits big states more as smaller states are more easily pressured under a unanimous voting system. The Dutch strategy for dealing with enlargement and the "big 3" is to have well-developed positions on all European policies to ensure that the Netherlands is a reliable negotiating partner; and this also feeds into coalition-building on issues. I was a bit surprised that coalitions in the Council are very stable, but it makes sense as it is hard and time consuming to constantly form new voting/negotiating coalitions.

One aspect of the Dutch relationship with the EU that is different from Ireland, and perhaps other small states, is the "founding member" status of the Netherlands. Enlargement seems to be seen as a dilution of identity and influence - the original 6 were described as a "nuclear family", and I couldn't help thinking of the Dutch word "gezellig", which is a bit untranslateable, but means something lke "cozy". Money and the dilution of identity seem to be at the core of Dutch worries over the direction of the EU. However, it seems important to note how integration and supranationalism is seen as an important way of defending the influence and role of small states in the EU struture. While sovereignty may be viewed as being lost through the ending of the veto and supervision by the Commission, small states seem to view this as (generally, though it depends on the area), as protecting their position and opening up new opportunities to influence Europe's direction. Supranationalism can be a goal of nationally-minded member state governments too, it seems.

Multi-annual budget:

This is a big issue as it will be decisive in the EU's capabilities over the next few years (and therefore also decisive on how new Lisbon institutions such as the EEAS develops, and it is being decided in an atmosphere of austerity. Though there's undoubtedly a large element of self-interest in the EP's defence of the budget, and lobbying for increases, there is a good argument that you cannot increase the responsibilities of the EU institutions without having the money available to effectively carry out its duties.

The Dutch position seems to be that they are quite happy to continue paying as a net contributor, as the internal market is so important to the Netherlands, but CAP and the Cohesion Funds are areas where the Netherlands wants to see cuts and reforms. They want the EU budget to be set at around 1% GNI, and have priorities for the EU: Frontex (immigration control at the EU border), energy & climate, and the EEAS, among others. Therefore they want cuts in CAP and Cohesion funds to pay for increases elsewhere. The Dutch seem to view agriculture spending as necessary to aid declining villages and for the maintanence of the countryside ("landscape preservation"), but are otherwise looking for the CAP section of the budget to be reduced heavily. Cohesion funds are viewed as a good policy to help make the poorer member states wealthier, and therefore more able to buy more goods from the richer member states (the thought also occured to me that this is also a good strategy to steadily increase the number of net contributors; or rather slowly spread the burden of contributions). However, cohesion funds should focus on the poorer member states and not be directed to the wealthy countries' poor regions as well. There was a mention of asking for a rebate if the Netherlands didn't get its way, but this was heavily downplayed (my impression was that they viewed it as a childish strategy that wouldn't win them any friends and would be counter-productive in their coalition-building strategies).

My own thoughts on this are that CAP clearly needs to be reformed (as Kingma pointed out, the newer member states will soon join the CAP fully and this will add to the strain on the budget), but I doubt that restricting cohesion funds to only the poorer countries is a good idea in the long run. Perhaps I'm biased because I come from a poorer region, but I think that all member states need to be involved in the cohesion fund, and that if you break their link with it (in that they feel that they're not getting anything out of it), it will come under increasing pressure for cuts despite its value for the good of the internal market. What is clear is that the EU is definitely a "transfer union" and always has been. It consists of a number of different policies transfering money for different projects to help out poorer regions and areas, as richer areas benefit from larger and freer markets. I would personally defend this transfer union as being a social and economic good, though it could do with reform. Still, the battle over the budget is likely to be vicious, as the EU is in some ways a rudimentary welfare state for states, and battle lines have already been quite firmly drawn.

Introducing rebates into the equation would be highly damaging, as rebates are paid for by other countries (I'm reminded of a story of the Polish government asking the British government how much more they would need to pay to join the EU because of the British rebate [it was a sore point obstructing enlargement negotiations]. That image of a poorer country asking how much it would need to pay a richer country - and a champion of enlargement at that - due to its own obstructionism of the budget is something that sticks with me as a symbol for just how selfish and immoral rebates are).

Immigration and asylum:

With Geert Wilders' PVV supporting the minority coalition government, this is obviously a big issue in the Netherlands today. Justice and Home Affairs may be a big European focus for this Dutch government, as Kingma suggested that JHA was an area where the Netherlands wanted to see more action. The Lisbon Treaty moved JHA firmly into our "Union method", so this area could see a leap in activity. The challenge for the Netherlands here is to convince the other member states that they don't want to re-nationalise immigration, but to toughen the rules on illegal immigration. Immigration is such a big issue across many member states that they might be able to win some support for changing the system. Also, there are lots of "Dublin cases" before the European Court of Human Rights on the current system, and this could generate pressure for refrorm as well (the Dublin system is where immigrants into the EU are sent back to the country they first entered so that they can't "shop around" the member states - there have been complaints particularly about the Greek processing of applications).


This touches on the identity, money and influence concerns of the Netherlands. The Dutch government wants tougher enforcement of the enlargement conditions to ensure that there is the legal and institutional change necessary to join, and that the EU moves away from the old practice of giving in to pressure to enlarge quickly. Kingma raised the prospect that a Dutch parliament may end up refusing to give the green light to enlargement if it felt that the candidate country hadn't fully reformed.

Naturally Turkey is a big topic, but it wasn't really directly addressed on its own. However, in the question-and-answer session, it was suggested - but not directly said - that the Netherlands may be negotiating or hoping that the Turkish government would accept some conditions on its voting weight. I stress that this was not directly or explicitly said, and that I am getting this impression from something said by someone talking in their second language rather than their mother tongue. Still, enlargement has seen restrictions on the free movement on workers and access to CAP funds, so if a "privillaged relationship with the EU" is unacceptable for Turkey and other member states, then I wouldn't be surprised if the idea of gradual integration and gaining of rights in the institutions hadn't surfaced in some national administration. If such an idea has surfaced, I hope it will be resisted.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Extreme Europe

How should we deal with the rise of the far-right in European politics? It was a question that was debated over in the UK following the election of 2 MEPs from the British National Party in the 2009 European elections, and it is increasingly pressing across Europe. Jobbik in Hungary, the politics of the place of the Roma in France, Thilo Sarrazin and the integration of immigrants (particularly those who come from countries with an Islamic majority), and of course Wilders in the Netherlands. The PES has issued a proposal for dealing with the far-right and is challenging the EPP and ALDE parties to join them in this strategy. (PDF).

They propose the following code of conduct:

"- Condemn all racist, xenophobic, discriminatory or nationalistic statements or actions.
- Not get into a ruling coalition or electoral alliance with a Party inciting or attempting to stir up
racial or ethnic prejudices and racial hatred, at European or national levels.
- Refuse an implicit support from a Party inciting or attempting to stir up racial or ethnic prejudices
and racial hatred to form a government.
- Fight the legitimization of the discourses of such Parties by refusing to engage into their terms of
the debate, by not taking up their ideas into its political platforms nor in the policies it implements
when in government.
- Isolate its members not respecting those principles."

The other side to this strategy of isolation is PES-specific: the party places some of the blame in the court of the Conservative and Liberal parties for their obsession with cutting the deficits across Europe and not paying attention to jobs and growth. I tend to agree to some extent, in that fiscal conservatism needs to be married with some overarching ideology and approach to the state and society - whether left-wing or right-wing. Unprincipled cutting of the welfare state on the altar of deficit reduction is alienating to the public; it is simply the elites tending to the public finances without regard to the public.

Though I disagree with the Tory vision of the state, Labour's charges of ideological cuts strikes me as purely politik. Both parties would make ideological cuts and revisions to the tax system, and it's healthy to have a debate about what sort of society and conception of the state there should be. So far, while Labour has spoken out about the cuts being unfair, I think they should give a clearer idea about what role they think the state should play. The left-wing arguments of fairness will start to ring hollow against the right-wing version if they let it go unchallenged. The key, though, is to have the debate and to make sure that politics matters beyond the mere management of the state. Otherwise mainstream politics will appear to be distant and disconnected.

So the challenge is for parties to be more challenging and engaging in a way that avoids the terms and rhetoric styles of the far-right. The proposal not to accept support from the far-right is a principled and right approach, though it comes with dangers too.

In the Netherlands, the new government is a minority coalition with support from Geert Wilders' PVV party. An alternative coalition would look more like a Grand Coalition, as parties more to the left of the VVD (Liberals) or the CDA (Christian Democrats) would have to join. Under the current arrangement, the danger is that the PVV's policies could be legitimised to a degree by the association with the government, while it could also play as an opposition party and try to have it both ways at the next election. Those who claim that Wilders will become more moderate when faced with the realities of power have to remember that the PVV doesn't have to take the responsibility for bad decisions by the government. On the other hand, a Grand Coalition would limit the scope for mainstream political debate and could permit Wilders to set himself up as the main opposition. The governing parties would have to try and maintain their own distinct identities and arguments, which the LibDems in the UK have found hard to do.

On balance, I think that the Grand Coalition approach is better if done well, and it is certainly the more principled option. However, it may depend on the conduct of the parties which approach will turn out to be the best in each case. A completely different question, of course, is whether the approach or recommendations of the Europarties will make any difference to the actions of the national parties. I can't see it figuring in their day-to-day political action.

In other news, the Public Prosecution Department in the Netherlands has recommended that Wilders be found not guilty of inciting hatred towards Muslims or of discriminating against them. They were forced to take up the case after a High Court ruling, but the political consequences will likely be contrary to what the anti-racism campaigners originally wanted.

ELDR Conference 2010

ELDR, the pan-European Liberal party that is part of ALDE in the European Parliament (and counts the UK Liberal Democrats, Irish Fianna Fáil and Dutch VVD among its ranks), is holding its last day of its annual congress in Helsinki today. I've only found out about it today, due to a blog post disappointed that the pro-European Liberal Democrats have not sent some MPs to the congress, and EUobserver's reporting of ELDR unease with the VVD-led government's reliance on Geert Wilders' PVV party in the Dutch Parliament. Recently I haven't been that attentive to Twitter, so I may have missed any party buzz from it, but a quick look at the ELDR Twitter account shows that there have only been 12 Tweets since the start of the congress, at the time of writing.

Still, now that I had discovered the ELDR Congress, I went to their website to check up on any news. So far there have been 3 news articles - on the opening of the congress, on the increased turnout at the congress, and one congratulating the VVD on becoming the senior governing party in the Netherlands. Not only is there no press release so far on discussions about the congress's theme - Demographic Change - but there seems to be no mention of the congress on the party's blog, or any of the blogs linked on its blog page, apart from a short descriptive one in Swedish.

The theme of the congress is one that's very relevant today, as immigration and welfare state reform in the face of the economic crisis are clearly the major issues, so it's disappointing that so far little has emerged on the Eurozone economy, the welfare state, or immigration. It's important to have a coherent position on this, given the free movement of workers within the EU, and that the Lib Dems in the UK and (more pressingly) the VVD in the Netherlands have to deal with demands for restrictions on immigration. Indeed, Geert Wilders has supposedly vetted the new Dutch immigration minister. The ELDR leader, Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, said that she was sure that the VVD would stick to liberal principles, but also supported the mooted banning of the burqa in the Netherlands (Neyts-Uyttebroeck is from Belgium) - something that I consider to be an illiberal position.

The last day isn't over yet, and some news and party positions - or even a clearer overview of what was discussed - might emerge after the Congress ends. It seems unlikely that anything very interesting will suddenly come to light when everyone has packed up and gone home, however. Even if interest in the ELDR Congress would have been low even if it was more open and accessible, ELDR have missed a chance to promote themselves as a party online, and I wonder at the political will of a party that seems to not even bother to reach out with such an event.

[In other news, I've just noticed that ALDE's website has undergone a redesign].

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Is Dalli really going to introduce a European smoking ban?

"Commission preparing pan-European smoking ban" exclaims the EUobserver:

"The European Commission is preparing to introduce legislation in 2011 to ban smoking in public places right across the union.


Health commissioner John Dalli has said [...] "We need a complete ban on smoking in all public spaces, transport and the workplace," he said in an interview on Monday (11 October) with German daily Die Welt."

Gulf Stream Blues has picked up on the story, noting that the US hasn't even brought in a federal law on smoking bans, so for it to be achieved at the European level would be a big step:

"For European federalists, it would be impressive if the EU were able to enact a union-wide social/health law that the United States has never even attempted to enact federally. But for Eurosceptics, such a move will surely be seen as un inexcusable intrusion not only on member state sovereignty but on people's individual civil liberties."

But is the Commission going to introduce a pan-European smoking ban? I doubt it.

Tougher on smoking yes, European smoking ban no:

The news of this smoking ban comes from an interview the health Commissioner, John Dalli, had with the German newspaper Die Welt, published yesterday. While the Commissioner indeed wants to bring in legislation to make smoking more unattractive, he didn't exactly say that he was planning to introduce legislative proposals for a pan-European smoking ban:

"Er kündigte an, dass die Kommission im kommenden Jahr neue Gesetzespläne vorlegen werde. Ziel der neuen Tabakproduktrichtlinie werde es sein, Rauchen in allen EU-Ländern weniger attraktiv und weniger gesundheitsschädlich zu machen. Dies könnte beispielsweise durch eine maßgebliche Verringerung giftiger und süchtig machender Inhaltsstoffe wie Nikotin geschehen."

Own translation: "He [the Commissioner] announced that the Commission will introduce new legislative proposals in the coming year. The goal of the proposals will be to make smoking less attractive and harmful in all EU countries. This could be done, for example, by reducing toxic and addictive substances [contained in cigarettes], such as nicotine."

The EU already regulates the packaging of cigarettes and the contents of cigarettes (levels of tar and nicotine) under Directive 2001/37/EC (link). The Commission has indeed launched a consultation on how to strengthen this legislation to make the packaging less attractive and to reduce the harmful contents of cigarettes. Note that this is based on the legal bases in the Treaty relating to the single market - though health is a major concern here, the harmonisation is based on ensuring a single market to prevent restrictions on imports, etc.

The EU also legislates on the taxation on cigarettes through its competence in the area of VAT (to prevent smuggling, so it is still a single market related measure). The relevant legislation can be found here. So there's plenty of scope for legislative proposals in the area of tobacco products and the EU can take a harder line on them.

No European Rauchverbot:

On smoking bans, Die Welt reports:

"Dalli forderte zudem die konsequente Einführung von rauchfreien Zonen in der EU. „Wir brauchen ein komplettes Rauchverbot in allen öffentlichen Räumen, Verkehrsmitteln und am Arbeitsplatz“, sagte der aus Malta stammende Konservative. Ausnahmen für Eckkneipen und Bierzelte halte er nicht für sinnvoll. Schließlich gehe es „nicht nur um die Gesundheit der Besucher, sondern auch der Angestellten“. Zu wirtschaftlichen Begründungen von Ausnahmeregelungen beim Rauchverbot sagte Dalli, es könne nicht sein, dass der wirtschaftliche Vorteil wichtiger sei als die Gesundheit der Menschen."

Own translation: "In addition, Dalli demands the introduction of smoke-free zones in the EU. "We need a complete smoking ban in all public places, public transport and in the workplace," said the Maltese conservative. Exceptions for corner bars and beer tents do not make sense. Finally, it is not only about the health of the visitors, but also that of the employees." On the economic justifications of exceptions to the ban Dalli said that the economic benefit could not be more important than people's health".

Very strong words in support of a smoking ban across Europe, but it's separate from the suggestions of legislative proposals. Last year, the Commission introduced a proposed - non-binding - Recommendation that Member States introduce smoking bans and work to discourage smoking. I wrote at the time that claims that the EU was introducing a smoking ban were wrong in not just that case, but in the sense that the EU is precluded from harmonising health laws under the Treaties (and this is still the case under article 168 TFEU). I stand by my argument. A smoking ban in public places does not concern the single market and internal EU trade, so I cannot see how harmonisation of smoking bans could take place under the internal market heading, and such harmonisation is excluded from the competence of the EU.

In addition, on the Commission's health policy page, there is no mention of a proposed ban, while there is a link to the consultation on strengthening labelling/contents rules for tobacco products. So I think that talk of a Europe-wide ban on smoking in public places is just an over-excited media response to the German interview.

I'm chalking this one up as a Euromyth.

Monday, 11 October 2010

We, the Citizens, suggest...

Recently I had to write a short paper on the Citizens' Initiative (specifically, the admissibility procedures under the Commission's proposed regulation [PDF]). The EP is still considering the proposal, and a rapporteur's report is expected in November. Still, the main points that are emerging from the Parliament are: to set 16 as the minimum age for signing a CI; dropping the ID requirement for signatories; requiring that significant numbers of signatures come from 1/4 rather than 1/3 of Member States; and increasing the time-limit for collecting 1 million signatures by 6 months to 18 months.

A lot of these ideas seem to have already been suggested by the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, but the Couoncil has only sggested lowering the number of signatures that need to be collected before the Commission checks CIs for admissibility from 300,000 to 100,000. The European Parliament needs not just a consensus, but a coherent and well-argued consensus to be able to change the proposal for the better.

There are 2 big issues with the current proposal: one is simply the ease of use of the CI for citizens, and the second is the balance between the aims of ease of use and the encouragement of transnational debates.

Encouraging transnational debates is a challenge because the wider you want the debate to be, the harder it is for people to use the CI successfully. The proposal of 1/4 rather than 1/3 of Member States being the threshold number would make it easier for citizens to use the CI. But 7 rather than 9 Member States isn't a big step down. In my view, since the Commission isn't bound to act on CI proposals, it's important to make the CI as accessable as possible. In a EU of 27, 1/5 or 5 Member States is probably as low as you can go and still remain credibly within the meaning of a "significant number of Member States" (a requirement in article 11(4) TEU), but it would help promote a greater quantity of political interactions across borders, and this would give the CI greater social value. It could be argued that this would lessen the political power of the CI, but a good idea is a good idea - even if it's controversal, it is better that it is discussed transnationally and that it's brought to the attention of the institutions than not being expressed.

Ease of use is pretty straight forward. Under the current proposal, the Commission checks a proposed CI twice for admissibility - once at the point of registration (article 4), and then again with the explicit admissibility check after 300,000 signatures have been collected (article 8). Clearly people would be frustrated to reach 300,000 signatures in a transnational campaign only to find out that the Commission won't consider their proposal, but the checks under article 4 are very poorly framed, and seem to give the Commission an ill-defined discretion to reject some submissions at the start of the process because they are abusive or devoid of seriousness or manifestly against the principles of the EU. Finding out the limits by trial-and-error (or even court challenge) is not a mark of good legislation. (I also doubt the need for separate check on the principles and rights of the EU - since Treaty changes are excluded, and the institutions are bound to act in accordance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, I would imagine contrary submissions to be excluded under the article 8 check anyway).*

The Parliament's working document (PDF) mentions a threshold of 5,000 signatures before doing an admissibility check - a massive difference to the Commission's and Council's proposals. Along with the end to the ID requirement, this would make launching a CI much more attractive to citizens. The EP needs to clearly articulate the cause of transnational debate, and amend the legislation to enable this through clear criteria and conditions, and easy and practical requirements.

Although, if we;re not happy with the end result, I suppose we could try and launch a Citizens' Initiative to change it...

*[As a thought on a possible legal impact of the CI and the admissibility criteria: could actions against admissibility decisions become a more direct way of citizens challenging the extent of the EU's competences than via direct effect before a national court? Or at least an invitation for the court to rule on pseudo-hypothetical cases, should complaints get that far? Although it couldn't result in the challenge of existing legislation, the number of people with potential for actions against negative admissibility decisions could lead to an increase in opinions and cases on EU competences. This just occured to me, however, so it's not a fully thought out idea.].

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Leiden, stad van mijn hart...

The major anniversary in Europe on the 3rd of October may have been the Tag der deutschen Einheit ("Day of German Unity"), but the small city of Leiden marked the anniversary of Leidens Ontzet in a big way this weekend.

Leidens Ontzet.

Leidens Ontzet, of the Relief of Leiden, marks the relief of the city over 400 years ago when it was besieged by the Spainish during the Dutch struggle for independence. As a reward for the Leideners' courage in resisting the Spanish, they were given a choice of exemption from taxes or a university, and they chose a university, so the anniversary is an important date in the University's history too. This year the 3rd fell on a Sunday, so the celebrations were spread out over the weekend, with Monday as a holiday for the city.

The scale and duration of the festival was impressive. The kermis (fun fair) was open during Friday and Saturday, and was crammed into the area surrounding the train station, taking up any available space. On Saturday bars and stages were set up all over the city, so when night fell the city turned into a strange mix of overlapping discos, complete with lights and a worrying over-use of smoke machines. The remaining space was filled with stalls selling sweets, snacks and, well, pretty much everything as a Christmas market array of goods was put on sale - DVDs, clothes, art...

Of course, you had to eat Hutspot at some point. Hutspot is the traditional Leiden Ontzet dinner. It's made of potato, onions and carrot mashed together with some meat (usually sausage, but mine had beef). There seem to be a few versions of the Hutspot story. The most simple explanation is that it was what the people ate to stave off starvation during the siege, but other stories involve a boy who was sent out to check that the Spanish had left when the siege broke. The boy either discovered the Hutspot bubbling away in a pot the Spanish had left behind, or the food he gathered into the pot he brought back with him was used in the meal. In any case, De Lakenhal has a pot on display that is supposed to be the origin of the Hutspot. It's not exactly the most visually attractive dish, but it doesn't taste as bad as it looks!

On Sunday, marching bands ruled Leiden, putting on shows and, naturally, playing music. On Monday, Leideners gathered beside the townhall (Stadhuis) at 6.30am to sing songs before eating raw herring and white bread (food that the relieving Dutch troops brought to Leiden). Lots of people turned up for the event and lyrics were handed out so everyone could sing along as dawn broke. I was surprised how serious people must take the festival to turn up in such numbers early in the morning (and probably after a festivally unhealthy amount of alcohol), but there was lots of chatting, with bursts of singing as the musical cues radiated out from the centre (I was quite close to the edge of the gathering). The singing was ended by a procession through the town (lead by a marching band, of course), and marching bands generally played throughout the city for the rest of the morning and afternoon. I didn't get to try the raw herring and white bread (haring en wittebrood) since by the end of the singing there was already a long queue snaking halfway down the road along the canal. The day ended with a colourful fireworks display.

Dutch & Leiden identity.

A friend from England happened to be visiting during the celebrations, and she wondered if the Dutch were very nationalistic given the large celebration of what was a civic and not a national anniversary. Having only been here a short while, I don't think I have really got a sense of how the Dutch view their identity yet, but the celebration seemed to be an indiction of how seriously the Dutch take organising a party. It was also a very civic celebration, even though it had an event in the history of Dutch independence at its heart; Leiden flags easily outnumbered Dutch ones (not that there seemed to be very many flags), and today all flags seemed to have disappeared (even from the Stadhuis). At the moment it feels like a controlled and well-organised burst of civic clebration and identity that hasn't really carried over (bar hangovers) to the 5th October. On the other hand, identity issues are undoubtedly an important issue in the Netherlands today, with the PVV (Geert Wilders' party) now big enough to be in the position of supporting the minority coalition government.

Over the next year I'll try to pick up more of the Dutch culture and language, and try to follow the interesting political situation here.