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Between Scylla and Charybdis: how will the Dutch Presidency connect our Union to citizens?

The flow of refugees from the war zones around Syria has become more and more a test to the European Union. This is also the case for the Dutch government, which will have the EU Presidency in the coming months. Before the EU-Turkey summit on November 29 last year, the Second Chamber in the Dutch parliament had a firm message to Prime Minister Rutte before he left for Brussels: Turkey needs to increase its border controls and shelter refugees in Turkey, and there will be no concessions on the accession of Turkey to the EU. The Christian-Democratic MP Pieter Omtzigt remarked on the latest Commission progress report: “It is better to call this a deterioration report.”[1]

The EU-Turkey summit made it clear how many European political leaders struggle with the refugee problem. Next to a package of measures to substantially reduce the flow of refugees—including 3 billion in support for the establishment of camps, health and education—there was a promise for visa liberalization. The talks on Turkish accession will be resumed.[2] European leaders, including the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, had to pull all the stops to make a “deal” with Turkey.

Whether the accession negotiations with Turkey will really take off is not clear. The Dutch Presidency does not want to relax any of the existing criteria for enlargement, as has declared again and again. It is also striking that the chapter that will be re-opened, does not follow the Commission’s current policy. This new policy puts the most difficult chapters at the start of negotiations, so that a candidate builds a track-record of its performance during the accession period. In the Turkish case this would include issues like respecting the rights of minorities and improving the functioning of the judiciary. Evidently, both Brussels and Ankara were not yet ready to engage in this litmus test.

The main question that arises is whether the opening of some chapters is nothing more than an attempt to polish the Turkish international reputation after the shooting down of a Russian yet. There is no real intention to let Turkey eventually join. At the same time, and this is the problematic issue, European citizens are given the impression that Turkish EU membership is still feasible. An important group of these citizens has, as confirmed by recent research, no interest whatsoever to allow Turkey join the EU.

Comparative research shows that among citizens, in addition to a Euro-positive discourse, several discourses exist that are very critical of more European integration and further enlargement.[3] In the Netherlands, but also in Germany, there are at least two critical discourses. The first one would like to empower citizens in the EU and make the Union more democratic. This discourse emphasizes a deepening of existing cooperation in which citizens should be more involved in European decision-making. Enlargement is not categorically rejected but is only relevant in the long run.

The second critical discourse is much more radical and points to all kinds of problems with the Union. Expansion has become, according to this discourse, too costly, the participants refer to the Eastern enlargement. Moreover, the discourse also points at the increased competition on the labor market, which reduced wages and contributed to higher unemployment rates. Accession of Turkey is rejected because, in the words of some these participants, “Islam and democracy do not mix.”

These discourses show that many are not ready to have Turkey play a role in the Union. Many citizens do not understand the recent move of European politicians to offer EU membership to Turkey as a possible solution for the migration crisis. The main challenge of the Dutch Presidency is to get around these two issues in a way that is understood and appreciated by European citizens. This requires broad political and popular discussion about the direction Europe is heading in a way in which citizens can be better involved. It requires a clear political debate on whether Turkey could become a EU member. It also requires a discussion with these very same citizens on migration and the current influx of refugees. This debate is not only a European one, but also a national debate, since these issues also affects national politics. This puts the Dutch Presidency for the exceptional and difficult task, both in Europe and the Netherlands, to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Without committing to such a debate, especially in these two difficult issues, Dutch citizens will lose confidence in European solutions, and eventually in Dutch politics.[4]

[1] http://nos.nl/artikel/2071400-strenge-opdracht-aan-rutte-voor-top-eu-turkije.html

[2] http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2015/11/29-eu-turkey-meeting-statement/

[3] B. Steunenberg, S. Petek en C. Rüth (2011) ‘Between Reason and Emotion: Popular discourses on Turkey’s membership of the EU’ South European Society 16 (3): 449-68 (zie http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13608746.2011.598361); A. Dimitrova, E. Kortenska en B. Steunenberg (2015) Comparing Discourses about Past and Future EU Enlargements: Core Arguments and Cleavages, MAXCAP Working Paper Series, No. 13, August 2015 (zie http://www.maxcap-project.eu/system/files/maxcap_wp_13_2.pdf).

[4] A Dutch version of this post can be found at De Hofvijfer, http://www.montesquieu-instituut.nl/id/vjzxjbs5gihk/tussen_scylla_en_charybdis_hoe_verbindt

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