Academic research on the EU, Enlargement, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, the Netherlands

The contradictions of the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine

As the day of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands on the Association agreement with Ukraine nears, the bulk of the commentary seems to focus on the campaign, its trends and its context rather than the referendum question and the agreement it addresses. There have been lots of commentaries focusing on the geopolitics of the referendum, evaluating Russia’s possible attitude or role, as for example this recent piece  assessing a potential ‘no’ vote as a symbolic victory for Russia. Many analysts note the passive stance taken by the Dutch government and political parties of the government coalition who, after all, participated in the negotiations of the agreement that started all the way back in 2008. In a highly critical post, Judy Dempsey denounces the lackluster campaign by Dutch and European politicians and the lack of visible commitment to the  treaty and the values it embodies (rather than just trade) by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte himself. In terms of the implications of the referendum results, there is little agreement on the significance of a potential ‘no’ vote. Some, consider the whole exercise to be meaningless, as given the advisory nature of the referendum, the government could ignore the results if they are negative.This post by Korteweg provides an overview of recent history of both the agreement and the Dutch referendum and of potential scenarios after the referendum.

Yet, as Kristof Jacobs pointed out in the SRV blog and also in a debate we held yesterday, the political consequences of ignoring a possible ‘no’ vote would be much wider  and harder to ignore than the legal ones. Both domestic and international consequences could be quite broad and far reaching. At least one of the government coalition parties, the Social Democrats, has committed to respecting the outcome of the referendum. Changing the wording of the Association agreement to satisfy the Dutch voters would also be quite problematic: in a total of 486 articles and 179 pages without the annexes, identifying which bits would have been found objectionable by Dutch votes in case of a ‘no’ majority would be difficult. The EU’s credibility in other international settings and policies, such as the revised European Neighborhood Policy or even ongoing enlargement process with the Western Balkans, would be compromised.

If we accept that future accessions or associations will become more and more politicized, as found in our enlargement assessment project maxcap (see here), we should try to take the question of the referendum seriously and evaluate, to the best of our current knowledge, what effects the Association agreement might have. Given its scope and the fact that establishing a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area is quite a novel enterprise, as shown in this legal analysis, effects are difficult to estimate ex ante. The political reform provisions in the treaty, however, are both far-reaching and promising, in the clear commitment to domestic reforms in Ukraine (art 6), extensive requirements for transparency and the planned involvement of civil society (articles 299, 443). All other things being equal (which is not a given in Ukraine’s neighbourhood), the Agreement will provide both a roadmap and a set of incentives for reforms in democratic governance, as the EU has done in the past for countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia. It will be up to Ukrainian policy makers and politicians to take this opportunity. Yet rejecting the treaty by means of a negative vote in the Netherlands, or letting it exist in some kind of legal and political limbo while the Dutch government decides how to react to a potential negative result, would sap what energy and determination exist for reforms in Ukraine. So paradoxically, if we assume that at least some of the initiators of the Dutch referendum care about democracy and citizens, their democratic impulse might kill the attempts to make democracy mean something in Ukraine. This would be a strange outcome indeed.

 

Enlargement, EU law, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, the Netherlands

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

Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, Public opinion, the Netherlands

The EU’s Budget Negotiations and the Dutch Government: A Commentary

The Dutch government’s mission for last week’s budget negotiations, which had to be secured by Prime Minister Rutte, was three-fold: First, to maintain the 1 billion euro rebate on The Netherlands’ contribution to the EU. Second, to lower total EU spending. This goal might have seemed ambitious, given that new EU budgets had always been higher than the previous one, and given that the European Commission had asked for and increase of 5,5 per cent compared to the old 2007-2013 budget.

Third, Rutte’s goal was to modernize the budget in order to create more financial room for investing in the EU’s earning capacity, in areas such as research, innovation, transport, energy and digital networks.

While the latter goal is the most substantive in nature, the first two are highly political: Rutte seemed to be particularly keen on being able to demonstrate that he could succeed in making Brussels “give in and give up”, and to show that he could come home with spoils of some sort for the national electorate.

The first of these goals has been achieved: Rutte managed to maintain the Dutch rebate. The second goal was also successfully negotiated: for the first time in the history of the EU the budget has been pushed down. This makes The Netherlands part of the winning team in last Friday’s decision making process, together with Britain, Germany, Sweden and the other net-contributors.

By contrast, Rutte was not successful in securing a more modern EU budget: spending on Competitiveness for Growth may increase by 40 per cent to more than 125 billion euro, it still remains a very modest part of the total budget (12,6 per cent compared to 32,6 per cent for regional development and 37,4 per cent for agriculture).

So it can be concluded that Rutte has succeeded politically but lost in more substantive terms. In his first response to the press, Rutte stated: “Of course it is not possible to get everything you want when you negotiate with 27 member states. But we keep our rebate, for which we fought hard, and the total budget will be smaller. That’s appropriate, because all member states have to cut their spending”.

What Rutte does not mention is that since the last budget was made, the member states have asked the EU to do more, for instance in the field of regulating the financial services and national budgets, foreign policy and fighting cross border crime. The EU institutions will have to perform these additional tasks with fewer funds. For The Netherlands, there is a clear analogy with what the present central government demands from local authorities: policy decentralization has been paired with budget cuts for municipalities.

Another part of the budget that pleased the Dutch government is the demand for all EU institutions to cut down 5 per cent of their staff in the next years. Those EU-civil servants that remain will have to work longer hours without additional compensation and will face a salary cut of 6 per cent, seen as a “token of solidarity” with indebted EU member states. This measure tallies nicely with the recurrent debate on public sector rewards in The Netherlands. Just last week, there was outrage in Dutch newspapers and TV shows in response to the news that more than 3000 EU civil servants enjoy a higher salary than the Dutch prime minister himself.

The failure to truly modernize the EU’s budget is seen by many as a missed opportunity to use the budget negotiations as stating an ambition for Europe, rather than underlining the popular perception that EU budgets are more about finding a “gloomy compromise between political opportunism and subsidy addiction” as the Dutch Commissioner Neelie Kroes for Europe’s Digital Agenda called the budget agreement in the papers.

In sum, Rutte succeeded in achieving the two political goals that prevent him from losing political prestige domestically, but he failed to triumph in terms of creating more common added value for Europe, by moving away from the old economy and embrace the new economy. This can be taken as an indication of Europe’s long road ahead, both in terms of economic recovery and in terms of increasing multi-level political legitimacy.

Academic research on the EU, Central and Eastern Europe, Europe in the news, the Netherlands, Uncategorized

Eastern Europeans in the Netherlands: A battle of the numbers or are journalists bad scientists?

RTL news  reported yesterday (link in Dutch) that the PVV, the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders, have received 40 000 complains on their controversial website asking people to report Central and Eastern European citizens causing ‘problems’ in the Netherlands. More than half of these were, according to the news item of 13 December about ‘drunkenness, noise and parking problems’. No detailed breakdown of issues or problems or even an overview of the 40 000 (complaints/messages? filled forms?wesbite hits?) has been made available yet and still a number of Dutch media dedicated quite some attention to the figure mentioned by the PVV. 40 000 sounds, after all, very impressive, even of a percentage of the messages left on the website may have been  from people who had a positive story or complained about the website itself.  More importantly,  the journalists asking questions about the ‘Central and Eastern European problem’ seemed unaware of a report presented this very same week, on 12 December, of a broad representative study by the Polish Institute of Public Affairs  showing that the majority of Dutch people have a positive or neutral impression of Polish people working here.

This provides some food for thought. First, it appears difficult for the media to distinguish representative, science based results from any other numbers that get used and abused in public debates. Secondly, there is clearly a selection bias on the PVV website, which could be understood better if we could see a breakdown of the type of issues and complaints. This was also stressed by the Polish embassy, whose spokesperson rightly remarked that the PVV reported numbers have no scientific value whatsoever.  This latter comment reached us through the SPITS newspaper (link in Dutch here) that managed, in its turn, to confuse the authors of the report on Polish perceptions in the Netherlands – the research was done by the Polish Institute for Public Affairs and GfK, but not Leiden university ( we co-hosted a presentation of the results in our Campus in the Hague). In the end, the only conclusion that can be drawn so far from the coverage of the  perceptions of Poles in the Netherlands report as opposed to the PVV complaint numbers announcement appears to be that some journalists do not pay much attention not only to science, but also to the basic facts.

For anyone who is interested in the actual data related to the perceptions of Poles in the Netherlands, a link to a summary of the findings and figures of the study can be found here. The full report is yet to be finalized and we look forward to examining the complete results.

Academic research on the EU, Europe in the news, European Parliament

The Politicization of the EU Commission

Last week the European Parliament has given its backing to Tonio Borg becoming the European commissioner for health. He was put forward by Malta to replace John Dalli, who resigned last month over allegations of fraud. The newly nominated EU commissioner had to dispel his image as a Roman Catholic hardliner in a bid to win MEPs’ approval in the hearing before two Parliament committees – for the environment, public health and food safety, and for internal market and consumer protection – that took place at 13 November. Borg came under criticism for his socially conservative views, on women’s rights, homosexuality and abortion. The hearing saw Liberal and Green deputies accuse him of homophobia and backward-looking views on contraception.  But the nominated EU health commissioner obviously has overcome concerns about his Roman Catholic views and won MEPs’ approval by a clear majority. In a vote during the plenary session in Strasbourg on 21 November, 386 mostly right leaning MEPS supported Borg, with 281 voting ‘No’ to his appointment and 28 abstentions. His antagonists in the EP said they will watch him like a hawk.

This confrontation in parliament, together with previous incidents, with Rocco Buttiglione in 2004 and Bulgaria’s embattled nominee, Rumiana Jeleva in 2010, illustrate how firm the grip of the EP has become in the selection of the EU Commission. In the September issue of the International Review of Administrative Sciences (Vol 78, Number 3) the article ‘The Politicization of the EU Commission’ explains how strengthened democratic control and accountability over the EU executive has politicized the selection of EU commissioners. This has become noticeable in the access and exit procedures of this part of the EU executive, but also in shifts in the demand and supply-factors in the process of EU executive recruitment. An analysis of the careers of commissioners shows ‘who’ is eligible for executive office. Shifts towards political professionalization have made that an extensive career through political institutions has become the most common route for entering the Commission. A look at the political background of Tonio Borg shows that his career fits well in this pattern of recruitment of commissioners. Not a technocratic background but political competences have become relevant for holding this office.

Academic research on the EU, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, Public opinion

Budget negotiations and the EU public sphere

Although the talks on the EU budget ended last Friday without a conclusion, the media coverage on the negotiations does tell us something about the state of the ‘EU public sphere’.

When we use media coverage on EU issues as a proxy for the emergence of a European public sphere, it seems that such a Habermasian-sphere rapidly developed in the last couple of years; newspapers and television programmes provided information to their readers and viewers in the EU member states on Greek bail-out packages, the Euro-debt crisis in general, and the budget negotiations (like now).

 However, most cross-national longitudinal studies show that media coverage on EU affairs is marginal at best, with peaks around EP elections, referenda, and the budget negotiations.

In contrast, my own research indicates that in the last decade news coverage in national newspapers of the negotiations on EU directives in the ordinary legislative procedure (i.e. the day-to-day EU level decision-making process) closely follows the newsworthy developments. Hence, the interested citizen could have gotten its information on the day-to-day decision making process by reading the papers. Although I do not claim on the basis of this research that there is such a thing like a European public sphere, it was not all bad in the last decade.

Europe in the news, Public opinion, Social policy and anti-discrimination

Why EU Commissioners Are Poor Politicians

EU Commissioners might be seasoned bureaucrats but make for lousy politicians. Viviane Reding, currently responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, and Commissioner since 1999 (!) is surely a masterful mandarin, but doesn’t play the politics game very well. And by politics, I don’t mean the internal bickering between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament: I am sure she is a world champion at that – I mean politics as the art of pleasing the public while getting things done. Perhaps after so many years in the Brussels bubble Commissioner Reding has forgotten altogether that pleasing the public is part of the politics game as all. But when public support for the EU is hitting a new low, I can’t help but think that the feelings of the public should be high on the Commissioner’s mind.

In September this year Viviane Reding announced that the Commission is coming up with a proposal to set a compulsory 40-% quota for women on boards of public companies. Immediately, nine countries (including the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain) and a few fellow Commissioners (including several women) expressed very strong disagreement. This, however, was not enough to put the brakes – on 14 November, the Commission approved a watered-down version which ‘sets an objective of a 40% presence of the under-represented sex among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges’, a “flexi quota” and a statement that ‘given equal qualification, priority shall be given to the under-represented sex’. Now, I haven’t much to say about the quality of the proposal as such – to put my cards on the table, I agree there is a problem with the unequal representation of women on company boards, and I don’t know enough about the effects of quotas to have a strong opinion about the proposed solution.

What is blindingly clear, however, is that the European citizens do not feel that this is an issue for the EU to solve, and there is virtually no popular support for such action coming from Brussels. How do I know? It’s data collected by the EU!

According to Eurobarometer, in 2007 ten percent of the European population agreed that the EU has an important role to play in combating discrimination (page 26, QA11). That’s just one out of every ten Europeans! Only three percent mentioned that they would turn to the EU in case of discrimination at the workplace (p.32, QA 13). In all fairness, 77% said they want to see more women in managerial positions, but no indication they wanted Commissioners poking their nose into that, or a policy which guarantees 40% of these positions for women.

If anything, the case for European involvement into the matter has become even weaker since. A red-hot new survey made available last week shows that only 31% of European citizens agree that there is widespread gender discrimination in their countries:  seven out of ten Europeans find gender discrimination rare or non-existent. Moreover, only 22% agree that being a female puts you at a disadvantage when looking for a job (page 87, QC4). In fact, more people feel that their accent might be a problem. Again, this is not to say that, objectively speaking, there is no underrepresentation of women in top positions. But it seems that the majority of people do not find gender discrimination at the workplace very widespread, nor a political priority.

In 2009 Europeans generally supported measures for monitoring hiring practices and the gender composition at the workforce, but 58% found enough was already being done in that respect. Interestingly, the new survey from 2012 doesn’t even ask people whether they think it’s a good idea for the EU to get involved or whether a ‘compulsory quota’ policy is the way to go. These are quite curious omissions given that the survey is otherwise quite comprehensive and comes out in the same week as the Commission’s policy proposal.

In summary, there is no broad support for further EU action in combating gender discrimination and even less so for a policy of quotas. So why is Viviane Reding pushing this agenda in the face of absent popular support and explicit opposition from national governments? She probably strongly believes that this policy is the right and progressive thing to do. And that the Commission has the obligation to lead rather than blindly follow popular sentiments. But the fact remains that people, and many governments, don’t like the idea.

Irritating an increasingly hostile public with such proposals is not a very smart thing to do because the policy would never be approved by the member states anyways, but you still get the bad press. What is stuck in people’s minds is the fact that the Commission ‘approved’ something that they didn’t like: they won’t remember that the Commission only proposes and the Council and the Parliament decide, and that the initial proposal has been quickly watered-down to a more widely-acceptable version.

That’s why Redding’s recent actions are not smart and politically savvy in the way in which EU-bashing politicians like Nigel Farage are politically smart and savvy. The forefathers of the EU from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors managed to be both true to their ideals and politically shrewd in order to achieve them.

New policies like women quotas do not win new supporters for European integration. The people who like the idea of positive discrimination are likely to be the people who already support the EU: the more educated, cosmopolitan, and well-off. For the average woman, a position on the board of a top company is equally distant with or without a quota for females. But such policies would alienate people who disagree with the substance of the policy and are already suspicious of the EU. Which, as the numbers show, are by far the majority.

In her term as Information Society and Media Commissioner, Viviane Reding put a lot of effort to increase the visibility of the European Union. Well, now people definitely pay more attention to what the EU does. And they often don’t like it. Now it’s time the Commission starts to pay more attention to what the people have to say.