Saturday, January 09, 2016

Five targets for the Dutch EU Presidency to be considered a success

Published on Politico

Without wanting to overburden the Dutch policy makers who are presiding the EU Council during the first six months of this year, here are five specific targets they are very well capable of achieving:

1.      Protect Schengen by exploring alternatives for how to protect the external border

Following the tightening of Danish border controls with Germany, hours after Sweden imposed similar measures, Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen warned: "If the EU cannot protect the external border you will see more and more countries forced to introduce temporary border controls."

Blowing up Schengen would cost Europe dearly, so protecting its external borders is critical. Even if Schengen collapsed, it would still be important for European countries to cooperate in guarding the Mediterranean border. That doesn’t mean creating yet another supranational bureaucracy, but it does mean exploring alternatives to failed policies (3695 people died at sea last year). To avoid this, the EU should consider Australia’s approach. That country faces a similar challenge yet it’s managed to nearly stop all migrant drownings. So far, however, the EU considers this taboo.

It needs to be made clear that arriving in Lesbos or being saved by the Italian coast guard doesn’t mean a free pass into the EU. To send such a signal and to avoid that people risk their lives, Australia sends irregular immigrants to off-shore refugee shelters. The EU shouldn’t replicate the bad conditions at these shelters, but it can’t lecture Australia given the high death toll in European waters. The offer by an Egyptian businessman to house refugees on 23 uninhabited Greek islands was arrogantly brushed aside. The modest solutions have failed and it’s now up to the Dutch to urge Europe to get its act together and explore more ambitious alternatives.

2.      Make sure the UK obtains its desired reforms in the run-up to its EU membership referendum

A poll conducted by Open Europe found that 65 per cent  of voters would choose to stay in the EU if Cameron secures all his renegotiation demands. Somewhat surprisingly, the most important issue for voters is that the U.K. not be disadvantaged by decisions taken by Eurozone states. . This can be done without a Treaty change by changing voting procedures in the Council. It would appease fears that the EU is becoming primarily about the Eurozone and drifting from its initial purpose as a vehicle to remove trade barriers. It’s really something EU proponents should like, given that it would protect the EU’s single market from Eurozone protectionism.

Apart from the ongoing quest for a legal solution on limiting in-work benefits for EU-migrants, the so-called “red card” for national parliaments is also important. The European Commission should promise that if a group of national parliaments objects to something, the issue gets dropped. This would introduce a pan-European logic. The proposal was originally the idea of Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans and was also recently endorsed by Merkel’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU.
The Dutch government could itself benefit from making these EU reforms, as this may make the Dutch public less eager to give the establishment a kicking when it votes on the EU-Ukraine Association Treaty on April 6, which is really a proxy vote on the current European Union.

3.      Sharpen up the Better Regulation agenda

In December, the European Commission, the European Parliament and member states agreed an inter-institutional deal on better EU law-making.Unfortunately, the idea of an independent panel tasked with assessing the impact of EU Commission proposals and substantial changes to those proposals was watered down. The latest compromise no longer makes longer any reference to a strong independent panel and the institution in question determines whether changes are “substantive.”

There are a number of ways to add more flesh to the Better Regulation agenda. One is to request a mandatory final subsidiarity and proportionality check before any final piece of legislation is approved, to consider whether it should be even the EU’s job to take a certain measure and whether this measure isn’t excessive. Other ideas include the creation of a “Subsidiarity Watchdog”, manned by an MP from each member state and an annual “Subsidiarity Review” by member states. Finally, there should also be specific targets detailing by how much to cut the existing burden of EU regulation, something which the UK is also demanding as part of its renegotiation. If the Better Regulation exercise leads nowhere, the issue will surely return in the future anyway.

4.      Start an alliance to reform the EU’s wasteful Budget

The EU is set to spend almost 1 trillion euro during the 2014-2020 budget period. There will be a “mid-term review” at the end of this year, but these have never amounted to much in the past. Now the Dutch EU Presidency has the opportunity to change that by rallying countries around a program to cut and reform the next EU budget..

Given that more than 270 billion euro over seven years are still being sent to agricultural landowners, including the Queen of England, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy deserves a head-on attack. So far, it hasn’t really been questioned because of obscure vested interests and because arrangement that to U.K.’s “rebate” in the EU budget will also be reduced when CAP spending is cut.

Secondly, countries should be exempt from having to pay money to Brussels which spent in poorer regions of richer countries. Open Europe has calculated that the main beneficiary of such a reform would have been France, if implemented in the previous EU budget period, whereas Central and Eastern European countries would also benefit and receive more cash. Southern Europe and EU bureaucracy would be hit, however.

The eurocracy also needs to experience some of the “austerity” it imposes on others. Overly generous salaries and pensions, especially those of EU officials hired before 2004, need to be cut, the tax-free 16% bonus non-Belgian EU officials enjoy needs to go, and EU institutions that serve no unique purpose and duplicate the work of other EU bodies must be scrapped. All these sensible reforms enjoy firm support among European electorates. If the Dutch presidency wants to reduce the EU’s “democratic deficit,” here’s how.

5.      Push for a new round of EU services liberalization through a “coalition of the willing”
Opening up services markets in the EU is a long-overdue measure that is only getting more urgent with the growth of e-commerce. Former Dutch EU Commissioner Bolkestein’s attempt to do this more than a decade ago according to the liberalizing “country of origin principle” which forces member states to welcome each other’s services providers was met by fierce resistance from France, Belgium and Germany. As a result, the principle was removed in the final version of the services directive, which broadly failed as a result.

The EU Commission needs to reintroduce Bolkestein’s proposal to open up services, but it must now do it in the framework of “reinforced cooperation,” so that only a “coalition of the willing” would open up their services markets to each other. The “Polish plumber” would unfortunately still be unwelcome in France, but would be welcome in Lithuania, Sweden and Italy.

The Dutch EU Presidency should get the 28 member states to agree to allow a number of willing countries to go forward and engage in reinforced cooperation in this area, so that the EU Commission can then make a move. Open Europe’s calculations indicate that if the 12 countries that support EU services liberalization went ahead and opened up their services markets, this would produce a boost of up-to 1.17 percent in EU GDP, generating €147.8 billion.