Netherlands Seek to Halt “Creeping” European Competencies

Prime Ministers Elio Di Rupo of Belgium and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian prime minister Enrico Letta enter a European Council meeting in Brussels, May 22

Prime Ministers Elio Di Rupo of Belgium and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian prime minister Enrico Letta enter a European Council meeting in Brussels, May 22 (The Council of the European Union)

The Netherlands on Friday suggested that “creeping” European Union interference in the politics of member states should be halted in favor of cooperation only where it is necessary. It said “the time of an ever-closer union in every possible policy area is behind us.”

In a memo prepared by the foreign minister Frans Timmermans, the Dutch coalition government identified a long list of policy areas that it believes are better left to the member states.

The memo ruled out treaty changes to upset the present distribution of competencies and recognized that the Netherlands seek European cooperation to resolve the economic and financial crisis and harmonize energy, climate and migration laws. But it urged European institutions to stop trying to harmonize social security systems, laws that govern food safety and working conditions as well as media. It also criticized efforts to harmonize corporate tax rates across Europe, an initiative that is otherwise supported in France and Germany. Although the Germans’ aim is to lower business taxes in less competitive nations of the eurozone.

The Euroskepticism of one of the bloc’s founding states is likely to be welcomed in the United Kingdom which is also wary of deeper political integration and would rather the European Union focused more on free trade. While the Dutch criticisms might not be “all good news for David Cameron’s renegotiation strategy,” according to the Open Europe think tank, “this is clearly a major step toward a reformed Europe.” Other creditor nations, which have had to bear the brunt of bailing out weaker states in the periphery of the currency union, including Finland and Germany, “are far more likely to be persuaded down the reform path if the Dutch are prepared to take a lead with the UK.”

Especially Britain’s press, however, had expected last year’s parliamentary election, in which the Labor Party narrowly failed to unseat Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberals, to have an opposite effect. The Financial Times declare the outcome “a decisive and surprising rebuke for populist Euroskeptic politics.” The Guardian even predicted that the Netherlands would tilt “the balance of power in the eurozone toward President Fran├žois Hollande’s Socialists in France and away from Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.”

As we predicted, this didn’t happen. The liberals formed a coalition with Labor and set out immediately that some responsibilities should be transferred from the European level back to national governments. They submitted that countries should be able to withdraw from the eurozone as well as the Schengen customs union. They ruled out “structural support” for countries that “do not take their responsibility” and argued that the internal market should be strengthened. “Protectionism,” they wrote, “is contrary to the European ideal.” So much for aligning with the French left.

Both Labor and the liberals have a political imperative to block “ever-closer union.” Their voters are increasingly frustrated at demands for belt tightening at home while having to stump up billions of euros to rescue what they consider profligate peoples in the Mediterranean with whom they have little affinity.

Both are also threatened by more Euroskeptic parties on the fringes. The far-left Socialist Party, which resists European economic integration on supposedly neoliberal terms, outpolls Labor while the nationalist Freedom Party, which would rather pull out of the European Union altogether, is now more popular than the liberals on the right.