9 ways Dutch political paralysis hits the EU – POLITICO

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It’s hard to punch above your weight if you’re handcuffed. 

In Brussels, the Netherlands is known for its assertive positioning in EU legislation in a wide range of policy files. Despite its relatively small size, the Netherlands has a tendency to get involved, even on files that are not at the core of the Dutch domestic debate.

Its prime minister, Mark Rutte, is the second-longest serving European Union leader after Hungary’s Victor Orbán, giving him the benefit of institutional memory and moral authority when speaking with fellow EU leaders. 

But just as the EU is racing to seal a number of key files before European election in June next year, the Netherlands finds itself in political limbo. 

Not only did the current governing coalition collapse; Rutte also announced he won’t run again. The next Dutch elections are slated for November, and are likely to lead to long searches for a new prime minister and enough coalition partners, given the fragmented political landscape. The focus of The Hague will return inward, potentially far into 2024. 

In theory, that could grant a bit more freedom to the Dutch diplomats in Brussels. But Dutch ambassador Robert De Groot is also on his way out, as he was nominated to fill the country’s vice presidency at the European Investment Bank in January.

As if that weren’t enough, key Dutch politicians like Finance Minister Sigrid Kaag and Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra have also announced their political departures. Weighing in on EU affairs was a big part of both of their jobs, and the pair also had international experience, giving them extra weight when they spoke in meetings with their counterparts. Freed from legendary compromise-making in the Rutte coalition, Dutch ministers might be pushed more heavily by their parties to sharpen their political position on key files for a Dutch audience, such as the EU’s fiscal rules or migration. 

So how exactly will the Dutch departures impact some of the key legislation coming up?

Handling the EU’s migration crisis

Name of key legislation? The EU’s migration pact

Impact of the Dutch on this file so far in 1-5 cheeses?

What does it mean for the file? The migration debate has for a long time been blocked due to divisions between arrival countries such as Italy or Greece, and Northern European countries such as the Netherlands or Germany, where the migrants are often headed. But in February of this year, Rutte suddenly teamed up with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni — which was seen as a turning point. 

The deal consisted of Rutte helping Rome stem irregular arrivals of migrants and Meloni helping him curtail their crossing into other EU countries. This dynamic led to a deal for the migration pact in June among interior ministers over the two most controversial files of asylum reform, namely how asylum-seekers are processed at borders and how they are relocated across the EU. Rutte went to Tunisia with Meloni twice with the goal of damping down arrivals — a clear symbol of this alliance.

In February, Rutte teamed up with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on migration | Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Gettty Images

Rutte is an old hand at migration deals; another key agreement, with Turkey, was attained in March 2016 during the Dutch presidency of the Council. Rutte will very likely remain in office until at least next spring, when the migration pact is slated to be finalized. For many EU diplomats, that’s good news; with migration being so divisive, good negotiators are always welcome.  

But one EU diplomat warned any Dutch room for maneuvering might be limited: “The majority in the Dutch parliament is more right wing than the current coalition, and migration will be one of the big themes in this campaign.” That is set to make things more tricky in Brussels.

— Jacopo Barigazzi

Enlargement of the EU’s free-movement zone

Name of key legislation? The entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen Area

Impact of the Dutch on the file:

What does it mean for the file? Another migration-related issue is the Schengen Area. Last December, the European Council blocked the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the free-movement zone — a key priority for citizens of the two countries, which joined the bloc in 2007. Although Austria led resistance to the move, the Netherlands supported Vienna’s position amid concerns at the time of migratory flows through the Western Balkan route. 

While Schengen enlargement is on the agenda of the Spanish EU presidency, the presence of a caretaker government in the Netherlands until the end of the year means that the country is unlikely to sign off on the deal, which needs unanimous agreement from all member countries.  

— Suzanne Lynch

Cleaner trucks

Name of key legislation: Regulation on CO2 emission performance standards for new heavy-duty vehicles

Impact of the Dutch on this file so far in 1-5 cheeses?

What does it mean for the file? The Netherlands has been at the forefront of a global push for 100 percent zero-emission new truck and bus sales by 2040. As the EU embarked on reform of its truck pollution standards, the Netherlands has brought this same position to talks. Along with three other countries, The Hague demanded that the EU set an end date for sale of new polluting trucks; and while they didn’t specify when, they did suggest that it should be “in line with the EU objective of climate neutrality by 2050.”

The Commission proposed a 90 percent target by 2040 instead. “It would definitely be a big deal if they [the Netherlands] don’t have as much of a weight anymore,” said Eamonn Mulholland, an associate researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

— Wilhelmine Preussen and Hanne Cokelaere 

The Netherlands has been at the forefront of a global push for 100 percent zero-emission new truck and bus sales by 2040 | Glyn Kirk/AFP via .

Lowering drug costs 

Name of key legislation? Pharmaceutical legislation 

Impact of the Dutch on the file:  

What does it mean for the file? Dutch Health Minister Ernst Kuipers has an ax to grind when it comes to expensive medicines. The former hospital executive has made it a personal mission to rein in sky-high drug prices. Recently, the Netherlands joined forces with Belgium, Austria, Ireland and Luxembourg in a push to put the public sector — and not private industry — in the driver’s seat when it comes to drug research and development, paying a premium only for medicines the public really needs. Upcoming negotiations over the pharmaceutical legislative proposal provided the ideal venue to try and sway the rest of the Council to take a harder line vis-à-vis the pharmaceutical industry. But with Kuipers likely on his way out now, those ambitions will likely have to be resized.         

— Carlo Martuscelli

Reducing the EU’s dependency on China 

Name of key legislation? European economic security strategy

Impact of the Dutch on the file:

What does it mean for the file? The Netherlands has been involved in pushing and preparing for the EU’s economic security strategy, after U.S. pressure led to a Dutch decision earlier this year to impose new controls on exports of advanced microchip equipment to China — curbing sales by chipmaking equipment supplier ASML. The strategy will be discussed in coming months, but it is unlikely that more concrete measures, such as outbound investment screening, will be discussed anytime soon.

— Barbara Moens

Cutting pesticide use in the EU

Name of key legislation? Sustainable use of plant protection products

Impact of the Dutch on the file:

What does it mean for the file? If you thought the debate over the EU’s nature restoration law has been toxic, just wait until you hear about pesticides. Of the EU’s 27 member states, only the Dutch have firmly backed the European Commission’s plans to halve the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture by the end of the decade. When the Council asked Brussels for more evidence on the impact of the plans, Dutch diplomats took the floor to object — the Germans and French remained silent.

There’s a catch: The new rules would help the Netherlands reduce its reliance on pesticides, which is highest in the EU. For now, the country’s agriculture ministry is headed by Piet Adema of the smallest coalition partner, the Christian Union. He’s been called the EU’s greenest agriculture minister — but with a populist farmers’ party now leading the polls ahead of early elections, the chances of Adema’s party becoming part of the new government are slim.

— Bartosz Brzeziński

The Dutch have firmly backed the European Commission’s plans to halve the use of chemical pesticides in agriculture by the end of the decade | Patrick Pleul/EPA

Getting everyone in line on the EU budget

Name of key legislation? Stability and Growth Pact, aka EU fiscal rules reform; MFF review, aka budget update

Impact of the Dutch on the file:

What does it mean for the file? Traditionally, the Dutch have been hawks-in-chief on EU fiscal policy, criticizing big spenders and demanding a reduction in debt levels. But under the leadership of Sigrid Kaag, finance minister and leader of the centrist D66 party, they’ve been an unlikely voice in favor of new, more predictable and flexible rules. Together with Spain, they sought common ground to bridge traditional north-south divides. But with the lame-duck government until elections in November and Kaag now on her way out of politics, it’s unlikely that the Netherlands can keep up the leadership role it had on this key file.

“Once the government becomes caretaker, one has to be very reserved and not forward-leaning,” Kaag told the press at a recent gathering of EU finance ministers. That makes reaching a consensus in the fall, as eyed by the Spaniards, trickier. Approval of The Hague will also be needed to pass a revamp of the EU’s long-term budget, where the Commission requested a €66 billion top-up from EU countries, and where unanimity among the EU27 is needed. Kaag’s position is clear: While financial support for Ukraine should continue, there’s little-to-zero willingness to cough up more money for anything else.

— Paola Tamma

Advancing the European Green Deal

Name of key legislation? Packaging and Packaging Waste regulation

Impact of the Dutch on the file:

What does it mean for the file? The Dutch are pretty ambitious on proposals intended to shift the EU toward a more circular economy. Earlier this year, they campaigned hard — and successfully — alongside Belgium, France, Germany, Austria and Luxembourg for a ban on companies destroying unsold goods. They’ve also been pushing the Commission for “ambitious” rules on tackling microplastic pollution.

Now, the Commission’s contentious sustainable packaging rules are on the Council’s table — and with the Dutch shackled, environmentalists will be losing a keen proponent of more ambitious measures to rein in the nearly 80 million tons of packaging waste produced in the EU. And while the Netherlands is far from the only country with high hopes for a more circular economy, Brussels needs as many countries as possible in its corner amid ongoing backlash against several green deal files. 

— Leonie Cater

Making global value chains more sustainable

Name of key legislation? Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive

Impact of the Dutch on the file:

What does it mean for the file? The Dutch are leading the push for ambitious rules to hold companies to account for human rights and environmental abuses throughout their value chains.

The Hague has stood out until now as among the few voices in the Council advocating for more stringent rules on due diligence for EU companies.

As this file moves through final negotiations with EU capitals, European lawmakers and the Commission this fall, the Netherlands is expected to maintain its position. But the question now is whether others around the negotiating table might discount the Dutch voice because they feel like the position isn’t backed up by a government. If so, this might give the upper hand to the more conservative camp led by France, Germany and the center-right European People’s Party.

— Sarah Anne Aarup

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