Advisory letter 10: The European Union and its relations with the Dutch citizens

March 2, 2006 - nr.10
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Government reactions

Mr F. Korthals Altes                                                                 European Integration Department

Chairman of the Advisory Council                                              Bezuidenhoutseweg 67

on International Affairs                                                              Postbus 20061

Postbus 20061                                                                        2500 EB Den Haag                       

2500 EB Den Haag

 

Date          July 2006                                                               Contact            Hilde Laffeber

Our ref.      DIE-996/06                                                             Tel.                 +31 (0)70 348 4211

                                                                                              Fax                 +31 (0)70 348 4086

                                                                                              hilde.laffeber@minbuza.nl

 

Re: Response to the AIV’s advisory letter on ‘The EU and its relations with the Dutch citizens’

 

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

 

On behalf of the government I would like to thank the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) for its advisory letter ‘The EU and its relations with the Dutch citizens’, an initiative of the AIV in response to the Dutch referendum of 1 June 2005 on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

 

In the view of the AIV, the importance of the European Union to the Netherlands can scarcely be overestimated. In its words, the EU acts to protect Dutch interests vis-à-vis other major world players and is influential in generating prosperity and suppressing conflict. This is particularly significant now that the Netherlands is increasingly faced with problems requiring an international solution. The AIV notes that the EU, as a project involving the peaceful pooling of sovereignty, is unique in history; we should nurture it carefully. The government endorses these ideas. The future of the Netherlands is inextricably bound up with the European Union. That does not mean that the process of European integration is, or should be, free from debate; the opposite is true. A broad public debate of a political nature on the future of European cooperation, and the role the Netherlands will play, has been opened at national level. The government recognises the AIV’s advisory letter as a valuable contribution to this debate.

 

The AIV observes that an impasse arose after the referendum. Given the importance of the European Union for the Netherlands, the AIV has made a number of recommendations on narrowing the gap between Dutch citizens and Europe. The government is very pleased to observe that the Council’s recommendations correspond closely with the view taken by the government. Both the Council and the government believe that politicising the debate on Europe is crucial if we wish to reduce the gap between Dutch citizens and Europe.

 

The Council addresses its advisory letter to national policymakers involved in shaping Europe, namely the government, parliament, civil servants and civil society. Below follow the government’s responses to recommendations directed primarily at the government. This does not mean that the government is disregarding other observations and recommendations made by the Council; the House of Representatives and the Senate are invited to respond to those addressed to them.

 

The gap and the referendum

 

The government agrees with the AIV’s analysis that the result of the referendum can be seen as the culmination of an insidious process that has been going on for many years. The AIV sketches a process of increasing discontent and uncertainty. Citizens then project these concerns onto ‘Europe’. However, at the same time, as the Council also notes, support for Europe in the Netherlands is still as strong as ever. The government has reported its analysis of the reasons for the ‘No’ vote, and explained how it believes the trust of the Dutch citizens can be regained, in both the Letter to Parliament reporting on the European Council annotated agenda dated 14 June 2005 (Parliamentary Paper 21 501-02, no. 628) and in the State of the European Union (Parliamentary Paper 30303, no. 1). An evaluation of the government’s communication with the general public in the period leading up to the referendum was presented to the House of Representatives on 7 November 2005 (29 993, no. 24). As the AIV rightly states, the lack of identification with and confidence in politicians, and a lack of confidence in the way European institutions function, also play an important role.

 

In respect of this point, the AIV concludes that the referendum has exposed a number of gaps: a gap between citizens and the outside world, a gap between citizens and lobbying groups and a gap between citizens and political office-holders. The recommendations made by the AIV are aimed at reducing this last gap.

 

What the Netherlands itself can do

 

In the view of the AIV the Netherlands itself can adopt a number of initiatives to reduce the gap between citizens and policymakers.

 

Firstly, the AIV strongly recommends that the debate on Europe be politicised. A critical debate on Europe between the government and parliament – with the involvement of members of the European Parliament – is essential, in the opinion of both the government and the AIV. A political approach would also make it easier for citizens to follow the debate. Moreover, conducting a keen debate in the arena of national politics would make it clear that the Netherlands is actively involved in European decision-making and that ‘Brussels’, therefore, does not autonomously generate European legislation: the Netherlands is also involved. The government looked at this question in depth in its reply to the Council of State’s advisory report on the consequences of adopting European arrangements for the performance of national public institutions and their mutual relations, ‘The Netherlands in Europe – Europe in the Netherlands’ (29993, no. 27, dated 23 May 2006). The analyses of the AIV and the Council of State were identical. The government endorses the arguments of both Councils; an active, public debate on Europe will be stimulated by an active and informed political debate on Europe, and vice versa.

 

In response to the specific suggestions made by the AIV in this respect: like the AIV, the government also endorses the Council of State’s advice that the House of Representatives should subject Commission proposals to timely critical examination before the Netherlands decides on the position it is to adopt in the negotiations in Brussels. In its letter to the Senate and House of Representatives of 14 April 2006 on reviewing the subsidiarity and proportionality of EU legislative proposals (22112, no. 433) the government called on parliament to conduct regular debates with the government on EU legislation. The new Commission proposals are reviewed for expediency, subsidiarity and proportionality by the government in BNC fiches. The BNC fiches are in the public domain and are sent to parliament.

 

In the consultations on Europe held regularly with parliament, and in the letters sent to parliament before and after meetings of the Council of the European Union and European Council, the government gives account of the positions that have been taken up and those which will be taken up, in line with the recommendation made by the AIV.

 

The government emphasises the importance of an active, national parliament to a keen political debate on Europe. In recent years it has made a case for national parliaments to play a greater role in assessing the subsidiarity and proportionality of EU legislative proposals, an initiative which led to results at the European Council held in June 2006. The government is delighted that the joint committee comprising members of the Senate and House of Representatives under the chairmanship of Mr J.J. van Dijk has been active in communicating the States General’s standpoint regarding the subsidiarity and proportionality of EU legislative proposals to the government and European institutions, as recommended by the AIV. This has led, amongst other things, to an initial parliamentary committee meeting with members of government in the House of Representatives on 21 June 2006. This meeting, involving the Minister of Justice and the Minister for European Affairs, looked at the question of whether the proposed directive on criminal sanctions for infringements of intellectual property rights satisfies the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. Moreover, in another meeting with a committee of the House of Representatives on 5 December 2005, the government spoke in detail about the European Commission’s legislative programme for 2006, in accordance with the recommendations of the AIV.

 

The AIV expressed the wish that the government should present evaluations to parliament of the state of affairs in the European Union, and discuss those evaluations, in contexts other than the Speech from the Throne, the Budget Memorandum and the State of the European Union. In the opinion of the government this wish has been met through the above-mentioned initiatives.

 

Furthermore, the AIV recommends that the House of Representatives, in imitation of the Senate, create a permanent committee to advise members of parliament on all aspects of Dutch decision-making on European matters. The AIV recommends that parliamentary parties free up more manpower so that every stage of the European legislative process can be actively and critically monitored. In the view of the AIV, ties between the Dutch government and Dutch members of the European Parliament should be strengthened and MEPs should consult with the House of Representatives more frequently. The government leaves it to the House of Representatives and the Senate to decide how they will respond to this advice.

 

Goals for the Netherlands to pursue with other member states

 

In the opinion of the AIV, to improve the general public’s involvement and sense of solidarity with the European Union, it is also important to actively stimulate the political interaction between Dutch policymakers and the EU’s institutions. The government endorses this. As the AIV correctly notes, this requires the cooperation of other member states.

 

The government will not resubmit the Constitutional Treaty to parliament for approval. Citing the president of the European Commission, the AIV notes that the Constitutional Treaty in its current form will not enter into force. The AIV also observes that the Constitutional Treaty contains a number of provisions aimed at improving relations between the public and the European Union, most of which are intended to make the EU’s institutions more open and democratic. The Council is of the opinion that any opportunities to achieve these aims should not be neglected. The government endorses this opinion. In its letter dated 19 May 2006 (30303, no. 20) setting out its analysis of the period of reflection on the European Union, the government stated that improvements to the operation of the European Union can and should be made within the framework of the current treaties.

 

The AIV cites two such possible improvements. Firstly, it proposes opening up the Council of the European Union to the public when legislation is being debated. The government has recently advocated this in Brussels. The European Council of 15-16 June 2006 decided that all Council meetings on co-decision legislation should be made public, partly as a result of a proposal made by the Netherlands. This means that, with immediate effect, all Council meetings on legislation adopted jointly by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union can be followed by the public and media alike. The public will now be able to see their representatives in action in the European arena, as the AIV advocated. The new agreement on opening up meetings is being implemented by the Council and will be evaluated after half a year.

 

Secondly, the AIV proposes that the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission welcome Citizens’ Initatives. In the government’s view, any adoption of a citizens’ initiative would have to go hand in hand with sufficient guarantees and would be subject to certain conditions, as was also the case in the context of the Constitutional Treaty. When the Constitutional Treaty was being drawn up the government saw the citizens’ initiative as a step forward, from a democratic point of view. Neither the outcome of the referendum nor the period of reflection has prompted a change in this standpoint. It therefore seems reasonable that any future petitions signed by a large number of citizens and proposing new European legislation be interpreted as an informal political signal to the European Commission. For the citizens’ initiative to be formally adopted, a treaty amendment would be required. In the government’s view, interpreting the citizens’ initiative as an informal political signal would not preclude its later formalisation by means of a European decision-making procedure.

 

In the longer term, further improvement of the EU’s operation by means of a treaty amendment is unavoidable. The EU can improve, and must improve. This view is supported by a large majority of Dutch citizens: European decision-making rules need to be reviewed. Most Dutch citizens believe that the EU is inefficient. However, the path to amending the treaties is a long one and requires careful preparation. It is expected that the debate on the future of Europe will gain momentum in 2007-2008. The government does not consider it expedient to speculate, at present, about the possible content of such a treaty amendment. By their very nature, treaty amendments encompass a balanced package of changes to existing treaties. Partly for this reason, the government does not wish to cherry pick from the Constitutional Treaty, an opinion which was expressed in a letter to the House of Representatives dated 2 November 2005 in reply to the House of Representatives’ request for a survey of articles in the Constitutional Treaty that may lead to improvements in how the EU operates (30303, no. 16). The government therefore takes note of the AIV’s recommendation that, in the event of any future treaty amendment, incorporation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the expansion of the European Parliament’s decision-making powers over the entire spectrum of legislation and the EU budget (mandatory and non-mandatory expenditure) should be given priority.

 

Europe and the public domain in the wider sense

 

In the government’s view, politicisation, dissemination of information, communication and participation by intermediary organisations are all links in the chain of greater citizen involvement in EU policymaking. This involvement contributes to narrowing the gulf between the European Union and the public.

 

The AIV not only concentrates on how the government and parliament can vitalise the political dimension of Europe; political parties and the Netherlands’ educational and cultural institutions also have a part to play. In the view of the AIV, Europe is not sufficiently anchored, in a political and cultural sense, in the Netherlands. While in the financial and economic world (and some sectors of the art world) internationalisation has become a matter of course, Dutch politicians, cultural institutions and media are, in the opinion of the AIV, predominantly inward-looking and Netherlands-centric. The AIV believes that a number of different sectors need to work on anchoring Europe more firmly in Dutch culture. In the government’s view, increased involvement on the part of social actors, including decentralised governments, is essential for better anchoring of Europe in Dutch society, including Dutch culture. The government has requested the Advisory Council on Government Policy to report on this subject. Moreover, social actors can apply to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Europe Fund for financial support for projects intended to promote public debate on Europe. The grant ceiling was raised to €2.5 million last year.

 

Is the continuing enlargement of the EU, on the basis of the well-known Copenhagen criteria and the associated procedures, good for the Netherlands? To what extent must the Netherlands work on a shift in priorities in EU policy: should matters such as stimulating technology and innovation, legislation on immigration, prevention of crime and terrorism, and foreign policy and defence be given higher priority, and agriculture lower priority? Would the electorate welcome Turkey’s accession in the long term? And what can the European institutions achieve, and what can they not, in the sphere of economic reform? In the opinion of the AIV these and similar questions are of real importance and belong in the political debate on Europe. The AIV advises that political leaders – not only ministers, but in particular parliamentary party leaders and other important members of parliament – be proactive in placing these questions on the public agenda. The government strongly agrees with this proposal. As early as 7 November 2005 in a letter on its activities during the period of reflection (30303, no. 18) it stated that the Europe debate should be both political and interactive and concentrate on the most pressing European political themes and dilemmas. The online survey www.nederlandineuropa.nl, which addressed the topics covered by the AIV, was an example of this approach. It was completed by 128,059 people, making it one of the most extensive opinion polls ever conducted in the Netherlands.

 

Moreover, if a worthwhile debate on the future of Europe is to take place, it is important that the public be well informed about EU matters. The AIV points out that the public’s grasp of European integration is not good and that, in the field of education (and educational policy) Europe is underrepresented. Over the last year the government has made an effort to increase the attention devoted to Europe in Dutch education, partly by giving a more prominent place in primary and secondary education to the core skills and knowledge required for children to function as European citizens. The government will soon be sending a letter on this subject to the House of Representatives and the Senate.

 

The AIV sees the referendum as a wake-up call for a number of organisations. The unquestioning support for the Constitutional Treaty given by leaders of various organisations contrasted starkly with the critical response of their membership. The AIV calls on these leaders to initiate a discussion on European themes within their organisations. Moreover, it calls on political parties to state their positions on Europe in their electoral programmes and manifestos in a way which does more justice to their European context than was previously the case. The government leaves it to the discretion of the political parties and organisations to determine their own positions on the AIV’s recommendations.

 

Finally, the AIV concludes that a clear and professional communication strategy could prove useful as a supplement and finishing touch to the true politicisation of the EU. The government endorses this view. In addition to its efforts to politicise the debate, the government has abandoned its campaign-based approach to European communications. An interactive approach is now in place in which there is a great deal of scope for informing the public about the most topical and pressing themes.

 

Again, my thanks for your advisory letter. I am sending copies of this reply to the Presidents of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

Bernard Bot

Minister of Foreign Affairs

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