Forming Coalitions in the EU after Brexit. Alliances for a European Union that modernises and protects

December 12, 2018 - nr.108

Conclusions and recommendations

On the basis of its analysis in the previous chapters, the AIV has set out the following conclusions and recommendations:


1. With the UK’s departure, the Netherlands is losing an ally in some areas, especially the functioning and scope of the single market, the common commercial policy and promoting good governance in the Union. In other areas, the Netherlands had less or no support from the UK, either because their views differed or because the UK had remained outside the integration process in certain areas, like the common currency. The UK also acquired an exceptional position in the field of legal protection in relation to the fundamental rights of European citizens. Ultimately, the strategic objectives of the two countries were not aligned: in the context of European history, the Netherlands has had no other option than to be involved in European integration, while the UK continually had the power to influence the balance of power on the European continent from outside. Now that the UK is leaving the EU, the Netherlands may be able – perhaps as a privileged partner of the UK – to increase its influence.

2. Brexit coincides with far-reaching changes around the EU and in the wider world that call for the Union to show its capacity to act and for a strategic re-orientation of the European narrative. Global challenges in relation to security, migration, climate change and modernisation of the economy call for a Union that does more than liberalise markets, a Union that actively supports its member states in their efforts to protect and develop the European way of life. Prime Minister Mark Rutte showed his awareness of these challenges in his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 13 June 2018. What this implies for the most important policy areas needs to be elaborated for the wider public and for the public debate. The consequences of this new engagement for the Netherlands’ EU coalitions also need to be well thought through. While the UK was always an important partner for the Netherlands in the Europe of the free market, it has also always been less like-minded when it comes to a Europe that modernises and protects.

3. Brexit demands that the Netherlands step up its participation in internal EU diplomacy. If the Netherlands wishes to see its proposals approved, the qualified majority voting system of decision-making laid down in the EU Treaty means that it will have to join forces with a larger group of member states than is now the case. And if the Netherlands wishes to stop a decision being taken, it will be far less easy to form a blocking minority, especially without the participation of a large EU country. The new ‘Hanseatic coalition’ of the Netherlands, Ireland and the Nordic and Baltic countries – even if joined by the other Benelux partners – is not enough to make up a blocking minority. And where decisions are made by consensus – which is often the case in practice – it is essential to win European hearts and minds. This will require strong proposals, active lobbying, and a willingness to give and take. A Europe without the UK calls for the Netherlands to take up an active position in EU institutions, preserving old coalitions and forging new ones, and developing strategic insight into the general balance of forces, transcending ministerial ‘pillars’.

4. Seeking support for Dutch insights and standpoints cannot wait until the moment that European institutions take action. Either alone or as part of a coalition with other member states, the Netherlands must demand attention for its interests – much more than it does now – at the time when proposals, positions, conclusions and suchlike have not yet taken permanent shape. That requires a proactive Dutch strategy, especially in the Commission and the European Parliament. The AIV strongly recommends that the Dutch parliament and political parties step up their contact with the European Parliament. That means that the House of Representatives has a role to play, not least in dossiers that eventually require the active approval of national parliaments (such as decisions on the MFF and accession treaties). This approach also requires a carefully designed and maintained policy on the part of the Netherlands to promote the employment of Dutch nationals in European institutions at all levels, whether in permanent employment, seconded from the Netherlands, working in Brussels or, for example, at the European External Action Service (EEAS).

5. Entering into coalitions has always been strategically important for the Netherlands’ position in the European Council and the Council of the European Union. An EU without the UK will be much more of an open field for the Netherlands, without specific geographical dominance. The customary Dutch preference for North-Western Europe is already becoming untenable, and will become even less so in the next few years. That calls for a flexible approach, in which no member states should be excluded from the conversation in advance, whether they are from Southern, Central or Eastern Europe, from the Iberian peninsula to the Visegrád Group. Shifting coalitions in various policy areas also prevent the dividing lines between groups of member states from always being the same and causing divisions to harden, resulting in alienation – a risk that has potentially serious consequences for the single market, the Schengen system and the Union’s external resolve and credibility. A new approach to coalition-forming will provide a finely interwoven network that will strengthen the Union as a whole.

6. A new approach to coalition-forming means that the Netherlands will have to develop its vision on European integration further and set priorities. As we all know, being right and getting your own way are two different things. Even if the Netherlands resolutely wants to stop something from happening in the EU, it could be more beneficial not to keep pressing the point, or in any case to see whether the point can be linked to something that the Netherlands wants to move forward at European level. The ambition to play a role on the Franco-German playing field calls for the formulation of positive European objectives, and not only a focus on what we definitely do not want. Upholding prudent budget management and a Dutch rebate might be supported by playing a constructive role in the debate on how to strengthen the eurozone and the EMU. It would not be good for the Netherlands’ position in the EU, or for the debate on the EU at home if, at the end of the negotiations, we had to swallow all our stubborn ‘no’s and reluctantly agree to a series of ‘yesses’. Blaming Brussels – as we have seen in the UK – does not help efforts in the long run to build a strong and convincing Europe. That does not change the fact that some well-considered standpoints are sometimes worth holding on to until the end, irrespective of how much support they have from other member states. 1

7. In light of major challenges like the modernisation and digitalisation of the economy, the required energy transition and severe instability and poverty around Europe’s borders, boosting Europe’s capacity to act demands bridging West-East and South-North dividing lines within Europe. By forming new coalitions in these policy areas, the Netherlands is already contributing to a crucial new network that transcends these traditional dividing lines. Without the southern member states, there is no solution to the migration problem. Without the modernisation-minded states in Eastern Europe there will be no modern, sustainable economy. And without the support of all European member states, there will be no stability in the region surrounding Europe. Alongside the image of the Netherlands invoked in the national and international media as leader of the ‘Hanseatic coalition’, persistently saying ‘no’ to France and the southern member states, there is also the image of the Netherlands as a practical builder of bridges with France and the southern and eastern member states, in coalitions pursuing a digital single market, more ambitious climate goals and a solution to the long-term, existential problem of migration and asylum.

8. The influence of the Franco-German axis is expected to increase, which will in any case require the Netherlands to maintain permanent and alert contact with Berlin and Paris. At the same time, as a founder state with a relatively large economy, the Netherlands will also be expected show leadership within, for example, the Benelux and the ‘Hanseatic coalition’ with the Nordic and Baltic member states. Leadership demands political influence and diplomatic capacity, as well as insight into what deals can be made and what trade-offs are required to achieve them. In the AIV’s opinion, the best way for the Netherlands to do that is to focus on improving Franco-German proposals with the support of coalitions with other member states, which can vary according to the issue: with other ‘prudent modernisers’ arguing for a new MFF closer to the German position, and with sustainable investors in favour of ambitious climate goals, more in line with the French position.

9. Playing an active role in the EU is not possible without investing in coordination and the Dutch presence abroad. The EU coordination in The Hague, led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was very efficient during the 2016 Council Presidency and should be further reinforced to reduce ministerial ‘pillarisation’ and allow cross-cutting strategic ties between the ministries to continue. The Netherlands cannot adopt a proactive role in EU institutions and a flexible approach in the European capitals (‘multi-bi diplomacy’) without a clearly defined presence. In the recent past, financial cutbacks severely affected the Netherlands’ presence in the EU and the member states. The battle in Brussels is often won at the embassies. If the Netherlands wishes to see its ambitions in Europe realised, it must reverse at least some of its human resources losses and strengthen its European embassies.2

Specific recommendations in certain policy areas

1. In the area of policy on the single market, including the free movement of services and the digital and energy markets, it would make sense to continue working with the like-minded Nordic and Baltic member states, Ireland and, to a certain degree, the Visegrád countries. The aim of this cooperation is partly to exert influence on the large member states, and France and Germany in particular, and where necessary to offer a counterweight when these countries succeed in acquiring sufficient support from other protectionist-minded partners in order to reach agreement on specific single market issues.

2. In the area of social policy, the Netherlands will have to make a strategic choice between adhering to its cautious approach or going along with far-reaching European initiatives. The AIV would urge the government to keep an open mind about social initiatives. It shares the government’s belief that strengthening the social dimension is a crucial component of the future of the EU and deepening public support for the Union. The coalitions that the Netherlands has forged with Sweden, the Benelux, Germany and France in the context of the revision of the Posting of Workers’ Directive are a good basis to build on.

3. In terms of climate policy, a focus on close cooperation – not only with North-Western European countries like Sweden and Finland, but also with France, the Benelux and Germany – offers the greatest chance of achieving the Netherlands’ objectives. In the field of research and innovation, after the departure of the UK, close cooperation with France and Germany in particular would be the most logical course.

4. As far as the EMU is concerned, the AIV believes the Netherlands should take a constructive approach to Franco-German initiatives resulting from the eurozone summit of June 2018, especially if they are in accordance with the recommendations in the AIV’s August 2017 advisory report on the deepening and strengthening of the EMU. In the debate on the future, joint initiatives with the Nordic and Baltic member states and Ireland (the ‘Hanseatic coalition’) – whether under Dutch leadership or not – emphasise the importance of national responsibility, budget discipline and risk reduction, but will not be able to avoid the political discussion sought by other member states on joint stabilisation, solidarity and risk-sharing. In addition, in order for this coalition to be credible, Denmark and Sweden will need to move towards membership of the eurozone.

5. Within the CFSP and the ESDP, Brexit will weaken the existing coalitions in which the UK often played a leading role, for example on Russia and the sanctions imposed on it. After Brexit, it will remain crucial to coordinate with the UK as closely as possible on these issues. The AIV therefore urges the Netherlands to act as a bridge between the UK and the EU and calls on the government to explore ways in which this can be achieved. The AIV would also refer back to its recommendation in the advisory report on the future of NATO to breathe new life into the Eurogroup within the alliance.

6. In the area of defence, the Netherlands must be open to efforts to make Europe more self-sufficient. As France is the driving force behind this ambition, the AIV recommends that the Netherlands explore the scope for closer cooperation with the French. The AIV sees the fact that 25 EU member states wish to participate in PESCO as a hopeful sign, but considers it almost inevitable that a military lead group will emerge within PESCO, consisting of a limited number of EU member states, most likely Germany, Belgium and France. The aim of this coalition should be to establish a substantial European military capability. The AIV believes that the Netherlands should be part of any such lead group. In that context, the AIV sees the recent decision by the defence ministers of nine European countries, including the Netherlands, to establish the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) as a potentially important step in the right direction.

7. Regarding European cooperation on migration, besides Germany and France a number of southern EU countries are also relevant as potential coalition partners for the Netherlands. In the AIV’s opinion, the Netherlands would be well advised to focus on broad coalitions with countries that look beyond their short-term self-interest (‘North’ versus ‘South’) and work to achieve stability in the MENA region and a humane and effective European migration strategy. This includes working with Italy to combat people smuggling. Such a strategy must be embedded in a broader European development cooperation strategy. That will be sorely needed if migration pressure increases as expected in the next few decades.

8. The negotiations with the ACP countries on a new framework for trade and aid – in which the negative impacts of Brexit for the ACP countries on trade will be an important element – demand an active strategy to ensure that European financial resources for development cooperation are maintained. In this context, the Netherlands will have to seek to work with France, as the traditional bridge-builder with the ACP, and with the Scandinavian countries and Germany, with whom the Netherlands is in agreement on linking aid and trade.

9. On the MFF, the AIV considers that the Netherlands should probably assume that the negotiations, which have not yet started, will ultimately result in a higher EU budget and a higher Dutch contribution. The AIV believes that the Netherlands, together with a coalition of fellow ‘prudent modernisers’, should press hard for the inclusion of conditionality (linking funds to performance on the rule of law and meeting responsibilities in the field of migration), reducing the CAP budget and modernising the EU budget. The AIV is of the opinion that the government should consider taking a more prominent role within this coalition.

Recommendations relating to coalitions with individual or groups of countries    

1. Given the above recommendations, the AIV sees close cooperation with generally like-minded countries – such as the Benelux partners, the Nordic and Baltic member states, Austria and Ireland – as perhaps the most logical choice, but it will not always prove numerically sufficient to influence decision-making in the desired direction or to block unpalatable decisions. The AIV therefore feels that it is both desirable and necessary to keep the dialogue open with large and important member states, such as Spain and Italy, that may not at first glance seem like-minded.

2. Although it is not necessary to embrace every Franco-German initiative immediately, the AIV believes it also in the interests of the Netherlands’ prosperity and security that Germany and France trust each other and continue to pursue their relationship within the framework of the EU. The Netherlands can play a role in fine-tuning Franco-German initiatives and, where necessary, improving them, reminding both partners that Franco-German agreement is a necessary but not in itself a sufficient condition for European consensus. After Brexit, the Netherlands can focus on this bridging role even more, as intermediary between these two large member states, and the other member states too.

3. That of course requires close bilateral relations with Berlin and Paris. For that reason, in the AIV’s opinion, the Netherlands should continue to focus on closer cooperation with Germany, a country with which we may share many interests and much common ground, but by no means in all areas of policy. The Netherlands, for example, attaches great importance to the functioning of the market and the free movement of services, while Germany’s policy is strongly influenced by the interests of its own strong industry, including the automobile sector.

4. Closer cooperation with France, in which the Netherlands is actively investing, is also essential, partly with a view to influencing the direction of Franco-German initiatives. France is a crucial and often neglected ally in efforts to strengthen the pillars of the Europe that protects – defence and stability in Europe’s neighbourhood, regulating migration, modernising the economy, and the social dimension. The AIV feels that more attention could be paid to this aspect in the public debate.

5. Given their attitude towards migration and – in the case of Poland and Hungary –the rule of law, cooperation with the countries of the Visegrád Group is less self-evident. Nevertheless, as the positions of these countries in some policy areas (e.g. the single market) are sometimes close to that of the Netherlands, and since they do not always operate as a bloc, cooperation with them – perhaps through the Benelux – should not be dismissed out of hand.

1 In 2011, for example, the Netherlands and Finland rightly blocked the Franco-German compromise on the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen system, because the quality of the rule of law and administrative and legal capacities in these countries were not up to the required standard.
2 See AIV, advisory letter number 32, ‘The Dutch Government’s Presence Abroad’, The Hague, May 2017.
Advice request

Professor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer        
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague


Date           4 July 2017
Re              Request for advice on possible post-Brexit coalitions in the EU

Dear Professor De Hoop Scheffer,

The House of Representatives today decided, pursuant to article 30 of the Rules of Procedure of the House of Representatives of the States General, to submit a request for advice to the Advisory Council on International Affairs concerning the opportunities that the Netherlands will have to form coalitions in the European Union following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (Brexit).

This request is based on the motion by MP Anne Mulder et al. concerning a request for advice on the formation of coalitions with other countries post-Brexit (Parliamentary Papers, 21 501-20, no. 1229. A copy of the motion, which the House adopted on 16 May 2017, is enclosed.

The annexe to this letter sets out the request in greater detail.

On behalf of the House, I kindly ask you to honour this request.

Yours sincerely,


Khadija Arib
President of the House of Representatives
of the States General




Letter of 13 June 2017 from the Registrar of the Permanent Committee
on European Affairs to the Presidium of the House of Representatives

On behalf of the members of the Permanent Committee on European Affairs, I ask you, in accordance with the decision of the procedural session of 1 June 2017, to propose that the House submit a request for advice to the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) concerning the opportunities that the Netherlands will have to form coalitions in the European Union following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (Brexit).

The advisory report that the House would thus request would be a follow-up to the AIV’s report of 22 March 2017, entitled ‘“Brexit means Brexit”: Towards a New Relationship with the UK’. This request from the Permanent Committee on European Affairs is based on the motion by MP Anne Mulder et al. concerning a request for advice on the formation of coalitions with other countries post-Brexit (Parliamentary Papers, 21 501-20, no. 1229). The motion was adopted by the House adopted on 16 May 2017 (Proceedings of the House of Representatives, 2016/17, no. 75, item 9).

The considerations to this motion include the House’s observation that with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, the Netherlands will lose a major ally and the relationships of forces within the Union will be reshaped.

The House also notes in this motion that the AIV concluded in its recent advisory report on Brexit that, following the UK’s withdrawal, the Netherlands should pursue close cooperation and coordination not only with Germany, but also with North-West European countries.

Finally, the House in this motion requests a follow-up report from the AIV, explaining with which countries such coalitions could be formed, how, and what is needed to make them possible.



House of Representatives of the States General                                    

No. 1229                                                  MOTION  BY MP ANNE MULDER ET AL.
                                                                   Introduced on 9 May 2017

The House,

having heard its deliberations,

considering that with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, the Netherlands will lose a major ally;

considering that the UK’s withdrawal will reshape the relationships of forces within the Union;

noting that the Advisory Council for International Affairs (AIV) concluded in its recent advisory report on Brexit that, following the UK’s withdrawal, the Netherlands should pursue close cooperation and coordination not only with Germany, but also with North-West European countries;

requests a follow-up report from the AIV, explaining with which countries such coalitions could be formed, how, and what is needed to make them possible.

Anne Mulder
Pieter Omtzigt
Joël Voordewind

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