Letter from the Netherlands
Dear members of the European Parliament,
Looking at the results of the European Parliament elections, Eurosceptic parties have gained seats, even if it fell short of expectations, and the parliament has become more divided. An obvious question is, “Will the new EU leadership be able to muster enough internal strength to deal with external challenges?” And external challenges there are. Security threats are on the rise, linked to conflicts close to Europe’s borders, terrorism and cyber-attacks. Trade wars loom. The global balance of power is shifting – and not to Europe’s advantage. Our climate is changing, human rights violations are widespread, extreme poverty is far from extinguished, and inequality is increasing worldwide.
Yet, external dimensions are where the EU, in my opinion, can potentially – and will have to – show its worth, to counter Euroscepticism. Only by joining forces can we tackle global challenges that are cross-border by nature. National policies alone will not do the trick. I was glad to see that the coalition government and most opposition parties in the Netherlands agree with me, judging from their electoral manifestos. While they may favour a “smaller EU” in some areas, they call on the EU to play a stronger role on the world stage to tackle global challenges.
This call for greater emphasis on external dimensions may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, it is on global challenges like climate change, security and migration that the Eurosceptic parties are most critical of the EU, perhaps understandably. People fear carrying the burden of overly ambitious and ineffective climate change measures. They worry about social degradation spurred by unrestrained migration, and no one wants to waste precious tax money funding corrupt governments through EU development cooperation. Many are disillusioned with what the EU has done so far. Certainly the EU will have to show more concrete progress and results in terms of promoting EU values and interests through external action, if it is to stand a chance of reconquering Eurosceptic voters.
This will require a budget for EU external action that is ‘fit for purpose’. The European Commission’s proposals for the EU multi-annual financial framework 2021-2027 undoubtedly hold potential for a more strategic EU engagement with the rest of the world. The Commission has advocated increased funding for external action, which is in line with the EU’s particular added value in this area. It also put forward a single Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) that merges several existing instruments, as well as an off-budget European Peace Facility. As part of the NDICI, the Commission proposes expanding the European Fund for Sustainable Development, to further leverage sustainable private sector investments. These proposals reflect the ambition to be less instrument driven. They could allow the EU to act more coherently and flexibly on global challenges, pressing development concerns and the EU’s own interests. The Commission has argued for at least 10% of the NDICI envelope to be dedicated to addressing the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement and to support migration management and governance, while at least 25% of the overall EU budget would be climate-related. This shows the importance attached to these global challenges. Given the domestic political debate, it is not surprising that the government of the Netherlands has welcomed the direction of the proposals, but it wants to see an even stronger emphasis on migration.
However, it will take a robust defence to protect this part of the budget from cuts in the ongoing negotiations. We who were engaged in or followed the previous budget negotiations know that external action is prone to cuts resulting from deals in other policy areas, such as EU cohesion and the common agricultural policy. Additionally, attention will have to be paid to limiting the fragmentation of external action instruments during the negotiation process, to avoid strong deviations from the rationalisation proposal of the Commission. Safeguards need to be spelled out for specific policy objectives, and a focus on the external action heading only should be avoided. External dimensions of ‘internal’ policies deserve attention, as the distinction between the two is increasingly blurred.
Meaningful strategic oversight and influence of member states and the European Parliament in the area of EU external action need to be ensured, while keeping sufficient flexibility and preserving predictability. Currently, mechanisms for member states’ involvement in fundamental strategic choices in third countries are perceived by many as exercises of rubber stamping Commission proposals, while the European Parliament has very limited scrutiny powers over financial instruments for EU external action. More generally, reforms are needed to bring EU decision-making closer to citizens. This message resonated in the European election campaigns of almost all political parties in the Netherlands, including the Eurosceptic Forum for Democracy (FVD). Proposals for reform included granting the European Parliament the authority to send a European Commissioner home (made by the Dutch People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD), giving national parliaments better access to EU documents (from the Christian Democratic Appeal, CDA) and EU-wide referenda (GreenLeft and FVD). While I’m not in favour of all the mechanisms suggested, I do concur that improving citizens’ perceptions of democratic oversight of EU matters is crucial to enhance trust in EU governance and the EU at large.
Time will tell if the rise of Eurosceptic parties such as FDV in the Netherlands will be a wake-up call or kiss of death for the EU and its role in the world. Now is the time to act to influence that outcome.
About the author
Jeske van Seters
Head of Programme Private Sector Engagement