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French-German EU axis puts the Netherlands on the spot

21 Jun 2017 - 12:16

With the demanding Macron and the willing Merkel, the European political and economic union – the one the Netherlands has never wanted – is getting closer, writes Adriaan Schout. To prevent loss of face, the new Cabinet had better not take too firm a standpoint.

We have lost one of the European Union’s great leaders, Helmut Kohl, but a new leader of stature, Emmanuel Macron, has arisen. Together they typify the steady erosion of the Netherlands’ position in the EU.

With his craving to please France after the German reunification, Kohl endorsed the monetary union – a French desire – although it was clear that the Euro countries were not ready for it. The Netherlands’ citizens probably did not want the single currency, and certainly not in this form nor with this group of countries, but at the time they did not get the opportunity to express themselves in a referendum.

As a result of the eurocrisis, monetary integration is now pushing European integration towards a political union and the details of which are becoming ever clearer. Macron is now the statesman who must create political support for the further European integration, a project that the Netherlands has always shunned.

To prevent being locked into a European block dominated by France and German with (French) protectionist tendencies, the Netherlands has always tried to tighten alliances outside the EU. The Hague fought for American involvement to prevent Europe developing into a political union with a military force, and it championed British membership to bridle far-reaching French-German integration ambitions. With Trump and Brexit, the Netherlands’ European future looks alarming and the renewed French-German aspirations have added to the Dutch uneasiness about its position in the EU.

Whether Macron’s reforms succeed or not, it is likely that his election will contribute to the realisation of the political union that the Netherlands wanted to prevent. France will manoeuvre for greater integration, and Germany will once again be obliged to make concessions, for example through more relaxed budget rules, increased EU investments, or in working towards a European social policy.

Macron needs such undertakings to create support for his reforms at home. In this way, Europe helps to offer economic protection to those who lose from globalisation, modernisation and automation. To this end, Macron also urges, ‘Buy European goods.’ Exactly the taint of protectionism that the Netherlands has always been fearful of.

Probably Merkel will approve, for example, new investment plans. Whether extra German (and so also extra Dutch) expenditure will lead to growth in France and other southern countries is doubtful, but what counts is the symbolism of a ‘Europe that protects’ and a ‘less German Europe’. Furthermore, Macron wants a separate eurozone budget and he favours steps towards a European army. With Macron firmly in the saddle, the European Commission was in a more favourable position to publish an ambitious policy document on the future of the euro that ties up with the French agenda. This goes against the wish of the Rutte Cabinet to consolidate European integration instead of to push monetary union.

The larger countries Spain and Italy, and also smaller ones such as Portugal, Greece and Belgium, support the plans of Macron and the European Commission. The Netherlands’ traditional friends are not in the euro (such as Denmark and Sweden) or are very small (for example Finland), and after Brexit we will lose the British as allies against French-German integration plans. If Macron succeeds in reforming his country, France will win power and influence, and it will become more difficult to restrain his plans for renewed European integration. The weakened France under President Hollande was no partner for Germany; a strong France with Macron will have more clout. But if Macron, just like Hollande, Sarkozy and Chirac, does not succeed in fulfilling his promises to reform, then the euro will have great problems with a number of countries – France, Italy, Portugal and Belgium – that have let their national debt increase to 100 per cent of their Gross National Product, or even far more. European rescue operations would then be unavoidable. One way or the other, with Macron, European integration will get a push in a direction that will be hard to sell politically in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands can do little to oppose this trend. The Second Chamber wants to investigate whether the Dutch influence in the EU can be safeguarded through smart use of coalitions of member states. Such coalitions should also help to prevent Germany from abandoning ‘our line’. This reliance on coalitions would be difficult.

To get any weight on the scale at all, many small countries are needed, ranging from Slovakia to Sweden. But these countries have great differences and can easily be set against each other by the big countries. In a barrel of frogs jumping in all directions it is difficult to enter into stable coalitions.

It will probably be much easier for the new Dutch government not to take any position. A traumatic experience for the last Rutte Cabinet was the election promise that no more money would go to Greece. Breaking this promise cost Rutte dearly. The lesson was to avoid clear standpoints. Then it does not have to be explained in the Chamber or media that the Cabinet has lost in European negotiations.

Finally, the Netherlands will just have to hope that the next German government will not be too accommodating towards France. However, to the Netherlands, Germany has frequently been an untrustworthy partner that has put the French-German axis above everything for very idiosyncratic reasons. This is Kohl’s lesson for the Macron era.

The Dutch version of this op-ed was published in the Dutch daily NRC on June, 19, 2017

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