The Dutch EU Presidency: A bridge over troubled water

Halfway through the Presidency, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte revealed his thoughts on what still needs to be done by the end of his term at the helm of the European Council. Rutte spoke at a pre- EU Summit Briefing hosted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and the ALDE Party. He chose to focus on his presidency’s main priority, the single market, but during the discussion it again became evident how overshadowing Brexit and the Refugee Crisis are for his Presidency. Not a single question was asked on the completion of the single market, even though the Prime Minister maintained an ambitious schedule for it. So far the Dutch Presidency has proved to act, in the words of the musician Paul Simon, as a bridge over troubled water.

Maintaining Focus: Rutte and the Single Market

Determined to make the completion of the single market the focus of his presidency, Prime Minister Rutte started his speech by laying out his vision for a completed single market, latest by 2020. He made a powerful case for the completion, noting that it could lead to as much as 2,5 trillion Euro in economic growth for the EU. He praised the work of liberal commissioners Neelie Kroes and Andrus Ansip in having made great strides towards completing the digital single market. The EU is today the world’s leading provider of services and as Rutte stressed, the digital single market will give the EU the competitive edge needed to keep up this lead globally. Although the Prime Minister made clear that it had been difficult to keep focus on the single market given the threat of the UK leaving the EU and indeed the refugee crisis, he has still made it clear he will make a roadmap for the completion of the single market. He is working closely with his Slovakian colleagues who are bound to follow Rutte’s Presidency to ensure that the focus on the single market remains.

Brexit: A thorn in the side of the Dutch EU presidency

Mark Rutte’s EU presidency was bound to get caught up in the debate around the UK referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU. Following lengthy negotiations the EU agreed on new terms for Britain’s membership in the European Union. In doing so Prime Minister Rutte has strengthened the hand of the “In” campaign in the United Kingdom. As Rutte stressed during his speech, the referendum has to be about more than the compromise found between the EU and the UK: It has to revolve around how Britons see their own role as a leader in Europe. Rutte praised the UK’s role in the EU as a driver for competitiveness and free markets. At the same time he believed a UK outside the European Union would lose influence, both in Brussels and in Washington.

It’s all about the refugees

Mark Rutte_4On the refugee crisis Rutte urged EU member states to implement the promises to alleviate the situation in Greece. He stressed that good solutions are already on the table, but that so far EU member states have failed to live up to their original commitment. The Netherlands is pledging additional legal and asylum experts to support Greek authorities in processing applications by asylum seekers, and the Prime Minister asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel to follow suit and commit additional German experts as well. He deplored the situation in refugee camps in the immediate Syrian neighborhood and stressed that for Europe to stem the flow of refugees it is crucial to improve conditions in refugee camps in places like Lebanon.

The big question at this week’s summit was the EU’s new deal with Turkey to stop refugees from crossing the Aegean from Turkey into Greece. Rutte pointed out that the EU needs a deal with Turkey, but not if it means giving EU membership for Turkey at any price. The Copenhagen Admission Criteria need to be upheld, Rutte underlined. He wanted instead to, in his words, “re-energise” the Turkey membership debate.

The Dutch EU Presidency: A bridge over troubled water

As FNF Director of European and Transatlantic Dialogue, Hans Stein, stressed in his concluding remarks, it is a great advantage for the EU that the Presidency in these crucial times is held by a pragmatic and liberal Prime Minister. His resolve in keeping the single market questions on the agenda is impressive. The Prime Minister was able to find a reasonable compromise for Britain’s new EU membership conditions and at a time when the German Chancellor is bypassing EU authorities to make dubious special agreements with the Erdogan government, Prime Minister Rutte remains committed to finding a European solution.

Want to know more about the Dutch EU Presidency? Read our pre-Presidency analysis here.