The Dutch presidency of the Council of the European Union started on the 1st of January and will continue until the 30th of June 2016. The presidency declared that it will try to gear the EU towards focusing on what matters to Europe’s citizens and businesses, creating growth and jobs through innovation and connecting with civil society. The presidency said it will promote action at EU level only in cases f it is more effective than policies at national level, thereby giving more autonomy to states. The Netherlands’ work program is focused on 4 key areas: 1.Migration and international security; 2. Sound finances and a robust eurozone; 3. Europe as an innovator and job creator; 4. Forward looking climate and energy policy. It’s arguably a very difficult time for any country to preside over the EU Council given the refugee crisis and the subsequent withdrawal of certain countries from the Schengen agreement, the possible Brexit and the record high youth unemployment in Southern European countries while recovering from the 2009 Eurozone crisis that forced public spending cuts onto many countries.
Regarding the refugee crisis and international security, EU’s response needs to be all encompassing and come from a joined front. Reallocation of successful asylum seekers needs to be fair, equal and executed according to the rules of international humanitarian law. The EU should act as the upholder of human rights that it claims to be, instead of deporting refugees back to Turkey where they have a guest status until they successfully apply for asylum which can take a couple of years. The French authorities should halt the destruction of camps in Calais and every state should ensure that neither the military nor the police is breaking the law on the treatment of refugees. Securing borders and efficient identification mechanisms seem to be the primary concern of the EU and it is crucial, however, Europe has to recognize the half a million stateless asylum seekers currently in the EU who have no state to protect them. The Netherlands presidency will push for further sharing of intelligence to enhance European security especially from the real threats of terrorists using nuclear weapons. The best way to protect Europe would be to impose transparency laws on banks including those in Switzerland; which would not only clear Europe’s conscience but it would put an end to direct and indirect funding of terrorist organizations and states who sponsor terrorism.
The second and third items on the presidency’s agenda are interrelated. Economic growth will bring the EU closer together again just as it did at the start of the European coal and steel community but for that to happen, Schengen has to be strengthened and not abandoned. The Netherlands Presidency welcomes the Single Market Strategy on goods and services presented in October 2015. The economic benefits of a better functioning single market could amount to over €651 billion a year, or 5% of European GDP, making the single market the EU’s most valuable asset and one of the main instruments to propel Europe’s economy forward. A single market should also include better interstate agreements on workers’ mobility. UK’s financial services are essential not just to the EU but to the global community so Brexit would have unimaginable consequences. If the EU is to prevent any potential loss of member countries, the EU membership should be more flexible in terms of currency and EU projects. The added value of being part of the EU needs to be more obvious than it is currently.
Finally, the Dutch are known to be very eco-friendly but fear not, they are not going to impose a car ban and force the people of Europe to ride bicycles until the end of their presidency. However, what the Netherlands presidency put forward as its fourth focus is forward looking climate and energy policy. Sustainable energy projects based on the Paris December agreement as well as UN Sustainable Development Goals provide a good starting point. Some suggestions include recycling the reusable metal parts of our phones and thus reducing our dependency on those metals and changing the mentality of using bicycles as a daily means of transport and not just for leisure activities. The Netherlands presidency has a couple more months to bring the rest of Europe in on the secret of identifying your bike among hundreds of identically looking bikes in overcrowded parking lots. But wouldn’t it be nice if not being able to find your bike was the biggest challenge that the world is facing climate wise?