Timmermans: Support for EU ‘quite low’ in the Netherlands

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Frans Timmermans, Dutch Minister for EU Affairs, is confident that Parliament will support the government’s decision to avoid a referendum on the new EU treaty. But at the same time, he concedes that more needs to be done to gain the support of the Dutch public, which he says is currently ‘quite low’. He shared his views on this and other EU topics with EURACTIV Slovakia

Frans Timmermans is Dutch Minister for EU Affairs.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here. 

The Dutch government has decided that there is no need for a referendum on the Reform Treaty. Do you believe that the parliament will support this stance? 

As far as we know now, there is a majority in parliament supporting our position. We will have the debate on this next Thursday, but it seems the majority will support us. 

To what extent is the Reform Treaty supported by the Dutch public? 

I think there is by-and-large support for the amendments to the Constitutional Treaty. There is a general feeling that we have negotiated well, and what came out is better for us. But I must also say that we have to work on public support for Europe, because it is quite low right now. 

One of the arguments of the Constitutional Treaty’s opponents was that Netherlands is losing power in an enlarged Europe. Do you think that enlargement is diminishing the influence of the old members? 

It is obvious that if you have 27 members instead of six, then relatively speaking your influence is lower. But at the same time, 27 member countries and 500 million people – that as a whole is much more powerful than an EU of six members. It depends whether you want to see the glass half-full or half-empty. I would argue that relatively speaking, our influence has increased after the enlargement, because we have greater possbility to influence what happens in the world than we did when we were smaller. 

But that is only true if the block of 27 is able to come to some kind of decision. Do you think that a multi-speed Europe would be a solution to possible gridlock in decision-making? 

It does work in certain areas, but not within the EU. You should not have the multi-speed Europe in the EU, but outside, and then come back in. Schengen is a great example of how some counties started with closer co-operation outside of the EU, and once it was successful it was incorporated into the EU, and now all members aspire to become members of it. That is the way forward. But to create more speeds within the EU is very complicated. You get problems with decision-making, transparency, control, etc. 

What do we need to do if we want Europe to become a global actor? 

Europe needs to speak with one voice much more than it does today. One of the biggest challenges we have is our Russia policy. If there are so many differences within Europe, that weakens our position vis-à-vis Moscow. And I would argue that we need to come up with unified policies in certain areas; that makes us strong. We saw it for example in relation to Ukraine – Europe had set the pace for dealing with Ukraine after the crisis, because it was unified, had one policy. And then the Americans and the Russians followed what Europe did. One of the most important uses where this should happen is environment policy and climate change. I believe we have a good basis in the agreement of the European Council in March, we should build on that. 

What does the Dutch government think about the co-operation between NATO and the EU over security issues and crisis management? 

NATO would be lost without the EU, and the EU needs NATO’s experience and capabilities in its own operations. I welcome the decision in France to close the gap between the NATO and France. It is very important. At the same time, European also in this domain should do more together than they do now. There is no need to fear that closer co-operation would be at NATO’s expense. On the contrary, if Europe could speak on the security matters with one voice, it would strengthen NATO. 

Lately, there has been much talk of “Social Europe”. Do you think that this is just political rhetoric, or is the development of a “social face” of the EU really necessary for it to come closer to citizens’ needs and expectations? 

I see a clear convergence of social and economic structures of the EU. The idea, popular some ten years ago, that in some European countries – be it in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, or elsewhere – would the economic and social sphere be organised according to the American model, did not come true. We Europeans are coming closer and closer together in organising the economy, prioritising social structures, positions on social services and the social safety net, etc. This should be a basis for co-operation. Now, I’m certainly not saying that we should have social policies on the European level. That should be done on the national level. But the common model should be the basis of our economic policies within the Lisbon Agenda. 

During recent years we have witnessed a wave of Euroscepticism in European countries. Do you think it is a result of economic slowdown, or another external reason, or is it because the EU went too far and too fast? 

There are many reasons. In the old member states, the enlargement went often too fast for them to keep pace with developments. This also played its part in the referendum campaigns in France and the Netherlands. I also believe that globalisation is coming at us with such a speed and such a force that people see Europe as part of the problem rather than part of the solution. I also believe that 9/11 and all the tensions in society had led in many countries to an identity crisis. So there were many reasons and it is difficult to point to just one element. 

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