Open Europe Blog

Dutch PM Mark Rutte (VVD) and Foreign Minister Frans
Timmermans (PVdA) discussing what the EU should
and should not be doing?

For anyone involved in the EU reform debate, this is a must-read. The Dutch government has today published its “subsidiarity review” – an assessment of what the EU should and shouldn’t be involved in. Again, we’re first to the punch in publishing an English version of the document on our blog.

This is likely to be welcomed with open arms in Whitehall – and should be studied carefully by MPs in Westminster. Though not all good news for David Cameron’s renegotiation strategy – the Dutch have explicitly said they don’t want EU treaty change for example – this is clearly a major step towards a reformed Europe.

First, it shows that discontent with the EU status quo is not simply a UK phenomenon – or a Tory problem as some commentators would have us believe. Secondly, the ideas the Dutch are putting forward are in themselves pertinent, and would go quite some way in achieving a better functioning, more democratic and better focused EU. Finally – and this is where it gets really good news for Cameron – countries like Sweden. Denmark and Germany are far more likely to be persuaded down the reform path if the Dutch are prepared to take a lead with the UK.

So what does the document say? Well, it sets out nine broad principles and 54 specific recommendations, relating to what the EU should and shouldn’t do. Many of the proposals have also been championed by Open Europe in various forms (it’s worth re-visiting our “European localism” paper). Most significantly, in the press release, the Dutch government proclaims that the “time of an ‘ever closer union’ in every possible policy area is behind us”. This is not going to go down well in certain corners in Brussels.

The guiding principle is described as “European where necessary, national where possible”, and the tone of the entire document chimes well with Cameron’s EU speech, calling for a “European Union that is a more modest, more sober and at the same time more effective.” Interestingly, it notes that the Dutch EU Presidency in the first half of 2016 “could play a role in promoting such an agenda” – this could coincide with the beginning of the EU referendum campaign in the UK should Cameron be in power.

The 9 general principles include:

  • Where the European Court of Justice interprets EU law in a way that EU legislators had not provided for and/or did not intend, then this should be possible to address by amending the EU rules on which the Court based its ruling (this could well be a key plank in Cameron’s renegotiation strategy. An example of where the ECJ ruled in precisely such a way is the Working Time Directive, where the ECJ’s interpretation of rules governing on-call time and rest periods for doctors has caused havoc in the NHS);
  • Every EU intervention needs to be motivated by a clear legal basis in the EU Treaties, and the Commission shouldn’t be making proposals on a legal basis that is tenuous or insecure. The Dutch Government explicitly mentions the English term “creeping competences” (this is very similar to what the UK government wants); 
  • EU legislation should focus on main points to achieve shared goals rather than to prescribe in detail how those goals should be achieved (again echoes Cameron’s speech);
  • When there are widely shared objections to EU legislation, there should be a mechanism to stop the Commission taking any further initiative in that area – this is a bid to stop new EU laws in areas where national governments don’t want them.

As regards the 54 specific recommendations, they mention individual measures where EU power should be scaled back. There are many overlaps with UK ideas. These include:

  • Halting the further harmonisation of social security systems. The document says: “It is necessary to combat the negative impact of labour migration, including the abuse of social security systems” – an issue UK Home Secretary Theresa May has been keen to highlight; 
  • Limiting the EU budget – the Dutch hint at scrapping the EU’s Globalisation Adjustment Fund and structural funds outside of the poorest regions in the poorest countries on the basis that these do not demonstrate added value (the latter is a proposal Open Europe has championed and which the previous Labour government had pushed for. It’s also gaining traction amongst Tory backbenchers) 
  • No expansion of agencies’ remits and no increases in their budgets – Cameron was very critical of EU quangos in his EU speech;
  • Working conditions, which should only be regulated in broad outline (health and safety and working time, for example);
  • No EU regulation of media pluralism; 
  • A two-year freeze in salaries of EU officials;
  • Sunset clauses should be incorporated in EU proposals (an old UK demand);
  • The Financial Transaction Tax is heavily criticised, because “it has been designed in such a way that even parties outside the FTT area, like Dutch pension funds, will be taxed when they trade financial instruments issued in FTT countries”;
  • CO2 emissions should be dealt with at the global level rather than via EU legislation.  

There are also some further detailed examples of where the EU has gone too far and where powers should be rolled back. For example, the suggestion is made that flood risk management should only be harmonised at European level for truly trans-boundary water courses. The report also recommends the phasing out of the EU programmes for school milk and school fruit, and heavily criticises the recent proposal to ban refillable olive oil jugs from restaurant (which was eventually dropped by the European Commission).

However, the document also sets out clear limits to what the Dutch government says it is prepared to consider and it does not does call for entire policy areas to be returned to national governments. The Dutch government also says it is “not interested in treaty change or opt-outs” for itself.

Nonetheless, the fact that one of the EU’s founding members has stated that “the time of ever closer union is behind us” is clearly a major development.

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