Dutch Presidency of the EU: six months that will decide Europe’s future

The upcoming 6 months will see a Dutch Presidency of the EU. It’s going to be a very busy time.

I wrote a piece for the Dutch daily newspaper Nederlands Dagblad, to help explain the issues people in the UK will be discussing during that time. To see the original article click here or to read an English translation below.

Dutch Presidency of the EU: six months that will decide Europe’s future

The next six months will be some of the most critical in the future of the EU. The sea could not be any rougher, and our ship is in danger of sinking from the many crises that are weighing it down. Thankfully, we are about to have a steady hand take over the helm.

The Dutch EU Presidency will need to take on some of the tough questions: tackling the pressures on the Schengen borderless area; addressing the Eurozone’s weaknesses; strengthening our fight against terrorists. However, the next six months will also see the negotiating of a series of reforms aimed at encouraging the British people to vote to remain within the EU.

When I first became an MEP, the Dutch people had just voted ‘No’ to the European Constitution. I arrived in the European Parliament and was told that the Dutch definitely did not vote against more EU integration. Of course not, many argued that you didn’t understand the question. or you decided to vote on some other more domestic concerns. Nobody wanted to admit that they have an ugly baby.

‘Nothing must be allowed to stand in the way of the European project. Nothing must in the way of political integration’, the leader of the Christian Democrats group declared. That was when I realised there was a complete disconnect between how the British people view the EU – as evolving from a common market – and how many in Brussels view it – as a project towards a European political union.  If we do not begin to address that perception gap, the EU will fail – not just in the eyes of British people, but in the eyes of all Europeans.

Growing euro scepticism is not just a UK phenomenon, which is why we created the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament as a way of bringing meaningful change to the EU, looking to meet the challenges of the 2050s, not back to an outdated model of integration from the 1950s. Today, we are the third largest political group in the European Parliament, with 75 MEPs from 17 countries and five parties in government, and we are pleased to include the ChristenUnie and Staatkundig Gereformeerde Partij in our group.

So whilst growing concern about the EU’s direction is Europe-wide, in the UK it has been a major factor in public debate for the past 25 years. Current polls show that around a third of British people have decided to vote for a Brexit. Around a third want to stay. And the final third have not yet made up their mind. They are the people who will swing the referendum either way, and they are waiting for signs that the EU can be responsive to reasonable demands.

David Cameron’s proposals for EU reform are reasonable, but they are also aimed at helping the whole EU deliver more of what the British (and I hope the Dutch) people want: a more responsive EU, a more prosperous EU, and a more flexible EU.

They are realistic in their aims: to bridge the democratic deficit by giving national parliaments more say and scrutiny over laws; to open trade, increase commerce and cut bureaucracy to bring the jobs and growth we need to sustain our quality of life. David Cameron is also asking the EU to accept the reality that the UK is unlikely to join the euro, but it is the single market’s biggest champion. The single currency and the single market therefore have to be clearly delineated.  There is no inherent reason for a single market area to have a single currency, unless the intention is to eventually create a single (super)state.

I understand that the most difficult proposal will be a limit on benefits for the first few years for those who take advantage of free movement to come to the UK. Free movement is a cornerstone of the EU, but one which has been redefined over the years.  My constituency of London has benefited from immigration over the years, and I am proud of the number of communities that we host – from outside and inside the EU.  Over 1.8 million Brits have taken advantage of freedom of movement to live elsewhere in the EU and many Brits live outside the EU.  However, whether it is justified or not, there is a perception in the UK that our universal benefits system makes us a soft touch for people who come for the benefits, not to work. I have been quite clear on the doorsteps of London: if voters want to opt out of EU freedom of movement or want a “fair immigration” policy where everyone outside the UK is treated equally, they have to leave the EU.  I hope that the proposals David Cameron has put on the table can redress the perception that many have over “benefit tourism”, so that we can restore some level of confidence in free movement.

The decisions made during the Dutch Presidency will almost certainly determine whether the UK stays or leaves the EU. I am confident that the Dutch government is well placed to deliver a fair deal not just for the UK, but a reform agenda that benefits the whole EU.

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