Dutch presidency of the Council: Pragmatism with a capital P

From January until June, the Netherlands will preside the Council of the European Union. As one of the founding fathers of the EU, the Dutch have already had a few Council presidencies. Previous presidencies have resulted in the signing of the Single European Act (February 1986) and the finalisation of negotiations of both the Maastricht Treaty (December 1991) and the Amsterdam Treaty (June 1997). That might create high expectations about what will happen during the coming presidency. However, this time there will be “no big visions”, according to Mark Rutte, the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Instead, the Dutch presidency is going to be all about pragmatism.

Pragmatism; a practical, clear-cut way to solve problems; sounds like a good idea for Europe. You could even say that pragmatism is the philosophy on which the EU was built. With Europe going from one crisis to another, there does not seem to be much time to ponder the end goal of European integration. A pragmatic approach is often the best one to offer solutions, but only in the short term. Surely, preventing problems would become easier if everybody knows the direction in which we are going. I can’t help but think that a lack of clear vision is a cause or at least an aggravating factor when it comes to the current problems faced by the EU.

Instead of looking at pragmatism as a policy choice, you can also look at it from a more ‘pragmatic’ perspective: how much can you really change in 6 months, especially in an ever-larger Union where decision-making is increasingly difficult? If the influence of the Council presidency is more limited nowadays, then why spend time developing a big vision? Agenda setting is an important power, but in the end, isn’t the agenda set mostly by current events? You can prepare the presidency years in advance, and come with important policy objectives. In the case of the presidency of the Netherlands, stimulating the economy through innovation, cutting back on unnecessary and complex legislation and improving democracy and transparency in the EU are key. In reality however, the presidency will be mostly about getting all Member States on the same line concerning the most pressing problems: the migrant crisis and the threat of terrorism. In the spirit of pragmatism, the Netherlands will no doubt compromise its aspirational policy objectives and solve the pressing problems first.

Whatever the agenda of the presidency, what counts in the end are the results. One thing that will help for sure is a good connection between the Council and the Commission, with the Dutch Frans Timmermans in a powerful position to bring the Council’s decisions to practice. The current Secretary-General[1] of the Commission, Alexander Italianer, is also Dutch. He may offer additional help in coordinating the Commission’s actions with those of the Council. In the end, a good cooperation between the institutions will lead to quicker and better implementation of whatever is decided: a pragmatist’s dream!


[1] The secretariat general is responsible for ensuring coherency of the actions of the European Commission

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