Opinion: Little Distinguishes Dutch Presidency | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.12.2004
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Opinion: Little Distinguishes Dutch Presidency

On July 1, the Netherlands took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. On January 1, they'll hand the reins to neighbor Luxembourg. What achievements can the Dutch claim during their time at the helm?

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Starting talks with Turkey: Balkenende (right) with Erdogan

The high point of the Dutch EU presidency came at the end. After two days of pokering over the Cyprus question, Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende came up with a formula for compromise that would pave the way for the start of negotiations on Turkey's EU membership.

Prior to this, Balkenende -- a Christian Democrat -- had challenged Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by asking him for a de facto recognition of the Greek Cypriot government in divided Cyprus.

Erdogan and Balkenende argued audibly. Unexpected outbreaks of emotion came from the normally staid Balkenende, nicknamed "Harry Potter" due to his boyish haircut and round glasses.

If anything about the Dutch presidency is to go down in the annals of EU history, it'll be this historic summit aimed at opening negotiations with Turkey. Otherwise, the Dutch term played out in an organized, if somewhat bland, fashion.

During the debates about the EU's future budget planning, Balkenende was forced to take a back seat, since as president, he was obliged to remain neutral. Insiders said that personally he would have advocated a strict savings plan.

On a per capita basis, the Netherlands contributes the most to Brussels' coffers. Together with other big contributors, it tends to argue in favor of placing a ceiling on the common budget. After six months of Dutch leadership, the positions of the main contributor nations and those nations that gain the most from EU subsidies haven't moved any closer together.

On another sensitive issue, the EU's Stability and Growth Pact, the Netherlands has been equally hands-off. Even though Dutch Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm is one of the toughest defenders of solid state financing, he stood by and watched as the pact was weakened little by little -- mainly by France and Germany, who have repeatedly breached the EU's budget rules. The problems with the pact were simply postponed by the Netherlands, to be passed on to Luxembourg.

Streamlining immigration and asylum

Among Balkenende's achievements was the approval of a wide-reaching program that will determine the course of EU domestic and judicial policy over the next five years. Immigration and asylum procedures are to be unified under the program.

After a disappointing turnout by voters across all 25 EU states for the European parliamentary elections, the Netherlands declared a goal of bringing the EU closer to the people. First attempts were made to start an awareness campaign and to fuel a debate about European values. But these initiatives are still tender, young saplings that will need a lot of care and attention in the years to come. Other than a promise to do more in the future, a conference of EU ministers entitled "Communicating Europe" brought little in the way of concrete results.

Failure on Sudan

Barroso EU Außenministertreffen in Brüssel

Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot (right) speaking with European Commission President Jose Barroso during a meeting of EU foreign ministers

Despite wordy announcements during the summer months, the Netherlands was unable to make any progress in Sudan. Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot (photo) threatened the Sudanese government with sanctions if it didn't stop the violence in the Darfur region. But he had to back down after the EU was unable to agree on a common position. Since then, there's been no further progress. It's hardly the most glorious chapter in the Dutch presidency.

Europe will remain a priority on Jan Peter Balkenende's agenda. Next summer, he must win a referendum on the EU's first constitution -- a document that was signed on his watch. The Dutch may be sceptical, but Balkenende is convinced that the future of his small but affluent nation lies in Europe, and only in Europe.

For now, the Netherlands can recover from the extra burden of holding the EU presidency. Its next term -- which by then, will be conducted in tandem with another country -- will arrive in 2016. And fittingly, that same year could see Turkey -- having been invited to start membership talks under a Dutch presidency -- take its place as a member of the European Union.

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