Throughout history, when the Dutch have been threatened with inundation they’ve rallied to build the outer defences which protect their ‘polders’ (tracts of land below sea level).
“We’ve applied this to politics too,” explains Dutch Ambassador Simon Smits. “The ‘Polder Model’ was born out of the realisation that either you cooperate together to keep the polder dry or you drown together”.
Smits arrived in London just before the Netherlands took over the EU Presidency – and a dose of pragmatic Dutch ‘poldering’ is just what the Union needs as it confronts serious challenges.
The refugee crisis, in particular, is likely to dominate the agenda, he predicts. “We cannot leave the countries where the influx is biggest to solve the issues themselves. We need better border control, properly financed, to be able to determine whether we are dealing with economic migrants or refugees. Those who do not have a right to refugee status will have to be sent back.”
It’s heartening, Smits points out, that for every one of the 60,000 refugees taken in by the Netherlands, there is a Dutch volunteer. But there is a limit to the numbers that countries can sustain, he adds.
How the EU handles the challenge of migration is likely to have an impact on the other challenge for the Dutch presidency – the upcoming referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.
The Netherlands’ role will be an honest broker during the negotiations, says Smits, who hopes a deal will be struck during the Dutch Presidency. “There is a genuine willingness from all 28 members around the table to come to a solution.”
A key British demand in a renegotiated settlement with the EU is to restrict the welfare benefits of EU workers to reduce the UK’s “pull factor”. This is strongly resisted by a number of EU member states because it goes against the principle of non-discrimination between EU citizens, but Smits is hopeful a compromise can be found.
The business-minded Dutch have sympathy for the British demand that non-Euro members are not adversely affected by policy decisions made by those inside the Eurozone. “We have to find a solution where Britain and other Euro-outs will be able to voice their concerns without going so far as a veto,” says Smits.
The other British demands dovetail with the main aims of the Dutch Presidency. Both are eager to make the EU more competitive through better regulation.
The Dutch also want to bring Europe closer to its citizens and broadly agree with Britain’s demands for an enhanced role for national parliaments, says Smits, repeating the famous subsidiarity phrase coined by former Dutch Foreign Minister and now First Vice-President of the EU Commission, Frans Timmermans: “Europe where necessary, national where possible.”
When it comes to collective action on trans-national issues, Smits has witnessed the EU’s soft power during his career. Prior to this posting, he served as Director-General of Foreign Economic Relations and was involved in the TTIP negotiations with the US. The EU’s consumer market of 500 million gives Europe considerable leverage for a “broad and balanced agreement” with the US that would be hard for countries to achieve individually, reflects Smits.
The environment and sustainability is also a recurring theme in his career. As a senior civil servant in the European Cooperation as well as the Economic and Ecological Cooperation departments, the Ambassador saw the EU take a lead in the climate change debate, an existential issue for the low-lying Netherlands and many poorer nations, such as Bangladesh, where he has also served.
In Geneva, his focus was at the UN Conference for Environment and Development (UNCED), but also the Conference on the former Yugoslavia, to bring peace to the troubled Balkans. It was a region he knew well having served in Belgrade and later to Zagreb on the European Monitoring Mission during the Balkan conflict. Today Croatia is a peaceful EU member state – a salutary reminder of the principle underpinning the incipient EU back in 1951 which was to end war in Europe.
“Europe is not just a transactional relationship,” reminds Smits. “We also stand for norms and values.”
But he also understands that the “emotion and gut feeling” surrounding the upcoming referendum debate needs to be balanced by straight facts. “Our prime objective during this Presidency is to facilitate an informed debate.”
From a Dutch perspective a British exit would be a “great pity”, admits Smits. The two nations share close ties at every level – they are outward-looking trading nations with similar values; they are close allies; and the great Anglo-Dutch companies such as Unilever and Shell (where the Ambassador worked) are an example of how intertwined the economies are.
So the next few months will be critical for the EU and for Britain. Those in the sporting world could call this Dutch Presidency a ‘hospital pass’ – where the player receiving the ball is confronted by heavy-duty opposition.
Ambassador Smits grins. He served in South Africa and understands the rugby analogy, but also knows that with team work (and a bit of Dutch courage), forward momentum is possible in the maul of EU politics.