“How do we close the gap between The Hague and Brussels”? I watched this title in amazement – between The Hague and Brussels? In recent years, I have mainly felt a growing gap between Brussels and the Dutch citizens. Last September, I watched this webinar organized by Clingendael in which four experts expressed their concerns about how little engagement there is in The Hague with policy made in Brussels. In this case they referred to the annual State of the Union Address of September 2020 and the plans that the European Commission presented for the future of the European Union. These plans are far-reaching, but in Dutch news the State of the Union Address hardly received any coverage.
According to a Dutch opinion poll by EenVandaag in 2019, 29% of Dutch citizens believe that the Netherlands should leave the EU. This means that a significant amount of 5 million people, the equivalent of the provinces South-Holland and Utrecht want to leave the EU. It seems that Brussels not only has a gap with The Hague, but also a gap with the Dutch citizens to close. How is it possible that an institution that was set up to guarantee the security and freedom of the citizen, does not succeed in conveying this? And does it actually matter if the Dutch citizen does not feel represented by the EU?
The European Union annually conducts the so-called Eurobarometer which measures, among other things, how EU citizens feel about EU membership and “if their country could better face the future outside the EU”. The Barometer shows that rural-urban differences, educational level and social class have a major impact on how people feel about EU membership. People in the cities are in general more satisfied with the European Union than people in small towns or in the countryside. In 2019, 75% of respondents who considered themselves upper middle class expressed a positive opinion about EU membership, compared to 62% middle class and 54% of the working class. The decrease in support per social class is interesting and should be taken into consideration when discussing the overall feeling towards EU membership in Dutch society.
Many of the most heard arguments of Eurosceptics are related to a decrease in control and sovereignty of individual nation states. Eurosceptics believe that Brussels is an undemocratic and non-transparent whole where the individual member states increasingly lose their influence in shaping policy. An often-heard argument among Britons to vote in 2016 for leaving EU, was because they felt the EU threatened British sovereignty. Eurosceptics also argue that the EU no longer serves a common goal. Our grandmothers and grandfathers grew up with a different story about European unity than our generation. The founding of the current European Union began in 1952 as economic cooperation ánd as a peace project to prevent member states from going to war again. Eurosceptics argue that this is nowadays no longer the only European story. The EU has taken up more responsibilities than only peace through economic cooperation. The EU has become the world’s largest donor of humanitarian and development assistance, providing humanitarian aid to 120 million people worldwide each year. The EU has an extensive network of delegations around the world, mainly operating in the framework of external relations. The EU has started to formulate common plans to tackle climate change and perhaps in the future, the EU will become a health union.
This last role we have noticed especially in 2020, as the EU took up the responsibility for the purchase of vaccines for all member states and is currently making plans for a coordinated health response in the future. During a meeting of the European Council on 25-26 February 2021, one of the topics on the agenda was the implementation of a corona passport. The European Council agreed that member states will continue to work on a common approach to vaccination certificates, and urged all member states to cooperate in the development of a European coordination system of negative test results and/or vaccination certificate. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte states that heads of state are increasingly moving towards an agreement over such a certificate or passport.
The EU developed, changed and took up different roles since it was founded and I do not argue that this is a bad thing. I do however feel that Brussels is failing to convince member states and citizens of the importance and relevance of these new developments. The amount of Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament has grown in the last years and if this trend continues, it will endanger the future stability of the European Union. Therefore, it is extremely important to continue working on the EU’s transparency and make sure that people feel represented by the EU. In this process, the focus should lie on providing good information about the decision-making process and the relevance of the EU for citizens. Particularly important is to continue investigating why certain groups are more inclined to distrust the EU and whether these are arguments based on facts or on sentiment.
A first step in this process is to make the European Parliament, Commission and Council more visible for Dutch citizens. Here lies a task for the EU’s communication department, that already outlined in the strategic plan 2020-2024 to “communicate on the impact of the EU budget on the daily life of the Europeans and thus reinforce a pro-EU feeling”. The 26 Dutch representatives in the European Parliament can focus more on increasing their visibility in the Netherlands and become a clear bridge between the Netherlands and Brussels. People will need to get a better idea of who is representing them in Brussels. This would both enlarge knowledge and increase trust in the European Union as a whole. The EU can make use of the Parliamentary elections or the annual Europe Day on 9 May (coincidently on the same day as Russia’s victory day) to create momentum.
The Dutch national and regional governments can pick up on these events with the aim to increase visibility and engagement among Dutch citizens. The favorable result would be that Dutch journalists will report more on EU affairs that are relevant for the Netherlands. The Dutch national 8 o’clock news for example did not have an item on 25, 26, or 27 February on the topics discussed during the European Council meeting mentioned above. Even though the topics are highly relevant for the Netherlands as well.
But how do we increase that engagement? For starters, the Dutch government should more frequently refer to issues discussed in Brussels, so Dutch news can pick this up and report in advance what the issues are on the EU agenda. This will prevent people from having the feeling that the EU decides things that member states can only comply to. The government can for example address regional and local newspapers more. The government can also reach people by making advertisements or explanatory video’s about the EU during popular tv shows. Secondly, the government in cooperation with the EU, can establish working groups that work on a provincial or municipal level. People can attend meetings, workshops or interactive afternoons. Companies and civil society can share their experiences during these meetings, so the plans of the European Commission are translated into practice. Thirdly, the government should keep explaining why it is important that we do or don’t do certain things at EU level. By increasing awareness and knowledge on EU-Dutch items and decision-making, we will get the ball rolling and eventually the conversation.
The goal should not be to convince Eurosceptics of the importance of the European Union, but to at least show all Dutch citizens that it is a visible, trustworthy institution that makes an effort to show it is there for the people it represents. By closing the gap and increasing transparency, the European Union will become more inclusive and trustworthy, which can only add to the stability of the Union.