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In Brexit's wake, Dutch hand off rotating EU presidency to Slovakia
Diplomatic Pouch / July 7, 2016

By Larry Luxner

With the European Union still reeling from Britain’s June 23 vote to leave the 28-member club, the Netherlands ceremoniously handed over the club’s rotating six-month presidency to Slovakia, effective July 1.

At a reception hosted the day before by the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Washington, Dutch Ambassador Henne Schuwer declared that “the EU is bruised but not beaten,” then told his Slovak counterpart, Ambassador Peter Kmec: “I entrust to you the presidency of the European Union.”

Several hundred people attended the gathering, yet despite the cocktails, the Dutch cheese and generous servings of strapačky — a Slovak staple consisting of potato dumplings and bacon — the event had an air of sadness to it.

“We are Dutch. We like to prepare well, and we had 16 or 17 scenarios in the cupboard for all kinds of circumstances, yet none of the scenarios covered the events that shaped our presidency,” said Schuwer, reviewing the first six months of 2016.

“Our presidency, unfortunately, will not be remembered for the fact that we made an agreement to tackle resistance against antibiotics, or for the agreement that all research funded by public money will be open to the public starting in 2020, or for the Pact of Amsterdam which says EU institutions would work together to give a bigger place in decision-making for urban centers — or for the two agreements we made to tackle fiscal flight and make sure everybody pays their fair share of taxes,” Schuwer lamented.

“It will definitely not be remembered for the railway package, or for an agreement among nine member states on wind energy in the North Sea, agreements that will have a lasting effect on the way Europeans live,” said the ambassador. “Unfortunately, our presidency will be remembered for the refugee crisis, and for the vote of the British people about a week ago.”

That referendum, in which 52 percent of British voters elected to leave the EU, shocked the world and sent markets into a panic. Things have since settled down, and despite the chaos, Schuwer advised Kmec to “resist the temptation to look for the spotlight” as Slovakia— which had formed half of Czechoslovakia until that country’s “velvet divorce” of 1993 — takes over the EU presidency for the first time ever.

“Treat the EU as it should be treated, which is a fantastic organization,” he counseled. “It is a very successful project that has given us who live in Europe more than 70 years of peace and prosperity, and a life worth living.”

David O’Sullivan, the EU’s ambassador in Washington, also had some advice.

“Your first presidency is like your first girlfriend; you never forget it,” the veteran Irish diplomat quipped, recalling the first time Ireland led the EU back in 1973. “It’s a matter of great national pride. It’s also a great opportunity to showcase your country.”

He added: “Bratislava is a wonderful city which I first visited in 1990, and most recently in 2008. What a transformation — due in part to Slovakia’s membership in the European Union. But the Slovak presidency will now have to face this issue of the British referendum and its consequences.”

Indeed, Kmec said his landlocked country of 5.4 million — which along with nine other states joined the EU in 2004 — has “a clear plan for tackling priority issues” and that it would “pay particular attention to sustainable migration policy.”

“We want Europe to be prepared for investment and new jobs,” he said. “The EU’s acceptance of Slovakia has provided us with an economic and political boost. Today we are at the core of European integration and we are contributing to economic growth. On the other hand, most of our time in the EU has been spent in crisis management mode. Europe has been tested by the economic and financial crisis, Russia’s annexation of part of Ukraine, and most recently by the unprecedented refugee and migration crisis.”

Slovakia’s three top challenges, he said, are migration, territorial issues and the aftermath of Brexit.

“These will be the highlights of our presidency, and they overshadow all other priorities,” he said. “While we fully respect the results [of the British referendum], our ambition will be to deal with the outcome, engaging in professional negotiations with the U.K. The current situation clearly shows that the EU needs to implement its agreements more effectively. Unless we improve, many citizens will remain unconvinced of the EU’s ability to address their concerns.”

A wide-ranging poll by Pew Research appears to support those concerns.

In a presentation titled “Europe’s Place in the World,” Richard Wike, Pew’s director of global attitudes research, said that of the 10 countries included in the survey, the Dutch showed the strongest support for EU economic engagement — with 72 percent of respondents saying it’s a good thing). That compares to Greece, where only 35 percent of people support greater EU engagement and 57 oppose it on the grounds that it lowers wages and costs jobs.

Greeks were most likely (by a margin of 83 percent) to support the idea that European countries should deal with their own problems and let other countries solve theirs, followed by Hungarians (77 percent), Italians (67 percent) and Poles (65 percent). On the other hand, only 40 percent of Germans and Spaniards felt that way.

The survey, part of a presentation titled “Europe’s Place in the World,” involved nearly 12,000 respondents in 10 countries that are home to 80 percent of the 508 million people living under the EU flag. Conducted between April 4 and May 12, it has a margin of error of 3.3 to 4.7 percent.

“We do see many divisions in Europe, and divisions across countries in terms of how they prioritize issues,” Wike said. “For example, the right is more worried than the left about the refugee threat. The biggest fear is in France, where 61 percent of people on the right say it’s a major threat, and just 29 percent on the left.”

Many Europeans also say their country’s influence on the world stage has declined over the past 10 years. Some 65 percent of people in Greece feel that way, though in Germany only 11 percent of respondents say that — and in fact 62 percent see their country playing a more important role internationally than in 2006.

When it comes to global threats, 76 percent of Europeans (and 80 percent of Americans in a similar survey) named ISIS as the world’s top danger, followed by climate change (66 percent); global economic instability (60 percent); cyber attacks from other countries (54 percent); the influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees (49 percent); tensions with Russia (34 percent); China’s emergence as a world power (30 percent); and U.S. power and influence (25 percent).

In Spain, 63 percent of respondents said human rights should be a top foreign policy goal, compared to only 21 percent in Poland and 17 percent in Hungary. Likewise, 83 percent of Spaniards say foreign aid should be increased, while only 30 percent of Hungarians and 29 percent of Greeks back an increase in foreign assistance.

Asked if the EU should play a more active role in world affairs, answers ranged from a high of 90 percent in Spain to a low of 55 percent in the U.K.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the EU,” said Wike. “Nonetheless, even in the U.K., people say they want the EU to play a bigger role in world affairs, so there’s still this aspiration that the EU can do some good in the international arena.”

O’Sullivan agreed that bureaucrats in Brussels “need to start rethinking Europe.”

“Public disappointment and views in the U.K. are not completely out of sync,” questioned the EU ambassador, though he wondered “how much of this is just general discontentment with life, and how much is really focused on the ills of the EU.”

O’Sullivan added: “The EU’s institutions have to take the responsibility for what they manage, but the EU as we know it today was not built by the institutions. It was built by the member states.” He said that in the aftermath of Brexit, the remaining 27 states should have a “vigorous debate at the national level about why Europe exists.”

The EU envoy, who adamantly refused to discuss the referendum ahead of the actual vote, was surprisingly candid in his criticism of British Prime Minister David Cameron in his remarks at the Dutch Embassy.

“During the debate in the U.K., there were some fantastic speeches made on behalf of the EU by Mr. Cameron. Forgive me, but I didn’t hear those speeches a year ago, two years ago, or three years ago,” said O’Sullivan. “The lesson to draw is that if you want people to understand why we need Europe, then let’s start with an explanation of why we have built Europe in this way and why we need to defend and cherish it.”

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