The Council of the European Union has seen its presidency changed the 1st of January 2016 . This is a rotating presidency. The principle of Troika, formalized by the Treaty of Lisbon, provides for a coordinated presidency of three States for 18 months, each Member State holds the charge for a period of 6 months: from January to June and July to December. This should allow for continuity, coherence and proper functioning of new institutional rules.
The current trio (January 2016 – June 2017 ) is composed by the Dutch, Slovak and Maltese Chairs.
The Dutch has just succeeded the Luxembourg presidency (July to December 2015).
Netherlands, Slovakia and Malta, the Presidency Trio, have jointly drafted an agenda setting out the main topics which the EU Council will address in the incoming 18 months.
The Netherlands presidency has announced that it will focus on four main priorities.
First of all, indicating a comprehensive approach to migration and international security, in view of the fundamental changes over the past five years in the EU’s immediate vicinity.
Secondly, referring to Europe as an innovator and job creator, with the aim of: stimulating innovative entrepreneurship, investing in research, committing towards the establishment of high quality standards of education in all member states and at the same time modernizing and, where possible, reducing legislation so that European laws could really work for citizen, business and local governments.
Thirdly, concerning the Presidency’s focus on sound, future-proof European finances and a robust eurozone, in order to concentrate in particular on structural reforms and coordinated economic policy, to guarantee healthy public finances in modern economies.
Finally, as a fourth priority, the Netherlands has emphasized the close cohesion among the issues of climate change, energy, the environment and sustainability.
Nevertheless it is clear that the challenge of migration and refugees will remain high on the agenda for the Dutch, and Maltese Presidencies. As the December European Council underlined, steps to strengthen the EU’s external borders will be a top priority.
In this contest the Commission LIBE auditioned the Dutch justice and security minister Ard Van der Steur and State Secretary for Security and Justice Klaas Dijkhoff that presented the priorities of the incoming Dutch presidency for what concerns Civil liberties, justice and home affairs.
Ard Van der Steur began his speech by stating “Europe was built on a tradition of freedom, democracy and justice. The ideas that have shaped our states, which are governed by the rule of law, are not only French, British, Greek, or German, they are European”.
“We are fully aware that the Parliament, the Commission, and the Council are the cornerstone of the European Union: one cannot function without the others” said Mr Van der Steur, asserting the Council will to cooperate with Parliament and the Commission in order to face all the security internal and external challenges Europe is currently passing through.
The minister declared that terrorism and radicalization remain high priorities of the Council agenda.
“We must strive for balance between defending the rule of law and fundamental rights, like privacy on one side, and checking down, persecuting and punishing terrorists: freedom and security should always be in balance”.
The minister also remarked that in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, many legislative proposals have been accelerated: such as the directive on firearms, or the one on terrorism that will strengthen the European ability to fight against this crime by considering a criminal offence to finance, receive training or travel to other countries to commit acts of terrorism.
Moreover the minister stated that the Commission will present a new directive on the European Criminal Record Information System (ECRIS) and remarked the results reached on the directive on PNR.
As for the renewed European internal sectoral strategy for 2015 up to 2020 the minister recommended joint action between Member states and the Commission and asserted that the work of the Luxemburg presidency will be continued by the Dutch, Slovak and Maltese presidency.
Van der Steur then stressed the will to take further the work made by the Luxemburg presidency on the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) directive. This directive already contains all the key provision on the set up and the organization of the office as well as the rules on investigation, prosecution and procedural safeguards. The Minister expressed the will to build on this achievements, by provisionally closing the main chapters, especially starting with the relations of the EPPO with the external partners.
As for cybercrime security the minister declared that the Dutch ambition is to achieve a common view on jurisdiction in the cyberspace, given his importance for criminal investigation and stressed the importance of cyber security, by affirming that “a secure digital market is an incalculable strength when it comes to our social economic development, so we will seek to raise awareness, strengthen prevention enhance operational cooperation and to promote public and private partnership”.
On all these topics Minister Van der Steur stressed the need of joint action between the Parliament and the Council, in order to get the work further and keep on being productive.
Many MEPs such as Mr Dennis de Jong, Confederal Group of the European United Left, and Michał Boni, Group of the European People’s Party, then declared to be worried about situation in Poland for what concern the respect of the rule of law.
Mr Van der Steur answered that the Presidency was attentively following the discussion between the Polish government and the Commission and the General Affair Council planned to discuss the issue in May.
Afterwards minister Klaas Dijkhoff took the floor on the item of migration and refugee flows and opened his speech by declaring that cooperation in the field of migration is more necessary than in any other area. “The influx of refugees crossing the external borders and travelling on into the Union is putting the EU’s free-movement-of-persons principle under pressure and demands of a reappraisal of the Dublin system are becoming more urgent”. “Pressures put by large numbers has shown the limits of the hole system. The agreements we have, are not working, they are not realistic and cannot be taken literally.”
Many MPs questioned the relocation scheme asking whether the Dutch Presidency has a specific programme or a time table to follow, Mr Dijkhoff answered that the legislative proposals on Common European Asylum System, the relocation mechanism, a European list of safe countries of origin and developing measures related to legal migration will also feature prominently during the Presidency, in order to combat human trafficking.
In reply to these comments, several MPs, such as Mrs Judith Sargentini, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, Mrs Cecilia Wikström, Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, and Kashetu Kyenge, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, also asked if the Dutch Presidency would advocate a “mini-Schengen” in response to the migration crisis.
Mr Dijkhoff answered that the purpose is not to question the present system, but also warned that, if member states will not be able to find an agreement on a mechanism to share asylum seekers, controls could then be reintroduced because, as he stated, “It is not a proposal, it is a contingency”.
Subsequently, on Wednesday 20 January, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte took the floor at the European Parliament to give the presidency kick-off speech in front of the plenary session.
“We must achieve concrete results and make sure they are visible to counter growing skepticism throughout Europe” stated Mr Rutte, who then addressed diverse relevant issues, such as the way to tackle the refugee crisis, the protection of the Schengen free movement area and the economic growth and jobs’ question.
The refugee crisis will be a top priority for the Dutch Presidency. Mr Rutte said that the agreement dealt with Turkey last November needs to be carried out fast, to relieve pressure on the EU’s external borders. He also underlined the need to make refugee reception arrangements safe, to get external borders, especially in Greece, under control, to implement “hotspots” and to plan the registration of refugees.
« The current numbers are not sustainable. We are running out of time. We need a sharp reduction in the coming six to eight weeks », he said.
Many MEPs then during the debate addressed the question and in particular Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party Group, underlined the Council’s “big problem of credibility” in agreeing to three billion Euro in aid to Turkey but then blocking them when it came to payment of this funding.
“The decisions that have been taken must be applied”, said Mr Weber, urging the Council to take action.
Other priorities of the new Presidency include growth and employment, enhancing the stability of
the Eurozone, seizing the existing opportunities in the internal market with particular reference to the possibilities of the digital and services’ ones and reduce « the excessive regulations that restrict people and companies ». A more pragmatic approach was advocated in this area by the MEP Syed Kamall on behalf of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, who welcomed the proposal of the presidency to cut down on bureaucracy and underlined the need for a Capital Market Union. Moreover the leader of the
Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Guy Verhofstadt, asked the Dutch Presidency to be able to agree on a timetable “so that in 2019 the internal market might be totally completed”.
Although several MEPs backed the Dutch Presidency’s work agenda, several of them also mentioned issues which Mr Rutte did not address during his presentation, such as the referendum planned for April in his country on the association agreement with Ukraine and taxation. Regarding Ukraine Mr Rutte said that he believe the agreement is needed not just from an economic point of view, but also to create stability on the eastern boarders of the European Union. Finally, for what concerns taxation, Philippe Lamberts, Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance and Gianni Pittella, Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, called for a more communitarian approach in terms of fighting corporate tax evasion.
As the next holder of the Council Presidency, it is incumbent on the Netherlands to help the European Union to find common solution in this challenging times. The issue is to remain focused on important long-running issues, even when current events require immediate attention.
Elena Dal Monte
For further information
-. Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs – meeting 11/01/2016 (PM)http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20160106IPR09126/Committee-on-Civil-Liberties-Justice-and-Home-Affairs-meeting-11012016-(PM)
-. The Netherlands EU Presidency 2016 http://english.eu2016.nl/
-. Latest press releases Dutch Presidency priorities discussed in committee http://www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/en/libe/home.html
-. European Commission Audiovisual Service http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/ebs/schedule.cfm?sitelang=en&page=3&institution=0&date=01/20/2016
-. Press release – Institutions − 20-01-2016 http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/news-room/20160114IPR09900/Dutch-Presidency-counter-scepticism-with-results-refugee-crisis-top-priority