Dijsselbloem as Eurogroup President – Curse or Blessing for the Netherlands and the Euro?

Finding suitable chairpersons for EU meetings is extremely difficult.  Since ‘presidents’ can be politically quite threatening they should preferably come from small countries. They should be rather gullible and non-threatening people.

As our euro notes prove, the EU has no shared values and that makes chairing particularly difficult. The design of the euro notes was a bit of a challenge. With only 7 notes (from five euro up to 500 euro), any selection of people as figureheads on the notes proved impossible. Erasmus was Dutch and protestant. Jean Monnet was of course a pure technocrat and only known to a handful of Europhiles – apart from being French. Hence, the notes depict the most self-evident symbols of unity (or dis-unity!) one can possibly imagine: bridges and windows. Yet, even these architectural wonders of our European history had to be imaginary because real bridges or window would cause jealousy.  The euro was supposed to be the symbol of our collective future that we carry with us in our pockets but it actually shows that the EU lacks agreed values – at least in economic terms.

This makes chairing the Eurogroup very difficult. The paradox of European leadership is that leadership is about connecting, but with so many differences in values, interests and cultures, leadership is almost impossible. It can only be extremely subtle – hence the emphasis on presidencies as honest brokers and on neutral presidencies.

Chairing the Eurogroup is probably currently the biggest challenge because this is the meeting where battles are fought and the most sensitive dossiers for the European Council are prepared. The Eurogroup is divided between north and south, it is divided over the role of the ECB, and it has to discuss reform programmes between debtors and triple A countries. As Jean-Claude Juncker’s track record shows, it is easy to run into all sorts of difficulties, as happened with Merkel and other heads of state over the idea of launching eurobonds.

The Dutch were very happy with an EU top position. Part of their ambition to chair originates from the frustration of being not one of the bigger countries (overlooking that chairmen – Juncker, Barroso, Van Rompuy – actually come from small countries). The newspapers were full of the fact that the chair is always best informed, in the middle of the negotiations and that he thus can steer negotiations. I beg to differ: steering negotiations should not be overestimated. Moreover, I doubt whether a chair is always optimally informed. We have, e.g. seen Van Rompuy presenting presidency papers that could almost immediately be retracted because France and Germany put their papers and agenda’s on the table showing that France and Germany seem to be perfectly able to communicate with each other directly. Apart from being obviously overruled, this also proves that the President of the European Council is completely sidelined whenever it suits the Member States.  Van Rompuy, on the other hand, has shown that he is very flexible (yes IMF, no IMF; no flexibility; yes flexibility in Deauville) and not easily insulted when overtaken by the real power blocks.

What is worse, the costs for the Netherlands – and for the euro – can be high. First of all, there is no such thing as a neutral chair. If the Dutch Minister of Finance Jeroen Dijsselbloem is even-handed, he will run into difficulties with Germany and with other EU countries at the same time.  Compromises are not regarded as neutral, and if there is one thing that is really important to the Dutch than it is good relations with Germany. As Juncker’s experience shows, chairing the Eurogroup includes a big political risk vis-à-vis the Dutch-German relation. Secondly, it will be difficult for the Netherlands to fight for its interest. After the decision was taken to support Spanish banks through the ESM, the Dutch, Germans and Fins got together to dictate the rules. This post-hoc redefinition of outcomes of meetings – which always happens because ministerial meetings do not settle details – will be very difficult for the chairing country. Being a triple A country, the Netherlands should fear for its influence because the devil is always in the detail. Thirdly, the power balance may have been redefined by Dijsselbloem’s new position meaning that the Netherlands has to change its tune. Of course, there is now a Dutch junior minister at the table to defend the Dutch position, but everyone knows that that the senior minister sits in the chair. Finally, democratic control can be complicated. Discussions in Dutch parliament prior to important Eurogroup or European Council meetings will probably be different. Minister Dijsselbloem now has so much confidential information through his many talks with eurozone politicians that he will likely be restricted in his debates with parliamentarians.

Apart from these political costs, chairing means showing the eurozone members that the own house is in order. This is difficult enough for the Netherlands these days. It would have been good to invite a country to chair that is really making a lot of effort to prove financial markets, that it is desperately reforming. An Irish chair could have been the wiser option.

Finally, ministers come and go. Juncker stayed for a decade. Dutch governments change on average every two years. Acting ministers in the chair add the risk of a high turnover of chairpersons. This can be avoided by choosing a professional chair. Olli Rehn is available in 2014.

Europe For Citizens
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