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‘In Brussels, no one can hear you scream’: The Dutch Parliament trying to keep up with EU affairs

15-04-2022

A well-known quote from the Danish political TV series ‘Borgen’ reads: ‘In Brussels, no one can hear you scream’ – referring to the idea that Brussels is primarily a place you send your political opponents off to. In recent weeks, a different meaning emerged in The Hague: no one in Brussels hears Dutch MPs scream.

Last week, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on European Affairs (‘EUZA’) held a debate with Foreign Affairs Minister Hoekstra about the EU intelligence supply. The central question was how the House of Representatives can improve its knowledge and information position on decision-making processes in Brussels. Yesterday, MP Koekoek (Volt) submitted a motion to that effect, requesting the government to explore the possibilities of introducing an EU monitor through which members of parliament could follow legislation and policy developments. Would that suffice to strengthen the influence of the Dutch House of Representatives on European policy?

The diagnosis

Several experts shared their views on the matter in recent weeks.

The need for this discussion was addressed, for example, by a recent report by the International Research and Policy Evaluation (IOB) Directorate: the independent evaluation agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. IOB concluded that the European ambitions of the Rutte IV Cabinet are infeasible because the Dutch civil service doesn’t have sufficient EU knowledge and “manpower”.

MEP and former Dutch MP Malik Azmani (VVD – Liberal Conservatives) shared a contribution via LinkedIn. In his blogpost, Azmani places the ball mainly in the court of the House of Representatives, and concludes that the House itself can improve and coordinate its information position and influence over EU processes. For example, he proposes to follow Germany’s example and place more ears and eyes in the European Parliament. According to Azmani, this can be done by increasing the number of official representatives, but also by intensifying contact between MEPs and MPs.

Prior to the debate, Mendeltje van Keulen, lecturer in Europe at the Haagse Hogeschool, spoke to the EUZA committee about her vision on the provision of information, and wrote a column on news website Brusselse Nieuwe. Van Keulen’s recommendation: start the dialogue between new and older/former politicians, civil servants, and other experts. There is room for improvement in retaining institutional memory of how European decision-making works. The lack of insight into how things work in Brussels is not at all entirely new.

The IOB, Azmani, and Van Keulen thus identify several roadblocks that stand in the way of optimal influence by the House, including a knowledge deficit in ministries, an information deficit in the House, and a lack of institutional memory. The result is that Dutch MPs are unable to make their voices heard sufficiently in the development of European policy.

Timing

Where does the House of Representatives itself think the problem lies? Last year, the MP Kamminga (VVD), took analyzed problems encountered by the parliamentary committees in the European dimension of their work. She found that the House is in need of i) better insight into how opportunities for influence can be effectively exploited; and ii) more knowledge about what information is most useful for MPs to be able to effectively carry out their work.

According to MPs Sjoerdsma (D66 – Social Liberals), Amhaouch (CDA – Christian Democrats), and Kamminga herself, the House already has a reasonably clear picture of what is going on, but there is more to be gained from understanding the preliminary stages of decision-making and legislation: what is being prepared at any given time in terms of new or to-be-revised policy? This information would enable MPs to time their influence better.

Minister Hoekstra made a series of pledges to this effect during the debate, including the promise to:

  • inform the House explicitly and proactively in annotated agendas and reports of EU Councils on major and politically sensitive issues;
  • proactively offer technical briefings on legislative files where the subject matter lends itself to this
  • provide feedback on the progress of non-papers in the report of EU Councils;
  • emphasize the importance of the European force field to the Cabinet and in Cabinet letters.

Loud enough?

Time will tell to what extent an extensive EU monitor and Minister Hoekstra’s pledges will have the desired effect. Ultimately, successful EU-influencing by the House relies on commitment and attention to the process. Commitment requires an above-average interest in the EU, investment of time, and work capacity. Elements that are strongly intertwined, and at the same time sparsely distributed in the Lower House. VVD, D66, CDA, Volt, and one-man-group Omtzigt were present at the debate: a chorus of just five voices. Will Brussels hear them scream?

"Ultimately, successful EU-influencing by the House relies on commitment and attention to the process."

Jonathan Provoost

Consultant

+31 (0)70 3046 499

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