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Ambassador Lecture Series: Netherlands in the EU

On the 16th of March 2021, Asia-Europe Institute (AEI) hosted H.E. Aart Jacobi, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Malaysia who spoke on “Netherlands in the EU.” This was conducted as part of the institute’s ongoing Ambassador Lecture Series (ALS). The event took place at the Resource Centre of the Asia-Europe Institute (AEI) as well as online via Microsoft Teams.

H.E. began on a light-hearted note by recounting his positive experiences in Malaysia where he was posted to three years ago. He praised the country as an up-and-coming nation and lauded its English-speaking population. This, he says, makes for a unique and fantastic experience for him as a diplomat.

The moderator then moved on to a question on Dutch considerations within the EU. H.E. Jacobi noted that there were largely three schools of thought on the EU in the Netherlands. The first is an anti-EU minority, which is now in strong decline after the events of Brexit. Next is a subsidiarity view on the EU where the organization should only do what the Netherlands can’t. Finally, there is a group which promotes for a federal Europe but even this is relatively a minority of the population. The ambassador then added that the EU has proven to be enormously beneficial for the population and has continued to improve the prosperity of Europe.

The conversation then moved on to the attempt in 2005 to establish a Constitution of Europe and the negative response by the Dutch population. On this, H.E. Jacobi remarked that if one gives the Dutch population a reason to say no, they will. This is partly due to that they do not want more EU that they already have. This is also symptomatic of a continuous debate on the Netherlands’ position within the EU. However, the debate is never on whether the country should be inside or outside the EU. This is due to the immense advantages the Netherlands has had while sitting at the table as the EU – it is therefore very much in Dutch interest to have a strong EU at the international stage.

Next, the discussion shifted to questions on intra-EU politics. To which, H.E. Jacobi elucidated that there are two divides in existence in the EU – a North-South divide and an East-West divide.

The former is one between states like Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden (North) and states such as Italy and Spain (South) on financial prudence. To the northern states, they take a more conservative approach where money must be earned to be spent. As opposed to southern states which are more untethered in their fiscal discipline. This, he says is a continuing debate within the EU.

The latter debate is on matters like politics, human rights and adherence to EU rules and regulations. When a country joins the EU, they must accept all of its laws and decisions made by Brussels must be reflected locally. This is the view of the western states such as France, Germany and the Netherlands. However, conversely, states on the east have different ideas on such rules. There is some hesitation on their part on issues such as the judiciary and refugees. Nevertheless, this values debate is at the root of what the EU stands for and according to the ambassador, it is the most serious divide facing the bloc.

In relation to this, the conversation moved to the challenge of rising populist ethnocentrism in the EU. To the ambassador, this is a huge malaise which must be looked into. He remarked that whenever there is a push for Europe, there will always be a counter reaction. Euroscepticism represents roughly 25 percent of the population. This, however, translates to a weak hold of such Eurosceptic parties in local parliaments. Nevertheless, 25% is still representative of a large proportion of the population. The ambassador lamented that this is personal – the population in Europe have never been more prosperous and richer than they are today, and one would think people would be happy as a result, but they aren’t.

While on the topic of European populism, the ambassador was also asked of his opinion on EU expansion. To this, he said that there are broadly three stages – countries must be interested, they must then proceed to negotiations and finally, they are accepted into the EU. Right now, there are six to seven countries under negotiations with the EU. The problems arising from these negotiations are mostly on compatibility factors of their national systems with the EU. Countries must reform before they can be a part of the bloc and comply with its regulations. From the experience of newly inducted countries in Eastern Europe, the ambassador posited that the underlying differences in opinions viz. the aforementioned values debate may be the reason why countries in the EU are more unwilling to accept newer countries into the union.

The moderator then segued into the prospects of Ukraine joining the EU, in light of Russia’s invasion there. H.E. Jacobi first remarked that all over the Netherlands, there has been a wave of sympathy for Ukraine’s plight. However, Ukraine’s membership into the EU is not tenable under current circumstances. This is down to practical negotiation matters where sentiments should not prevail, but reason should. The ambassador opined that in spite of the sympathy shown to Ukraine, it would not translate into their membership overnight.

Relatedly, on the subject of Ukraine’s membership into NATO, the ambassador said that this is a sovereign decision of Ukraine which should go through its due process. He acknowledged the insecurity in the region which have prompted the likes of Sweden and Finland voicing their intentions to join the military bloc. Nevertheless, he says that Ukraine’s NATO membership is not a discussion conducted in the Netherlands.

The discussion then segued into the Russia-Ukraine conflict. On this, the ambassador mentioned that Europe has been naïve. Upon the fall of the Soviet Union, many in Europe downplayed imminent military threats and this was reflected in their defence spending. Now with a conflict right at their borders, countries like the Netherlands and Germany are once again hurriedly ramping up military capacity. He poignantly notes that we are back to where we were 30 years ago and that to be safe, the EU must be prepared for the worst.

From this, the conversation then moved on to the relationship between the EU and China. The ambassador prefaced his remarks by stating that both the EU and China are superpowers of their own right but differ in philosophies and principles. Economically, both are still very much dependent on one another. Of late, public opinion in the Netherlands on China has deteriorated due to trade practice violations and intellectual property violations by Chinese firms. This has resulted in countries refusing to incorporate Chinese businesses into the EU because of heightened suspicions.  As such, both the EU and China must work their differences out and attempt to iron out any issues.  

From China, the conversation then moved to the Indo Pacific. According to H.E. Jacobi, not enough attention has been paid to this part of the world by the Netherlands. He maintains that this is a region of great promise and with spectacular growth figures. He lauded the formation of an EU-wide Indo Pacific strategy which will foster better relations between ASEAN and EU businesses. The Netherlands’ own approach to ASEAN can be seen in its continued commitment to engage with the region. On the subject of Netherlands-Malaysia relations, H.E. Jacobi remarked that there is a strong Dutch presence in the business community here – all of which are members of the Malaysia-Dutch Business Council. Malaysia serves as a logical hub for Dutch companies to set up their Southeast Asian headquarters as it is cheaper than Singapore and has business-friendly policies. Trade will continue to be strong as the EU remains the largest importer of palm oil and the Netherlands is home to the largest port in the EU.  

Towards the end of the conversation, attention was then turned to possible MOUs signed by the ambassador’s alma mater, Leiden University with universities in Malaysia. H.E. Jacobi was unaware of any currently in place, but also suggested an area of possible cooperation – food security. The Netherlands currently exports US$100 billion in food every year thanks to its high-tech agriculture. Herein lies an opportunity for Malaysia to work together and seek synergies for future cooperation. The ambassador compared Malaysia to Thailand – that the latter, is a food exporting nation and the former isn’t – and pointed to an urgent need for the Malaysian agricultural sector to modernize and upgrade its capacities to one day become a food exporting nation.

Question and Answer Section

  1. What is the Netherlands’ role in helping countries currently under negotiation for EU membership? (with reference to Turkey)
    The EU has been negotiating with Turkey for over 20 years but the prospect of Turkey joining is currently remote given the rule of the Erdogan administration. Things are currently not moving in the right direction. I myself have wondered what would Turkey had looked like if we had accepted it 20 years ago – it could have resulted in positive reforms. Maybe we should have been more forthcoming then, instead of being resolutely against it at the time.

  1. What can the Netherlands do in terms of fostering peace and negotiations viz. the current Russia-Ukraine conflict?
    There is great sympathy for the plight of the Ukrainians by the Dutch population. We have opened our borders to refugees and our citizens have opened their houses to them. We have allowed more than 50,000 refugees in and have also made it possible for them to immediately start working. We are doing the best we can. On the international stage, we have been outspoken about the breach of sovereignty in Ukraine. We are also wary of the effects of the war that is felt everywhere – especially in the energy sector. We hope for a quick quick end of the war which thus far is not yet in sight.

  1. Is there more monetary rigidity in the EU because of the one currency?
    This goes back to the philosophy of the Netherlands where you have to work hard and then spend your money. It explains to a great extent why we think the way we do in our country.
Ambassador Lecture Series: Netherlands in the EU
Moderator: Dr Rahul Mishra
Speaker: H.E. Aart Jacobi, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Malaysia
Organized by: Asia-Europe Institute (AEI)
Venue: Asia-Europe Institute Resource Centre, Microsoft Teams
Date and Time: 7 June 2022 (Tuesday) 10:00 am - 12.00 pm MYT
Report Written by: Mr. Angaindrankumar a/l Gnanasagaran PhD Student, AEI, UM

Last Update: 09/07/2022