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Voting NO

Much as GeenStijl and I are getting along splendidly this week (here’s why), I have to take issue with their analysis of the VoteWatch stats on Council voting. The tenor of their post, which was also the implication of the general news wire story, was that it is good that the Netherlands votes no.

Mede omdat de rest van Europa altijd overal ‘ja hoor doe maar’ op zegt, eindigde Nederland daarom op vier landen na het vaakst bij de verliezende minderheid. Niks braafste jongetje van de klas dus. Bijna net zo tegendraads als Engeland. Gelukkig niet zo intens laf als de Frambozen, die letterlijk overal ‘oui, bier sûr’ op zeggen wegens niet aflatende vrees voor de terugkeer van Duitse tanks op de Boulevard Haussmann. Maar wat kopen we d’r voor? Niets. Het betekent alleen maar dat onze politici (minus die van D66) *iets* minder kritiekloos Eurofiel zijn dan we allemaal denken, maar het bewijst tevens dat we al lang niets meer te zeggen hebben over wat nota bene ooit ons eigen handelsprojectje was. Was, ja.

Translation, with apologies for the GeenStijl tone:

Also because the rest of Europe always says “yeah sure, go ahead” to everything, the Netherlands ended up in the losing minority 5th most commonly. No way most compliant boy in class. Almost as contrary as England. Fortunately not as intensely cowardly as the Frenchies, who literally say “oui, bien sûr” to everything on account of a continuing fear of German tanks returning to the Boulevard Haussmann. But what do we get for all this? Nothing. It only means that our politicians (except those of D66) are a *little* less uncritically Europhile than we all think, but it also proves that we no longer have anything to say about what used to be our own little trade project.

I think both of these conclusions are very wrong.

As Ronny Patz quite rightly points out, the fact that more than 90% of Council votes are unanimous shows that the vast majority of the interesting politicking goes on somewhere else. Now this is true for the Parliament as well, where the fun is usually focused on the rapporteur and on the Committee he/she is in, but not to the same extent as in the Council. In the Council, the dossier gets passed up from the Working Groups to COREPER to the Council and back down again however many times it takes to reach a substantial consensus. Moving a dossier up one level allows for the big bosses to do some serious horse trading, and moving the dossier back down allows for the specialists to come up with policy alternatives that can be traded and/or more details that can obfuscate the disagreement.

This is a game that some countries play better than others, and that no one plays better than the French. So if you end up, after all this negotiating, voting no, then that can mean one of two things: Either your set of preferences is too far outside the mainstream for the others to accommodate you (i.e. the UK scenario, a lot of the time), or you just didn’t play the game very well. And given that the Netherlands isn’t that far out of the mainstream, the only logical conclusion is that they are bad at negotiating.

Let’s see who vote no or abstain the most (fig. 6 on page 11 here):

  1. The UK, by some distance. This will often be a preferences issue.
  2. Germany. Traditionally, the Germans are known to have difficulties establishing their position, given the time they need to consult with the Länder. As a result, they tend to start each dossier with a lot of reservations, i.e. places where they put a footnote because they still have to consult back home. By the time they finally figure out what they want, it is often already too late to move the consensus in the Council. For this reason, Germany often has less influence than one would expect from the largest EU Member State.
  3. Austria. I’m surprised to see them there. They don’t make much noise around the table. I suspect that they have similar problems to Germany, as well as an inherent preference for following the German vote.
  4. Denmark. Denmark are known as the pioneers of the strong parliamentary control system. The Dutch tried to introduce it as well, in the Lisbon ratification act, at least for JHA matters, but no European parliament has managed to keep their government on a shorter leash than the Danish. This is a high risk-high reward strategy, which occasionally requires a No-vote. Of course, Denmark is also an ideological outlier in Europe.
  5. The Netherlands. Why are we here? In the internal evaluation of the Dutch presidency in 2004, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs criticised the lack of policy coordination between the Ministries. (Cf. conclusions 1 and 5.) This is of course an issue that is particularly important when a Member State holds the presidency, but it is reasonable to assume that this is a problem that has persisted since. If the organisational infrastructure is not in place to decide what the Dutch preferences even are, it is hardly the diplomats’ fault that they end up blowing the negotiating game.

So no, being 5th from the bottom on yes votes is not a badge of honour. It says nothing about the pro- or anti-EU stance of our government. More likely, it says something about their inability to stay well informed about impending policy proposals, their inability to formulate a set of preferences about those proposals that are widely supported among political and government actors and their inability to build coalitions with other Member States in support of those preferences. In other words, the Dutch aren’t playing the game very well.

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