Title: In reaction to Laurens Jan Brinkhorst's "Why tensions are high between the Low Countries"
Authors: Bruyninckx, Hans # ×
Issue Date: Jul-2007
Publisher: Friends of Europe
Series Title: Europe's world issue:Autumn pages:Online
Abstract: The article by Brinkhorst, a long-time political observer and political participant of the process of European integration, is in my opinion based on a mix of nostalgia, political ambitions which he sees for the Low Countries and an analysis of the current difficult institutional position of the European Union.

The Europe of the six founding members, three of which were indeed the Benelux countries, enlarged by three more members in 1973, after difficult and politically arduous debates (i.e. the French position), was the period during which Mr. Brinkhorst started his European career, and it seems to be a sort of reference point in his reasoning. Examples of this can be found in his mentioning of several of the founding fathers and influential statesmen during this period and other pivotal times in the formation of the European institutions. The fact that several of those "wise men" were from the Low Countries seems to be part of his call for renewed political leadership from those same countries. In fact, during the process leading up to the European constitution, several experienced politicians from those states were consulted and played a central role (e.g. Jean-Luc Dehaene, ex-prime minister of Belgium). What Brinkhorst seems to underestimate, is that this type of ideational and technical exercises are fundamentally different in nature from the normal functioning of the European institutions. Political preferences of large states, and especially coalitions of larger states, are of much more importance in most cases. That does not mean that smaller member states don’t have a significant role to play, but to recall the period of six, nine or even ten members as a reference point does seem to lack applicability for the current context of an enlarged Europe.

Another element of nostalgia is Brinkhorst’s reference to the role of the Benelux. He assumes that the Benelux is somehow an international organisation that has the potential to weigh significantly on EU policy making and more importantly on a certain political balance within the EU. Without underestimating the specific historical contribution of the Benelux, attributing much weight, or even political hope in the Benelux strikes me as rather unrealistic. It is now an organisation with very few responsibilities, little symbolic meaning and scant political impact. To think that a revival of the Benelux could be a trigger for the EU to sort out the current institutional crisis strikes me as highly nostalgic and unrealistic.

Mr. Brinkhorst attributes recent important differences in opinion between the Netherlands and Belgium on fundamental aspects of European politics and policies to emotions that should be put aside. In my opinion, these differences reflect rather different ideological beliefs about the role of the EU, and probably more importantly, different views on specific European policy options. To dismiss those as insignificant emotions to be set aside for the ‘greater good’ strikes me as a simplification of things.

It seems to be the case that the EU is not exactly waiting for a stronger Benelux, or a united Belgian-Dutch position. The institutional infrastructure of the EU is seriously deficient to function with 27 members of large diversity. Here I do agree with Mr. Brinkhorst. I also go along with his observation that smaller countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have, in general, more to gain from well functioning institutions than from a fight over their own relative weight in the Union (24 or 25 votes). In that sense the two countries can each in their own way be catalysts by formulating creative ideas, stimulating solutions with high collective gains, and ‘leading’ like-minded, yet younger members of the EU. If there is one advantage that Belgium, the Netherlands (and to go along with the Benelux idea, also Luxemburg) share, it is a long history of multilateralism and loyal membership in international organisations. Given their own relatively small political weight they have learned how to behave in certain international contexts in order to maximise their benefits through collective solutions. The new members, with their limited experience with these matters (during the Cold War period they hardly participated in a serious way in international institutions) cannot be expected to be ‘lead states’ in the same way. Belgium, the Netherlands and other small states, e.g. the Scandinavian countries, do have experience as lead states, coalition builders, ideational leadership, etc. The EU needs such leadership, ideas and creativity. This could come from smaller states.

In conclusion, Brinkhorst’s contribution does provide interesting observations about the role of Belgium and the Netherlands in the history of European integration. A number of those seem to form the basis for a more personal account in the form of political memoirs. I do, however, tend to disagree with much of the argumentation about the potential role of the Benelux, and more fundamentally the assumption of a sort of ‘innate’ calling for smaller countries in processes of international integration. While there are often good reasons for smaller states to be strong defenders for collective action through different forms of regional integration, there is no particular reason to presume that this is a given. Let alone use that argument to argue that countries like Belgium and the Netherlands ought to set their different opinions aside because they are based on emotions rather than interests or differences in political insight.
Description: Europe's world debating forum
ISSN: 1782-0642
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: DI
Appears in Collections:Leuven International and European Studies (LINES)
HIVA - Research Institute for Work and Society
× corresponding author
# (joint) last author

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