Thursday

21st Feb 2019

Small EU states meet amid search to fill post-Brexit void

  • Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte (l) speaking to his Lithuanian counterpart Dalia Grybauskaite (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is hosting colleagues from other small and mid-sized EU member states on Wednesday (21 June) ahead of the EU summit in Brussels, as the upcoming UK departure from the bloc has incited a search for new alliances.

Wednesday's meeting in the Hague will be attended by representatives from nine countries, each of which are a part of regional groups within the EU.

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It will include the three Nordic countries that are part of the EU (Sweden, Finland, and Denmark), the three Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), and the Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg).

“Talks of this kind provide an opportunity to explore common interests in greater depth, on issues like the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union,” a press release from the Dutch prime minister's office said.

Meetings ahead of EU summits between regional groups of member states are nothing new. However, this mini-summit shows a possible shift of alliances in light of Brexit.

Jan Huitema, a Dutch MEP from Rutte's centre-right Liberal party, recently told EUobserver in Strasbourg that the UK was an ally on agricultural files, which the MEP focuses on.

“We are both in favour of a somewhat progressive, targeted agricultural policy, and attach great value to the role of science,” said Huitema.

When asked for an alternative to fill the British gap, Huitema said he looked at the Scandinavian countries, but noted that the UK “was a big country”.

Together, the nine previously-mentioned countries make up 11.06 percent of the EU's population, slightly less than the UK on its own.

While the UK has traditionally been an ally to countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, these numbers show that it cannot be easily replaced.

Voting power on legislative files, for which member state approval is needed, is related to population share. Even if the nine countries join forces, they cannot form a so-called blocking minority to hold up EU legislation.

Danish PM Loekke Rasmussen told EUobserver in a recent interview in Bergen, Norway, that the UK leaving will mean losing "a voice around the table that we often have been able to understand, especially when talking about the value of free trade ... the value of streamlining the EU institutions, [and] budget discipline."

He noted that on these issues, "other countries might appear a bit more laissez-faire."

"It also adds to the commitment needed from the countries that stand for this line of reasoning – that is, the pragmatic EU attitude," he adds.

"There is no doubt that in a Danish EU political context, we need to be investing more political energy (not money) into influencing EU cooperation the right way," Rasmussen said.

Visegrad option

A stronger force would be if the Benelux countries teamed up with the Visegrad group (V4) - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary - which make up 12.45 percent of the EU's population.

But, ideologically, these groups are further apart.

On 19 June, the Benelux leaders attended a meeting in Warsaw with the Visegrad countries.

The two groups have very different views on how to manage migration, and posted workers.

Originally, the Czech Republic came up with the idea of a meeting in this format when they held the V4 presidency last year, but then the Benelux states were reluctant.

A source said that, this time, the Benelux countries initiated the meeting.

Meeting lacking leaders

At Wednesday's meeting in the Hague between the regional groups, two member states will not send government leaders.

Finland is sending its deputy minister for EU affairs, Kare Halonen, while Denmark is sending its highest civil servant from the prime minister's office - responsible for foreign affairs.

Finnish prime minister Juha Sipilia is unable to attend because he is meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, and his Danish counterpart, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, is preoccupied with government meetings.

Estonian spokesman Juri Laas said that a Benelux-Nordic-Baltic meeting “has taken place on foreign ministers' level before, so it's nothing new”.

“It is a meeting of like-minded countries. We hope this facilitates decision-making,” Laas added.

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