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Dutch uneasy at role as Cameron's EU reform podium

17 January 2013, 11:55 CET
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(THE HAGUE) - The Dutch are increasingly uneasy about Prime Minister David Cameron coming to the Netherlands to make his speech on Britain's future in Europe, with some critics saying he'd be better off staying at home.

Friday's speech, billed as one of the most important by a British leader since World War II, is expected to see Cameron call for exemptions from EU rules and moot a referendum, in a bid to appease eurosceptics at home.

But such strident nationalism within the world's largest trading bloc has even the traditionally anglophile Dutch worried about the potential impact on European Union solidarity and stability.

The speech will be preceded by talks in The Hague with centre-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a close ally of Cameron. But he will be noticeably absent during the actual speech, to be given in Amsterdam.

Like Britain, the Netherlands is a triple-A rated country, a major trading nation and a believer in budgetary discipline. But the previously cosy relationship between Cameron and Rutte is evolving.

His VVD party has toned down its euro-scepticism since entering a coalition with Labour (PvdA) last year. The PvdA's foreign policy spokesman has called for Rutte to distance himself from Cameron's words.

"It's important that Prime Minister Rutte says publicly that the Netherlands sees no benefit in British exceptions on key points of European cooperation," Michiel Servaes told financial daily the Financieele Daglad.

The European Union is not "a construction from which Cameron can remove a couple of bricks, according to his wishes," he said.

Cameron and Rutte have a close relationship and giving the much-delayed speech in the Netherlands is acceptable to the tolerant Dutch, even if they don't agree with its content.

Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans admitted on Dutch television on Tuesday night that "if there's one country in Europe that shares Britain's vision a little bit then that's us."

But, said Timmermans: "The Netherlands is not for opt-outs, and we never have been."

"The Netherlands believes in desperately-needed reform of the EU, from the inside out, not in making the EU better, cheaper and in particular more democratic by walking away," he said.

Servaes, who previously worked as a diplomat in London, agreed in the NRC-Next daily that Britain's role in the EU was important, and that the Netherlands had much in common with Britain.

In wanting to reduce Brussels bureaucracy, reform the Common Agricultural Policy, draw up ambitious Europe-wide trade or environment policies, the Dutch and the British are side by side, he wrote.

But if Britain wants less European interference in social norms such as wages, restrictions on freedom of movement for workers or less oversight for City bankers, then the answer is 'no'.

"We should not just accept Cameron's wishlist. We still have to see what exactly he will say in his speech," Servaes wrote.

Servaes quoted British foreign minister and later prime minister George Canning who wrote in 1826 that "The fault of the Dutch is offering too little and asking too much."

"Cameron should remember Canning: if you don't want to give much, then don't ask much of others," he wrote.

Paul Webber, spokesman for VVD MP and foreign affairs committee member Mark Verheijen, said: "We don't know what the speech will be about and so we won't distance ourselves from it."

"If Britain wants responsibilities returned (to national governments) then that should be the same for all member states, not just Britain," he told AFP.

"A separate status for one member state within Europe is not a good idea," he said.

Political analyst Hulke Dijkstra was even more forthright.

"If David Cameron is coming to the Netherlands to distance himself from the European Union then he'd be better off staying at home," he wrote in the leftist Volkskrant daily.

"It is regrettable that our government is giving Cameron a platform to engage in national politics," Dijkstra said.

He noted that while Washington, Brussels and Berlin have all spoken out against a British referendum on the EU, predicted to be part of Cameron's speech, Rutte sees the event as "a nice photo-op."

Dijkstra reminded Cameron of what his predecessor Margaret Thatcher said in Bruges, Belgium in 1988 when she laid out her vision for Britain's future in Europe.

"Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community," Thatcher said. "Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community."

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