High Tensions In the Low Countries

Belgium and the Netherlands, two founding members of the European Union, are increasingly divided about what that project now means. The EU’s Reform Treaty is now the focus of that dispute, but its roots go deeper. At one point, according to press reports, the row became so serious that French President Nicolas Sarkozy had to intervene.

Europe cannot afford a dogfight between these two founding member states, so it’s high time to put emotions aside and review their differences on the future course of European integration. As a former Dutch State Secretary for European Affairs and Benelux Coordinator, I believe that the Netherlands and Belgium can once again play complementary roles.

From the very beginning, these countries have represented the different aspects of Europe’s identity: Belgium, as an industrial country, continentally oriented, bilingual, and an intermediary with southern Europe, and the Netherlands with its strong agricultural and trading tradition and its Anglo-Saxon and Atlantic orientation.

Of the two, Belgium tends to be more uncritically supportive of the EU. Polls show that more than 80% of Belgians want yet more integration, whereas roughly 50% of the Dutch describing themselves as Euroskeptics. They value the Union for its economic benefits, but are wary of its politics.