Prime ministers Xavier Bettel, Luxembourg, Mark Rutte, the Netherlands and Charles Michel, Belgium, met today in Schengen for the annual Summit of the Benelux leaders.
The Benelux Prime ministers discussed the state of the European Union in the aftermath of the Bratislava Summit and had an exchange of views on the next steps to take.
They agreed on the importance to ensure that the EU responds more actively to the wishes and concerns of EU citizens. The member states and the EU institutions need to regain trust and confidence by better focusing on the core activities, better policy delivery, applying the same rules for all and more involvement of national parliaments.
The Benelux Prime ministers reaffirmed their full commitment to the values of the European Union such as respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail. These values are the backbone of the Union and they are not negotiable. Therefore the Benelux Prime ministers underlined that the political dialogue within the Council on the promotion and the respect for the rule of law in the EU needs to be further strengthened. The Benelux countries support the periodic review of the respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights.
Furthermore, the Benelux Prime ministers agreed that close and effective European cooperation is indispensable to respond to the key challenges facing the EU. European solutions call for better regulation and strong member states which are capable of living up to their European responsibilities. Member States and EU share the responsibility for a Union that achieves results while honouring its own principles and rules.
In their joint effort to continue working to improve the way the Union functions the Benelux Prime ministers underscored the following principles:
The EU should focus on areas where European cooperation has clear added value, and spend its resources correspondingly.
Once agreements have been made at European level, including by qualified majority voting, they should be implemented effectively and equally by all Member States. Respecting agreements is essential to maintaining confidence and the functioning of the EU.
The EU cannot function properly without a system of robust, neutral and independent oversight on the implementation of the acquis communautaire. The European Commission and the European Court of Justice are indispensable guardians of the treaties and the implementation of the EU acts.
Respect for the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality.
Schengen, 3rd October 2016
The next steps to take
The Bratislava declaration adopted on 16 September by the 27 Heads of State and Government and the roadmap of the three Presidents identify a series of key priorities for the coming months in order to tackle the key challenges that the Union is currently facing. It is the starting point of a process of reflection in view of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. The Benelux Prime ministers firmly continue to believe that the European Union provides a unique and indispensable framework for the pursuit of freedom, prosperity, social justice and security in Europe. As founding members of the EU, the Benelux countries will assume their responsibility and actively contribute to shaping the vision of a responsive EU.
The Benelux Prime ministers reaffirm their determination to further promote the general interest of the European Union and its member states and to take appropriate initiatives to that end, as well as supervising and enforcing the acquis. They believe that the community method, as foreseen by the Treaties, must be fully preserved, that a better implementation of EU rules and agreements is necessary in order to regain trust and confidence in each other and that a more robust follow-up and monitoring of the political directions and priorities defined by the by European Council must be achieved.
The Benelux Prime ministers had an extensive exchange of views on migration and asylum, on internal and external security, and defense, as well as on growth and employment. They agreed to further reinforce their cooperation in order to better contribute to more efficient and more resilient EU policies.
Migration and asylum
The Benelux Prime ministers stand ready to lead the way in improving cross border cooperation and work towards a more sustainable long term model for European asylum.
The EU faces huge challenges in the field of migration and asylum. There is a clear need to reach the objectives defined in the Bratislava roadmap: most importantly, the EU needs to ensure full control of its external borders and reduce flows of illegal migration. At the same time, unconditional solidarity and the implementation of adopted decisions remain cornerstones of the EU’s response to the migration crisis. The Benelux Prime ministers expressed their will to contribute to the joint EU efforts, including by offering immediate assistance to strengthening the protection of the external EU borders and contributing to the European border and coastguard, as well as the conclusion of Migration Partnership Frameworks(compacts) with third countries.
The Benelux countries already have a close cooperation concerning the movement of people, for example by jointly concluding visa waiver agreements for holders of diplomatic and service passports, readmission agreements and implementing protocols. In addition to this, the Benelux Prime ministers decided to engage in closer cooperation concerning the return of irregular migrants in order to enhance the credibility of policies in the field of international protection and legal migration. Common actions will be explored notably towards countries where repatriation is particularly difficult, for example by joint visits and joint demarches and, under the overarching framework of the EU, by organizing joint return flights, organizing joint meetings to exchange best practices by posting joint liaison officers in a country of origin and by developing joint reintegration actions to stimulate voluntary return. At the political and administrative level, the Benelux countries will continue to conclude Benelux readmission agreements and implementing protocols.
The Benelux Prime ministers welcomed the proposals of the European Commission on the reform of the Common European Asylum system and are looking forward to making swift progress on the adoption of the different legal instruments. They agreed to discourage secondary movements and to intensify the cooperation in the field of asylum procedures in order to prevent the misuse of differences in standards as well as multiple registrations. They underlined that convergence, in the way applications for international protection are assessed, should be reinforced, with due regard to the Dublin basic principles such as the responsibility of the member state of first entry to deal with an asylum application.
Internal and external security
The EU's strategic environment and neighborhood is changing radically. The Benelux Prime ministers stressed the need for a fast adoption of the new EU Global Strategy as a conceptual framework for a more effective Common Foreign and Security Policy.
Recent events across Europe have repeatedly stressed the need for security and a better protection against terrorism and organized crime. The measures put forward in the Bratislava roadmap need to be implemented as soon as possible. The Benelux Prime ministers agreed that they will intensify their cooperation and information exchange among security services and share experience and best practice in preventing and counteracting radicalization and collaborate also more closely on defence matters.
They support the launching by the Commission of a study on the feasibility, proportionality and structural possibilities of a Travel Information and Authorisation System ETIAS and urge for a subsequent rapid set up of ETIAS within the European Union to allow for advance checks and, if necessary, deny entry of visa-exempt travellers.
Furthermore, they underlined that in a challenging geopolitical environment, the EU cooperation on external security and defence must be strengthened through an inclusive process. Defence cooperation between Benelux countries already follows a result-oriented approach and demonstrates how collective political will and commitment to take practical decisions can lead to pooling and sharing of resources and personnel.
The Prime Ministers also welcomed a rapid implementation of the EU-NATO declaration and urged to make full use of the current political momentum.
Reenergizing the social market economy
The EU and its member states have a long and strong tradition of highly competitive social market economies. That tradition has been eroded in the light of global developments and the financial-economic crises. It is essential to re-energize the social market economy tradition on a European and national level and ensure that the EU stands for growth and fairness. The Benelux Prime ministers are committed to ensure the respect for national social standards and equal pay for equal work in the same place. It is therefore essential to end social dumping between European Union Member States. Further work on the EU’ssocial dimension is therefore imperative. Work should be continued to fight tax evasion and tax avoidance.
They agreed to contribute to strengthen the Eurozone by focusing on structural reforms, budgetary discipline and effective implementation of current policies using existing instruments and common rules. There continues to be a clear need to deepen the Economic and Monetary Union, as was illustrated by the report “Completing Europe's Economic and Monetary Union” presented by the five presidents. Work on the third pillar of the Banking Union, including the European Deposit Insurance Scheme, following measures to reduce risks, needs to be finalized.
Macroeconomic challenges are still undermining the potential for economic growth in the European Union. The three Prime ministers stressed the importance to increase the level of investment in order to boost economic growth and employment which are a key priority. EU countries need to adopt necessary structural reform policies to modernize their economies and secure future growth oriented investments at regional and local levels, within the existing rules of the stability and growth pact. The Benelux Prime Ministers recognized the necessity to set up structural reform policies combining budgetary discipline while not undercutting the growth perspectives of future generations. They agreed also on the importance of the EU accounting framework.
The Benelux Prime ministers agreed that work on the Capital Markets Union has to be intensified in order to tackle investment shortages head-on by increasing and diversifying the funding sources for Europe’s businesses, SME’s in particular, and long-term projects. Barriers that are blocking cross-border investments in the EU must be eliminated to make it easier for companies and infrastructure projects to get the finance they need, regardless of where they are located.
At the same time, the Benelux Prime ministers stressed the need to increase the EU’s overall competitiveness while safeguarding social and environmental standards. This can only be achieved when the single market functions properly. More focus is needed on the implementation of a future-oriented industrial policy. Safeguarding the integrity of the Single Market and the inextricable link between the four fundamental freedoms is therefore of paramount importance. When it comes to the Digital Single Market, barriers to cross-border digital trade must be removed to enable European companies to become real digital champions, capable of competing on a global scale. The full benefits of the Digital Single Market must be made accessible to all stakeholders. The use of the principle of mutual recognition in the framework of the single market for goods and services must be promoted and remaining obstacles to cross-border trade removed. The Benelux Prime ministers adopted a joint declaration in which they underlined the ambition and potential of the three countries to be digital frontrunners and to act as a role model in advancing the Digital Single Market within the European Union. This statement contains a list of specific projects on which they wish to cooperate more closely.
The Benelux Prime ministers gave their support to the commitment made by the President of the Commission in his state of the Union speech for a robust trade policy.
The Benelux Prime ministers underlined the need for a quick ratification of the Paris agreement and expressed their will to contribute to its efficient implementation in a spirit of solidarity.
The Benelux Prime ministers expressed their will to tackle common challenges and to serve as a catalyst for innovation within the EU.
On the basis of a presentation by the General Secretariat of the Benelux Union, the Benelux Prime ministers had an exchange of views on the implementation of the Benelux Action Plan for jobs and growth adopted in April 2015. Over the past year, considerable efforts were made to create high quality jobs and to improve competitiveness for SMEs. In line with commitments taken at the Benelux Social Summit in 2014, joint controls of temporary employment agencies operating across borders were carried out. These controls took place in the framework of the Benelux Union’s fight against social dumping, fraudulent employment agencies and various forms of benefit fraud. In the objective to further strengthen the Benelux cooperation in the field of transport and logistics, the General Secretariat conducted a study on the economic importance of freight transport for the Benelux area and the challenges that this sector faces. Being the European hub for freight transport, the Benelux Union presented the report’s results also to the European Commission.
The Benelux Prime ministers also took stock of the implementation of the three priorities put forward by the Luxembourg Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Benelux Union: facilitating citizens’ mobility and strengthening their security, reinforcing environmental protection and strengthening the internal market.
To facilitate the mobility of citizens within the Benelux countries, the online information platform for cross-border workers has been widened to include information on recognition of diplomas and professional qualifications. A study on the flow of patients within the Benelux region presented in March 2016 constitutes a basis for further exchanges and cooperation in the objective to improve cross-border health care. During its Presidency, Luxembourg put a particular emphasis on raising awareness for the fight against human trafficking and the support for victims by organizing training days and a high-level conference. In the field of security, new challenges require new forms of cooperation. The Luxembourg Presidency therefore hosts an interinstitutional conference on tackling business and consumer fraud, allowing experts from the Benelux countries to discuss new trends in fraud and cybersecurity as well as to exchange best practices. Preparations for elaborating a new action plan regarding the Benelux cooperation in the area of internal security have been launched.
In order to reinforce environmental protection within the Benelux countries the Luxembourg Presidency hosted a Pentalateral Energy Forum. During this Forum, top officials from the Benelux countries, Germany, France, Austria and Switzerland discussed progress on regional energy cooperation and decided on further integration of electricity markets as well as on developing common approaches in guaranteeing the security of supply. The Benelux Union was a cosignatory of the Political Declaration on energy cooperation between the North Seas Countries that established a roadmap creating an interconnected network of wind parks in the North Sea.
In its efforts to strengthening the internal market, the Luxembourg Presidency started preparations for the survey on territorial constraints (geo-blocking), which will be launched in the coming weeks. The Digital Benelux Declaration by the Prime ministers of the Benelux countries will address some of the efforts that can be undertaken in the digital economy to strengthen the internal market. The report “Benelux Retail 2020” is in its final stages of completion. This report will point out the bottlenecks within the Benelux economies’ trade relations, which will enable the Benelux countries to remove existing barriers thereby contributing to a stable and predictable regulatory framework supporting jobs and growth.
The Luxembourg Presidency also puts a particular emphasis on strengthening and deepening relations between the three Benelux countries and other regional groups. In June 2016, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs from the Benelux and the Višegrad countries met in Prague to exchange views on current European files and to jointly prepare the European Council. Several high-level meetings between the Benelux countries, the Baltic States and the Nordic states respectively were organized by the Luxembourg Presidency. Joint visits of the Benelux Prime Ministers as well as the Benelux Ministers of Foreign Affairs are scheduled for the second semester of 2016.