The debates on the European Union’s budget and corona recovery plan have placed the Netherlands and its European policy at the center of attention last summer. The Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte, the self-proclaimed leader of the so-called “Frugal Four” (the fiscally conservative countries Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands), resisted heavily against taking on joined debt and providing grants to finance the economic recovery of EU member states inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As tensions rose during the marathon summit in July, the Dutch position was increasingly denounced by other political leaders in the EU. For example, the French President Emmanuel Macron allegedly compared Rutte and the Dutch European policy to an obstructionist United Kingdom. Mathieu Segers’ book, The Netherlands and European Integration, 1950 to Present, therefore provides a very topical historical overview of the role of the Netherlands in the process of European integration and the Dutch “journey to the continent” (p. 9).
Segers’ book is an updated and translated version of his book Reis naar het continent. Nederland en de Europese integratie, which received a Dutch prize for the best political book published in 2013. In his book, Segers provides a largely chronological overview of European integration and aims to explain why and how the Netherlands participated in this complicated and multifaceted process. His focus is on “the actual steps and developments taken” and in particular on the “facts, treaties, failures, etc.” of European integration (p. 10). From a classic diplomatic perspective, Segers highlights the role of key politicians and some high-ranking civil servants and bases his story mostly on memoirs, biographies and archival sources of foreign affairs ministries.
The book revolves around two crucial periods that are discussed extensively. First of all, the start of European integration in the late 1940s and 1950s is discussed in detail, because the Dutch views on European integration as well as the development of European integration in general “can be traced back to that starting point” according to Segers (p. 10). In several chapters, Segers discusses for instance the Dutch views on the creation of the three European Communities in the 1950s as well as one of the few important Dutch initiatives in this period: the Beyen Plan, which provided the basis for the Common Market. Secondly, the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War have received a central place in Segers’ book. It constitutes not only “the most important historical turning point in the history of European integration to date”, Segers contends, but it is also the ‘’key [period] to studying the Netherlands’ role in European integration” (pp. 11–13).
This is true especially for the Dutch views on the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). The origins of monetary integration, which are under-researched as Segers correctly argues, form a central theme in his book. He argues that much of the current Dutch dissatisfaction with European integration is due to the way the EMU was organized and monitored during the 1990s and early 2000s. In particular, the second half of his book, where he discusses the process of European integration from the 1960s onwards, is largely devoted to the development of the EMU. Segers for instance provides a fascinating insight into how the Dutch financial-economic elite played a key role in laying the groundwork for the Economic and Monetary Union through the Bank of International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland and the Committee of Governors of Central Banks.
As Segers acknowledges himself, his book is much less about Dutch European policy and the political debates about European integration in the Netherlands than you might expect at first. The international and European context – like the development of the international economy after WORLD WAR II and the bipolar world and politics of the Cold War – as well as the key players in the process of European integration (primarily the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States) actually receive the most attention. According to Segers, this context is “mostly indispensable” for understanding “the Netherlands’ positions, choices and dilemmas” regarding European integration (p. 10). Moreover, Segers repeatedly demonstrates the quite limited role that the Dutch government and its politicians played in deciding the overall direction of European integration. It was “primarily something that happened to the country” and “at crucial moments” the Netherlands was “even overwhelmed” by it, Segers argues (p. 8).
Segers explains this by pointing out that the Dutch “journey to the continent” consisted of a “physical” and “mental” journey, which did not align. The former was dominated by the political and economic realities on the European continent. From 1949 onwards (when the Netherlands and West-Germany established a trade deal), the Netherlands became increasingly tied to its powerful neighbor, certainly in economic terms. Participating in the Schuman Plan, as well as later initiatives for closer economic cooperation in Western Europe, therefore made much sense from an economic perspective. As a result, the Netherlands supported European integration for “practical” and “trade-related” reasons (p. 194). Yet, the Dutch policy on European integration and its “mental journey” was dominated right from the start “by a suspicious and defensive Atlantic approach”, as Segers frequently demonstrates in his book (p. 193). Various other scholars have similarly classified the Dutch foreign policy from WORLD WAR II onwards as highly Atlanticist and focused on international free-trade. A “transatlantic market without an overarching political structure”, is what the Dutch foreign policy aimed for according to Segers. The inclusion of the United Kingdom in the process of European integration was seen as vital, not only to assure this trans-Atlantic focus, but also “as a counterweight to France and Germany” (p. 193). As a result, the realities of European integration as it developed in the early 1950s – without the UK and the Scandinavian countries for example – did not match the Dutch ambitions. The Dutch approach to European integration was therefore labeled by Segers as one of “pragmatic indifference” (p. 281). However, especially the recent Euro crisis has made such a stance impossible for the Netherlands, as it once again highlighted the differences between the Dutch preferences and reality.
All in all, Segers’ book is a very valuable addition to the limited studies – certainly in English – that provide a historical overview and explanation of Dutch policy on European integration. That Segers has portrayed the Dutch policy mainly as a reaction to international developments and the initiatives of the leading countries, has unfortunately also resulted in less attention to the debate on European integration in the Netherlands itself. However, this focus will make his book more appealing to an international academic audience.