German-Dutch relationship key to EU coalition building

Better coalition-building among European countries is called as polarisation erodes European solidarity and cooperation.

A global counter-revolution is destabilising the international order. And in today’s Europe destabilisation comes as much from within as from anywhere else. The European Union’s capacity to act is diminishing as polarisation erodes European solidarity. How can a new consensus for European cooperation be built in these troubled times?

The answer lies in better coalition-building among European countries. ECFR’s EU28 survey 2016conducted among policy professionals and expert observers from all 28 member states – underlines coalition building’s integrative potential. It shines light on the level of commitment to coalition-building within the EU after the destabilising effects of the Brexit vote and the refugee crisis.

An overwhelming majority of 97 percent of respondents stated that coalition building is ‘very’ or ‘fairly important’. And for 34 percent, coalition building is even the preferred method of internal and external EU policy making. Our findings show that the German-Dutch relationship is the motor of coalition building in the Europe of today.

Germany: Focal point of the “big six”

Taking a closer look at the data we collected, there is a dense but complex network of bilateral relationships between the largest six EU members – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK. But the nation binding them all together is Germany. Our data shows that all these bilateral relationships eventually coalesce around Germany, which is perceived as being very easy to work with, and is the only ‘big six’ country with which all the other largest members feel they share many interests. As the focal point of this grouping, Germany unites its component parts.

Paradoxically then, Berlin is disproportionately focused on non-group members. It is the only big member state that shares interests and can work well with all members of the so-called smaller ‘affluent seven’ member states – made up of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Germany is therefore best-placed among the largest EU member states to work towards finding a way around union-wide Euroscepticism. In fact, Germany is ever more committed to coalition building in these testing times. More than any other ‘big six’ member, Germany seems to realise that those who despise the little are not worthy of the great.

The Netherlands: Networker of the “affluent seven”

The EU 28 survey 2016 demonstrates that the Netherlands is the networker on behalf of the smaller ‘affluent seven’. Being best connected both inside and outside of the group, it represents the group interests within the EU. Looking inwards, the group perception of the smaller ‘affluent seven’ appears to be strong. However, the Netherlands is the only one with which all other smaller affluent members feel they share many interests and that disappoints none. Looking outwards, it is the proximity to the focal point of the ‘big six’ that allows the Netherlands to ‘Europeanise’ the interests of the group interests of the ‘affluent seven’.

The multiplier effect of the Dutch-German duo

The affection between the Netherlands and Germany is proportionally reciprocated. They perceive each other as the most like-minded and most responsive EU country. The Dutch-German nexus is unique: there is no such symmetrical relationship between other ‘affluent seven’ and ‘big six’ countries.

The EU28 Survey demonstrates that the bilateral relationship between Germany and the Netherlands is the hinge between the two core groups in the EU, and it is across this axis that, beyond their bilateral relations, all ‘big six’ and all ‘affluent seven’ members are closely connected.

Bilateral relationships between other ‘big six’ and ‘affluent seven’ members cannot make up for the added value of the multiplier effect of the German-Dutch bilateral relationship. There are manifold instances of lacking or low-level engagement between members of these two groupings. The close bilateral relationships across these groups that actually do exist (e.g. between Paris and Belgium) are not as crucial for EU coalition building as the Hague-Berlin anchor because either one of the parties lack a ‘group mandate’.

Germany and the Netherlands are able to effectively pull together member states of two core groupings within the EU into adopting shared positions and forming coalitions, but largely within their own groupings. What about other member states in southern and eastern Europe – which also clearly share a high level of group perception?

Two other coalition nexuses exist, between the ‘big six’ and the ‘southern seven’, as well as between the ‘big six’ and the ‘Visegrad four’. These connections follow naturally from the overlap in the membership of these groups. The ‘southern seven’ consists of three ‘big six’ countries – France, Italy and Spain – and four smaller geographically affiliated members – Greece, Portugal, Malta, and Cyprus. As one of the ‘Visegrad four’, Poland is a channel for the other group members – the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, to the ‘big six’.

The EU28 Survey 2016 also reveals that the lack of certain coalition axes between the ‘affluent seven’, the ‘Visegrad four’ and the ‘southern seven’, is the Achilles heel of EU cooperation in contentious policy areas. Other axes are essential to create coalition opportunities between other members in southern and eastern Europe.

The necessity of other coalition axes (whether currently existing or not) proves that the Dutch-German motor alone cannot build coalitions for the whole of Europe. But although the Dutch-German motor is not be able to set everything in motion, without it, there would likely be no movement at all.

The future of the European coalition motor 

Much is at stake at the upcoming Dutch and German elections. In case of the  unprecedented triumph of Eurosceptic parties in Germany and the Netherlands, the German-Dutch coalition engine may stall and European coalition building could be significantly complicated.

After Trump’s victory the right-extremist party of Geert Wilders (PVV) is bigger than prime-minister Rutte’s liberal party (VVD) for the first time in the pre-election phase. How much leeway to build EU-coalitions will the future Dutch government have, if the PVV indeed wins the elections? Since all established parties have declared themselves unwilling to form a coalition with the PVV regardless of the election results, Wilders will continue to whip up anti-European sentiment from the opposition bench. The real challenge for the new pro-European government in steering a Brussels course will thus not be the PVV, but the popular anti-European sentiment it represents. On the longer run, crucial will be if rivalry amongst the PVV and new Euro-sceptical political parties in the Netherlands will ultimately give rise to a more nuanced Eurosceptic political discourse. Variation and gradation could in turn give a voice to a potentially high percentage of voters who find themselves in the centre-ground and who may be encouraged by a softer and more ‘acceptable’ Euroscepticism.

A Dutch-German pro-European post-election agenda should firstly focus on policy areas that the ‘affluent seven’ and the ‘big six’ traditionally prefer to form coalitions. According to the EU 28 Survey 2016 ‘better governance for the eurozone’ is one such area where cooperation may yield results. On this policy issue, a majority of policymakers and expert observers in the ‘affluent seven’ and the ‘big six’ favour coalition building. For a small majority, this is also the ‘preferred actor level’ as regards common defence structures – a burning topic since Trump insisted on Europe’s financial responsibility for its own security.


This article is part of the Rethink: Europe project, an initiative of ECFR, supported by Stiftung Mercator, offering spaces to think through and discuss Europe’s strategic challenges. For more information on the EU28 Survey and our EU Coalition Explorer presenting the results of the expert survey go

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Research Assistant

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