The Dutch View on Brexit

The Dutch View on Brexit

When it came to Brexit, the Dutch government, like the governments of every other EU member state, was in the dark. How could it possibly calibrate a response to ensure Dutch interests were adequately represented in the negotiations when there were so many variables at play? And how can citizens, businesses, and innovators back home be involved to ensure maximum readiness?

RAND Europe and the Dutch research organisation Berenschot were asked to assess the Dutch government’s strategy for handling Brexit negotiations and domestic preparations, as well as the outcomes of these efforts and the associated costs. A survey of over 700 citizens and representatives from various businesses, as well as dozens of interviews and an in-depth examination of government communications, were all part of the study.

The stakes could not have been higher for the Netherlands. The United Kingdom was an important trading partner for the Netherlands, and tens of thousands of Dutch nationals lived, studied, or worked in the United Kingdom on the strength of their EU citizenship.

It was essential to have a cross-departmental plan in place, as Brexit could have an impact on every part of the government. It was determined that “Task Force UK,” which was coordinated and established by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was successful in its mission.

The Netherlands was among the first EU countries to compile a detailed analysis of Brexit’s possible consequences. Each branch of government was given the mission of getting ready for a “no-deal” Brexit. Many different factors, including air travel, academic credentialing, mutual legal assistance, and drug imports, were discussed. According to the opinions of the stakeholders, the Netherlands was able to assist the other EU member states in fulfilling their information needs because of their head start.

After initially outlining the potential disruptions that Brexit could cause, The Hague continuously updated their overview of potential risks and how to mitigate them as the negotiations progressed. It became clearer and clearer where the weaknesses were, and more thorough preparations were made. The predicted anarchy and identified disruptions ultimately did not occur. The Netherlands was an efficient Commission partner because of its timely preparation.

Dutch negotiators sought to protect EU cohesion, facilitate the United Kingdom’s smooth exit from the bloc, lessen the likelihood of disruption, and forge a constructive new relationship with the country after it left. The Netherlands’ primary concerns in the first round of withdrawal negotiations were I the protection of citizens’ rights, ii) the resolution of outstanding financial obligations, and iii) the resolution of border issues, particularly between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The second round of negotiations with the United Kingdom were guided by a list of eleven priorities compiled by various Dutch government agencies. A strong interdepartmental organisation helped the Dutch government effectively advocate for its positions during negotiations, and the goals it set out to achieve were seen as clear and consistent. The primary objectives of the Dutch withdrawal negotiations were met, and the Dutch interests appeared to be effectively pursued.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the public-facing communications strategy was deemed effective, given the attention it garnered both domestically and internationally thanks to the adoption of the furry blue’monster’ character as a mascot. In 2019, the Dutch government launched a massive public information campaign featuring an enormous Muppet-like creature wearing a t-shirt that says “Brexit” in big red letters, urging business owners not to let Brexit get in the way of their success. The Brexit monster lying on Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok’s desk was the subject of a tweet that made headlines around the world.

Stakeholders also gave high marks to the partnership with and participation of the business sector. The majority of British expats in the Netherlands had a positive impression of the government’s efforts to keep them informed, while the majority of Dutch expats in the United Kingdom had a negative one, with many people there feeling left in the dark.

The management of “Task Force UK,” for example, was cited as an area of weakness. This was because the team was comprised initially of relatively junior staff, and it took some time for them to gain the necessary expertise. Some respondents highlighted the absence of knowledgeable civil society organisations and institutions like think tanks. Few business owners felt they were given sufficient opportunity to voice their concerns.

The potential for a no-deal Brexit has contributed significantly to the relatively high costs expected of the overall preparations. In total, we expected to spend about €570 million (or $590 million) from 2018 to 2021. To get ready for the UK’s exit from the single market, the Dutch customs authorities, for instance, hired almost exactly one thousand additional customs officers. While these expenses are significant, they pale in comparison to the damage a no-deal scenario would cause to the Dutch economy without adequate planning.

However, the total amount spent by the Dutch government on Brexit preparations is not readily available. The researchers did not have access to and likely did not know the actual amounts spent from the departmental budgets that were in place. Since there was no overarching administration, it was difficult to estimate full costs or gain visibility into how money was actually being spent.

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Not only had the Dutch failed to properly account for their financial resources, but they also failed to properly organise all of their related paperwork. The team worked together and shared files and documents in a unified digital space. But government workers lacked a consistent approach to document storage and retrieval. Finding documents was a hassle because there was no organisational framework in place, and there was no clear naming or version/date control of files. Better archiving in the future will aid in producing more reliable assessments and increasing levels of responsibility. There was no centralised record of departmental contingency plans, no clear definition of those plans, and no resources allocated to departments so that they could reflect, in retrospect, on what knowledge could be preserved. Lessons may have been forgotten as a result.

There is still a sizable effect of Brexit on the Netherlands. The Dutch government had hoped that Britain would remain a member of the European Union. However, despite all of this, the Netherlands approached Brexit with relative clarity of purpose, and the programme administration resulted in a satisfactory outcome.

Daniel Harrison

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