Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

What Do the Dutch Elections Mean for Europe?

Ralitsa Kovacheva, September 4, 2012

On September 12 the Dutch are going to elections for the second time in two years. The coalition government of Liberals and Christian Democrats, that was painfully formed after the 2010 elections, had to rely on the parliamentary support of the far-right Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. In the end, as euinside wrote, the government paid dearly for that support and ultimately fell in April 2012 after the negotiations on further cuts in the 2013 budget failed.

The political landscape in the Netherlands is highly fragmented. According to opinion pools of 31 August, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's People's Party for Freedom and Democracy is the most preferred by voters but with only a modest result of 22%. The social democratic Labour Party collects 16.6 percent of the vote, while the Christian Democratic Appeal and the social liberal Democrats 66 - about 9%.

The Socialist Party (17%) is rising convincingly in the polls and analysts predict it could emerge as a first political force after the elections. The reason – the Socialists' play with populist and anti-European messages, using people’s fear of loosing quality of life and security they are used to.

At the other extreme of the political spectrum Geert Wilders relies on 13% of the vote but analysts are unanimous that his support actually falls. Or at least will not increase.

In the Netherlands, the threshold for entering parliament is defined as the number of valid votes is divided into 150, which is the number of seats in parliament, thus having a threshold of less than 1%, which is one of the world’s lowest. Therefore, even parties with a very small percentage of the vote could also get parliamentary seats. The Greens, for example, have the support of 3% of the voters which could bring them four seats in Parliament. Therefore, it is possible (and sometimes necessary) very colourful and even unpredictable coalitions to be formed. Indeed, this is the prevailing forecast for the election’s outcome.

Where is Europe?

Commenting on the campaign in the Netherlands, a number of European media and analysts say that the main issues are related to the eurozone crisis and the future of the European project. In the last two years (Rutte's governance) the Netherlands emerged as one of the "fiscal hawks" in the eurozone, even greater than Germany, as the country stood firmly behind the course of budget discipline and even suggested undisciplined countries to be excluded from the eurozone. Ironically, the government fell precisely while trying to impose budget cuts in its own country (although the cuts were agreed a few days later and supported by five parties in Parliament). In the same spirit of strict compliance with the rules, the Hague blocked the entry of Bulgaria and Romania to Schengen, due to poor results in the fight against corruption and organised crime.

At a time when the most popular question in the European Union is more or less Europe, nearly one third of the Dutch are willing to vote for populist parties with Eurosceptic messages – the Socialists and the far right populists of Wilders. To fit into the campaign, even traditional pro-European parties will have to take more Eurosceptic positions, Adriaan Schout and Jan Marinus Wiersma note in an analysis of the European Council on Foreign Relations. According to them, however, the Dutch euroscepticism is rather europragmatism. The Netherlands wants to protect its economic interests in the EU (80% of Dutch exports go to the EU), while maintaining national sovereignty.

On the other hand, the Netherlands supported the strengthening of EU economic governance and the European Commission`s power to oversee the budgets of member states. According to the analysts, the explanation is in the Hague's traditional support for the European Commission, which protects the smaller member states against the dominant interests of larger countries. Therefore, though generally being sceptical towards deepening of the European integration, most Dutch parties would support this process only if it covers the entire EU (and the European institutions), not just the eurozone. The Netherlands fears that stronger integration in the euro area can only make it a permanent transfer union (where some countries pay for others), and in economic terms Hague will only lose from a fragmentation of the European internal market. These fears are the main drivers of the Dutch euroscepticism, the analysts say.

"This anti-EU sentiment origins from fear for globalisation and loss of sovereignty. Furthermore, people are afraid that their living standards are weakening in comparison to citizens of the newer member states. Some of the leaders of populist parties take advantage of these fears and successfully use the EU as a scape goat," EPP MEP Corien Wortmann-Kool commented, asked by euinside. She is a member of the Christian Democratic Appeal, which supports the European project and is "prepared to participate in the discussion on further EU integration needed to save the euro and eurozone."

The undecided voter

Actually, the European issues neither drive the campaign nor determine the voters choice, Dutch Green Party member Inti Suarez told euinside. "There is a national consensus about austerity, and a minor discussion on how much budget slashing should happen. Nobody likes bailout programmes, but everybody knows they will happen and in the long run they are likely to be good for the Netherlands. And there is also broad national consensus in trying to reduce migration and stop EU integration."

In his view, what is defining for this campaign is "the further indecision of the voter." There are no relevant issues on which politicians to come up with clear positions, which results in a large number of undecided voters. And in turn, the politicians, as they do not know what voters expect, become more timid and unclear in their positions. This vicious circle, says Inti Suarez, leads to strong fragmentation of the political landscape and to further radicalisation. "Of course, if you do not get clarity from the centre party that you used to vote for, some day you will find a more clear party to the right or to the left."

The forecasts

Inti Suarez predicts a coalition government led by the Liberals with the participation of D66, the Christian Democrats, the Christian Union and even the Green Party. "I believe that the Social Democrats do not have the push to get elected in crisis times and the far left is, at the end of the day, not what the Dutch in the street wants to see in government." Corien Wortmann-Kool MEP also believes that populists from the right wing (the Freedom Party) and populists from the left (the Socialist Party) will not enter the government. She expects a coalition of at least 3 or 4 parties "with a clear pro-EU line and a constructive approach towards saving the European Union."

It is likely, as two years ago, the forming of a government to be difficult and long, but eventually the new cabinet will look like the incumbent. The only difference is that it may not need (and probably every effort will be made to that end) to rely on the support of populists. The Dutch behaviour on the European scene, however, is unlikely to change. The country will continue to be one of the fiercest defenders of compliance with the rules, either in terms of budgetary surveillance or Schengen. But the real test for the Dutch politicians would be another - if serious discussions on a new EU treaty are about to begin shortly. Given the fate of the European Constitution, which was blocked namely by the Netherlands (and France) in 2005 and the public consensus against giving more national sovereignty to Brussels, this issue can overthrow the future Dutch government, just as the budget cuts overthrew the previous one.