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Before important French and German elections, all eyes will be on the Netherlands, which is about to re-elect its Lower House on 15 March. The Head of Open Europe’s Brussels office Pieter Cleppe explains everything you need to know about this election, which matters for the whole EU.
7 March 2017
1. Right-wing populist Geert Wilders is very unlikely to enter government
Despite leading opinion polls for more than a year now, right-wing populist firebrand Geert Wilders isn’t likely to enter government or even prop up a minority government, as he did between 2010 and 2012.
Unlike France’s Marine Le Pen, Wilders hasn’t been attempting to moderate himself. Le Pen is no longer a proponent of just giving up the euro like that, but wants to organize a referendum on the issue, as part of an overall vote on EU membership and after negotiations with other European countries.
Wilders on the contrary is clear: he wants to take his country out of the EU and out of the Eurozone. His full programme for government is written on exactly one single page. Only his Party for Freedom refused to allow the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis to calculate the economic effects of their proposals. Wilders also didn’t want to take part in a number of TV panel debates, in a further sign of unwillingness to engage with opponents.
In 2012, Wilders torpedoed the then minority government, because of his opposition to spending cuts. Since then he’s become more radical than ever, leading his supporters into chants demanding “fewer Moroccans” in 2014, while recently calling “a large part” of Dutch Moroccans “criminals”. Last December, he was convicted without facing punishment for those comments, something that seems to have boosted his popularity for a while. Recent opinion polls, however, indicate that he’s losing support and Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD party may now even overtake his party and become the biggest again.
Wilders has stated that he would never form a government with the VVD as long as Rutte is its leader. Rutte has responded that there is “zero chance” that his party would manage to close a coalition deal with Wilders, given their policy differences. Rutte has, however, stopped short of excluding Wilder’s party on principle, while VVD faction leader Halbe Zijlstra denied that his faction would agree a deal with Wilders even without Rutte. Zijlstra stated that Wilders “is now economically to the left of the Socialist Party and wants to end certain liberties for certain groups”.
In any case, Rutte’s top priority is to make sure his party is bigger than Wilders’ Party for Freedom. The biggest party is traditionally given a prominent role in coalition talks, so coming first would avoid even having to go through a round of talks with Wilders. Yet there is a precedent for excluding the biggest party from government – in 1977 the social democrats then the biggest party were excluded from government. According to an opinion poll in November by prominent pollster Maurice de Hond, 60% of Dutch thinks Wilders’ party needs to be welcomed in government if it becomes the biggest party, indicating that keeping Wilders out may not be popular.
So far, only one party which is likely to get a decent number of seats in the polls, the “50PLUS” party, a pensioners’ interests party, has not ruled out governing with Wilders, but it’s unlikely the two parties would together obtain a majority.
2. In all likelihood, we’ll see a government composed of at least four parties
The Netherlands has a strongly proportional system of voter representation, which results in political fragmentation. In order to obtain 76 out of 150 seats, opinion polls suggest that at least four parties will be needed: Rutte’s ruling centre-right VVD, the centrist Christian democratic CDA and EU-federalist D66, which have been rumoured to be keen to form a government, narrowly scrape together only about 60 seats. To add the “GreenLeft” party and/or the “Protestant” parties Christian Union and SGP, could just result in a shaky coalition. The ruling Labour party (PvdA), currently in coalition, could then lick its wounds in the opposition, likely to lose between two thirds and 75% of its seats since the 2012 election, if polls are correct.
3. The influence of the Dutch Senate and the referendum on the EU-Ukraine Treaty
Another reason why at least four parties will be needed for a government coalition is that currently, and until 2019, it takes at least four parties to obtain a majority in the Dutch Senate. There, VVD, CDA and D66 together with GreenLeft have a very narrow majority of 39 seats.
The Dutch Senate doesn’t have a lot of powers so it wasn’t a major issue for the current VVD-PvdA coalition to have to close deals with opposition parties there. Yet after the elections the Dutch Senate will need to decide whether to ratify the EU-Ukraine Treaty, which a majority rejected in a referendum last Spring. Following an EU declaration on the issue obtained by Rutte, D66 and GreenLeft are happy to approve ratification anyway. There are also strong indications that CDA Senators would be willing to lend support. This would take away a major headache for Rutte if indeed he would become PM again. Whether ignoring a referendum isn’t going to boost Euroscepticism on the long term is of course a whole different matter. A number of small parties, including right-wing liberal VNL and the Forum for Democracy have been receiving a lot of media attention railing against those ignoring the referendum result.
4. Euroscepticism is becoming mainstream but the EU is only part of the debate
The current two governing parties, the centre-right VVD and the centre-left PvdA, have both adopted strong elements of Euroscepticism. The VVD always tended towards this, defending free market reform of the EU, but recently PM Rutte has adopted some of the harsher language of Wilders on immigration, for example warning immigrants to “be normal or be gone”.
The Labour party has also abandoned its unconditional support for the EU. Its new leader, Lodewijk Asscher, has complained that “wage-lowering labour migration in Europe nowadays leads to unequal competition between workers”, stopping short of calling for restrictions on free movement of labor, but arguing for the need to “tackle the negative side-effects” of the EU’s free movement of workers.
Still, a Dutch exit from the EU or Nexit is only supported by a minority. In the run-up to the election, banks as Rabobank or ABN have come out with warnings of the economic consequences of this. Given how integrated the Dutch economy is with the other economies of mainland Europe, it’s clear that the EU’s downsides need to be a lot bigger for the Netherlands than they are for the UK to make it beneficial to leave.
Meanwhile, the eurocrisis refuses to go away, most recently with Greece yet again debating with other Eurozone countries whether it has fulfilled the conditions to receive bail out cash so it can pay back its debt. Greece only needs to pay back lenders in July, so in all likelihood this isn’t going to influence the Dutch elections much but it hardly reflects well on Rutte and his government.
One reason for the success of Geert Wilders are the loose monetary policies of the ECB, which have triggered parliamentary debates in a country with more than 1700 billion euro in pension savings. Pension investors already had to cut payouts and may well do so again as a result of the fact that low interest rates make it harder for them to comply with their promises. One Christian democratic MP, Pieter Omtzigt, has claimed the ECB damage to Dutch pensions amounts to 100 billion euro. Amid complaints from trade unions and the success of “50PLUS”, Geert Wilders has suggested that each pensioner should be given €300 from the €900 million he claims the Dutch government has saved in terms of interest payments.
Still, this time around it’s not just about the economy, which has been recovering quite well after a series of savings packages had been implemented, following the financial crisis and the painful bursting of a real estate bubble. As Dutch commentator Derk Jan Eppink describes it: “culture wars have reached the Netherlands”, referring to opinion polls suggesting there’s a lot of sympathy in Europe for Donald Trump’s travel ban for people from a number of Muslim countries, adding: “do EU leaders even know their own population?” Still it would be a mistake to see Wilders’ success merely as a sign of the ‘original’ population of the Netherlands rebelling against a multicultural society, given that his party would be the second most popular among Dutch originating from Suriname.
The popularity of anti-system forces in the Netherlands and beyond can probably be explained through a multitude of factors: uncontrolled mass immigration, problematic integration of existing minorities and Islamic terrorism, a welfare state struggling to cope with an ageing population, supranational overreach and, last but not least, technological disruption challenging the status quo in many ways. In terms of the EU debate, a more modest EU, focused on scrapping trade barriers without organizing mass financial transfers and micromanaging national or local issues, could fit very well in today’s mood. It seems like many in the Dutch political class have understood this, unlike EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, who thinks we need more Summits and grand projects to concentrate power and money- this time only for “core Europe”. Core Europe may be about to send him a message.
A version of this article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph