8 May 2019

Ahead of the Dutch European Parliament (EP) elections, 69% of voters declared to a pollster that national politics will have a considerable influence on their vote – a reminder that, in the end, all politics is national.

The rising star of the Netherlands’ heavily fragmented political scene is Thierry Baudet, the founder of Forum for Democracy (Fvd), a right-wing Eurosceptic sovereigntist party founded in late 2016. FvD is now leading the opinion polls, ahead of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD. The party has been taking votes from Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV), previously the leading Eurosceptic force, but has also sought to attract others by presenting a more respectable version of Wilders’ anti-immigration rhetoric, which focused heavily on the influence of Islam. In March, the FvD secured a major electoral victory by coming first in provincial elections, and thereby depriving the government of its majority in the Senate, the Dutch parliament’s upper house.

Baudet is personally a strong supporter of a Dutch exit from the EU (or ‘Nexit,’ as it is often dubbed) and he has accused the media of unfairly depicting Brexit as “very bad”. However, recently, he has clarified that “the Netherlands should not leave the EU tomorrow”, with the party instead calling for a referendum on membership and Baudet suggesting the Netherlands should leave in “stages”.

The lead candidate of FvD’s EP list is well-known Dutch journalist Derk Jan Eppink, who already served a term in the European Parliament after being elected for the Belgian libertarian party Lijst Dedecker, which sits with the British Conservatives in the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) group. Baudet’s party also intends to join the ECR – though another Dutch party in the ECR, the moderate Eurocritical Christian Union (CU), has said the FvD’s tacit support for ‘Nexit’ should disqualify it from ECR membership.

How large might the Dutch Eurosceptic contingent be?

On 30 April, an Ipsos poll projected that the FvD would obtain 5 seats in the EP, largely at the expense of Wilders’ PVV, which is expected to lose 2 of its 4 seats. Currently, the combined vote share of FvD and the flagging PVV are close to where Wilders’ PVV peaked in opinion polls in January 2016, at around 27% of the electorate. It should be noted that Wilders was never able to convert these poll numbers into election results.

However, the rise of first Wilders and now Baudet has had a significant impact on Dutch politics and, as a result, the Dutch contingent in the European Parliament is likely to look quite Eurosceptic when accounting for the other parties’ policy programmes.

If one combines the FvD, Wilders’ PVV, the left-Eurosceptic Socialist Party and the two smaller parties sitting with the Tories in the ECR Group in the EP (CU/SGP), the Dutch Eurosceptic contingent is forecasted to win 10 out of the Netherlands’ 26 seats – up from 8 currently. However, the remaining Dutch contingent is certainly not unambiguously pro-EU. In recent years, even Rutte’s VVD – forecasted to win 5 seats – has taken a “soft” Eurosceptic line in some areas, close that historically supported by British Conservatives. It is in favour of free market reform of the EU and returning powers back to member states – its lead candidate for the EP elections is against mandatory refugee quotas, for example.

Dutch Euroscepticism: between a rock and a hard place

Understanding the strength of Euroscepticism in a founding member state where 91% of those surveyed in are in favour of EU membership is, let’s say, complicated. Withdrawal or “Nexit” is still very much a fringe view in the context of the Netherlands but, make no mistake about it, Dutch domestic politics is no longer on the same page as Brussels.

In April, a majority of Dutch MPs voted for a motion demanding that the Dutch government seek to remove the phrase “ever closer union” from the EU’s Treaties. The motion stated that “countless citizens within the EU do not feel at home in an EU as an ‘ever closer union of peoples’, because this could contribute to an unnecessary and undesirable restriction of member states’ sovereignty.”

The motion was passed with the support of Rutte’s VVD and two of the three other government coalition parties, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and CU. It should be noted that, while Rutte himself said in 2017 that “the idea of ever-closer Europe has gone, it’s buried”, his response to Dutch MPs’ demand was that reopening treaties would “bring enormous risks, when we have bigger fish to fry within Europe.”

Elsewhere, the Dutch Finance Minister, Wopke Hoekstra of the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA), recently sounded a strongly Eurocritical note when he said, “Countries like Norway and Switzerland… have decided not to join the union. Sweden and Denmark have decided not to join the euro. And our British friends, to my dismay, have decided to leave the EU. If you lack the ability to attract [those countries] and you lose the UK, then it’s time to look in the mirror.”

Such developments, just ahead of the EP elections, should be seen in the light of overall discontent in the Netherlands with the EU. An I&O poll has just revealed that 47% of Dutch voters are dissatisfied with the EU, while only 32% is satisfied, even if a large majority (72% in this poll) supports membership.

Meanwhile, the last of the four coalition parties, the centrist D66, is strongly in favour of more powers for the EU. Its leader, Rob Jetten recently complained that Rutte and his Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra “say ‘no’ a lot in Europe.”  Also in the pro-EU camp is current Dutch EU Commissioner Frans Timmermans – not only the lead candidate for the Labour Party (PvdA) in his own country, but also the lead candidate of the centre-left S&D group at EU level, where he was selected as the party’s “Spitzenkandidat” for European Commission President. The PvdA looks on course to lose one of their three EP seats, while the Greens, who have been doing very well recently in national opinion polls, are on course to go from two to three seats.

How significant is the Dutch EP election?

Apart from allowing voters to express discontent over national issues, if the polls are correct, these elections will serve as yet another sign of how out of step today’s EU is with many Dutch voters. This discontent with the EU is witnessed in one of its wealthiest member states, where the economy is thriving, and which did not experience the intense upheaval of countries like Germany or Sweden during the migration crisis. If Brexit hasn’t served as a wake-up call in Brussels, this European Parliament election result might.