Wednesday, 31 March 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
All eyes were on the Netherlands when a whopping 82.6% of the Dutch electorate headed to the polls to vote in their general election. Early on, the exit polls already indicated a victory for the incumbent, Mark Rutte, who won 35 of the available 150 seats, despite recent scandals related to child benefits and claims of mismanagement of the vaccine roll-out.
However, the election and recent climate in the Netherlands has sparked speculations about the possibility of a Nexit (the Netherlands exit from the EU), especially now that the UK has left the block. It sounds unlikely but there are some reasons why the idea is not wholly unfounded.
As with all countries, the coronavirus pandemic has had a profound effect on the country, not just economically but also socially. When riots swept across the country earlier this year in protest of lockdown measures, many non-dutch and dutch people alike expressed surprise as these were not typical scenes in the Netherlands. Perhaps these eruptions of violence were, as protests often are, a symptom of underlying discontent amongst the Dutch population.
Like the UK’s Conservative party, the centre-right VVD party, spearheaded by Rutte, has led with an economic policy of austerity. Between 2011 and 2016 in particular, major cuts were made to public spending and, inevitably, these measures have led to inequalities. The Netherlands is one of the OECD countries in which inequality has risen relatively the most since the 1980s and between 2009 and 2019, rates of homelessness doubled. Perhaps it’s utopian reputation among Europeans is less justified than appears at first glance.
Indeed, the increasing popularity of far-right parties on the Dutch political scene seems to reflect the cracks in the utopian facade. As in the UK, the far-right parties of the Netherlands have been addressing these concerns about inequality, as well as capitalising on the feelings of alienation increasingly expressed by citizens.
The PVV (Party for Freedom) lead by Geert Wilders is historically known for being heavily Islamaphobic but has increasingly turned its attention to the EU. In an interview with the BBC in 2013, when asked if he wanted to bring down the EU, Wilders answered “as a matter of fact I do”. He also called for a referendum on EU membership in 2016, citing a poll by TV channel ‘Een Vandaag’, which stated that most Dutch people wanted a referendum on this issue.
Although the PPV lost seats in the election, other newer far-right parties who also campaigned for Nexit made significant gains (the FvD quadrupled their number of seats for example). Together, far-right parties won 29 seats, representing the best combined result for parties of this ideology in recent history.
Another aspect of the British decision to leave the EU was the belief that large amounts of money were being given to the EU with little returns on this investment. Whether this assessment is fair or not, similar sentiments seem to be proliferating in the Netherlands, one of the largest contributors to the EU budget. Even the Netherland’s moderate centrists parties, with their firm conviction in the value of EU membership, have expressed scepticism towards the functioning of the EU, especially when it comes to budget allocation.
Last year, when the EU was negotiating the distribution of the covid recovery fund, the Dutch were true to their stereotype of being frugal and, alongside Sweden, Austria and Denmark (dubbed the “frugal four”), demanded that the money be spent more wisely and that the EU avoid spending excessive amounts. The Dutch were accused by many of the countries harder hit by the pandemic of being overly economically cautious and majorly lacking in European solidarity.
The final factor to consider is the fact that the UK has historically been one of the Netherland’s closest allies in the EU, both in terms of the countries’ cultural similarities, as well as financially and politically. Experts have recently pointed out that the UK’s departure is likely to raise questions for the Dutch regarding their own position in the union because, now that the UK has officially left, it looks like the EU will increasingly be steered by the French-German axis.
This has sparked fears that the Dutch will find it harder for their voice to be heard. Although this is not a problem yet, it may become so in the near future as the European Union starts to recover from the pandemic which will inevitably mean controversial decisions need to be made.
When Britain voted to leave the EU, many were surprised as they believed the movement was limited to a small minority of eurosceptic UKIP voters- this mistake should not be made in the Netherlands. The evidence from the recent riots and popularity of the far-right parties as well as the re-election of the centre-right VVD that makes the continuation of limited amounts of public spending highly likely, makes its population voting to leave the EU seem more feasible, if not in the very near future, perhaps in the next few decades.
Having said this, it should be noted that the Netherlands has a long history of heavy contributions to the European project and it stands a lot to lose by leaving the EU. Approximately 75% of Dutch exports are to other EU countries, the Netherlands is part of the Eurozone which the British were not and, when it comes down to it, most Dutch parties are in favour of staying in the EU. In fact, this election is the first time that the pan-European party ‘Volt’ gained seats in Dutch parliament.
As one of the 6 founders of the original European Coal and Steel Community, it is not likely that the Netherlands will leave the EU any time soon, but we should remember it is not impossible.