Following their contribution to ECFR's National Papers series, Jan Marinus Wiersma and Adriaan Schout examine the implications of the recent Dutch election for the European Union.
Click here to read Jan and Adriaan's National Paper - 'Reinventing Europe: the Dutch paradox'
Elections and instability
Business and governments from all over the world need stability in the eurozone. Elections in EU member states are a major – but of course unavoidable - source of instability. Elections in Greece threatened the euro with discussions about a euro-referendum and prospects of wanting to rewrite the austerity agreements; the change from Sarkozy to Hollande in France worried many and Hollande threatened to renegotiate the fiscal compact, etc. Yet, despite the many elections that took place over the past 3 years, the euro still exists.
Although all countries have very specific problems and relations with regard to the euro, the Dutch elections might shed some light on why elections might not be so unsettling after all. We also may start to see a pattern: Elections in Greece, Spain, Slovenia etc. have not really changed political courses so far. A closer look at the Dutch elections may hint towards possible explanations.
The Dutch ‘reasonable’ outcome explained
The ‘reasonable’ outcome of the Dutch elections of 12 September 2012 came to many as a surprise. First of all, it showed that The Netherlands did not develop into the extremist anti-EU country the press sometimes presented it. EU-scepticism seems to have been growing in many – if not all – EU member states (Eurobarometer 2012, Bertelsmanns Stiftung). The harsh tone in The Netherlands during the first Rutte government (2010-2012) and the critical Dutch positions in the EU Councils had created the impression that The Netherlands had lost its interests in both the European integration project and in the euro.
Secondly, the Dutch outcome was a landslide victory for parties of the center – the liberals and the labour party. With that, more extremist parties from the left (Socialists headed by Roemer) and right (Freedom Party headed by Wilders) were almost halved in comparison to polls that had predicted political fragmentation and a strong support for outright anti EU-positions. The Dutch political instability had obviously been overstated.
These outcomes lead to two important questions that touch upon the solidity and the political cohesion of the EU. Firstly, what do they mean for the future of Dutch EU politics – more in general and as regards the institutional debate on deeper integration - and, secondly, can these findings be interpreted in terms of behavior of voters in the EU more generally.
Concerning the Dutch EU position, we wrote in May 2012 – when the predominant international and national opinion was that the Netherlands had become more and more anti-EU – that The Netherlands has traditionally been pragmatic and therefore supporting a European level playing field. Hence, in favour of European integration, but not in favour of an EU dominated by big countries nor of major supranational symbols such as European presidents, hymn, constitution and flag. The pro-Commission inclination is an expression of support to the no-nonsense level playing field attitude as does the ‘no’ against the Constitutional Treaty in 2005.
This pragmatism was born out by the Dutch elections. When put on the spot, both politicians and voters rather preferred to continue with the EU as it is – including support for the Greece. Few seem to be interested in experiments with break-ups of the Eurozone or the EU as such. The threats to financial instability, to exports and to national and European political instabilities were too obvious to most voters. In this respect, the Dutch elections came at the right time when skepticism was growing and when flirting with anti-EU sentiments had become popular. Yet, the elections forced politicians to formulate clear and realistic positions. Even Roemer from the Socialist Party came out defending the EU to build his image of reliable statesman. Anti-EU populism had developed into a sign of irresponsibility.
More interestingly and somewhat unexpected, the EU actually did not really figure in the election debates as a splitting issue. Yes, there were many – and even profound – discussions, but the EU as such appeared to be much less of a decisive point in the final results. Although Geert Wilders announced with much aplomb that this would be the elections against the EU, they were in the end about the traditional left-right cleavage and issues like the budget, health care and the housing market. Wilders’ focus on the EU was not appreciated by the voters and he fell from 24 to 15 seats. The political fear at the start of the election campaign was that Wilders’ anti-EU campaign would force other parties to follow his lead. However, looking back on the elections, it appears that the EU as a topic did not make much of a difference. Prime minister Rutte, one of the winners, was quite critical of unnecessary further integration and repeatedly stated that no more money would be spent on Greece. The new leader of the opposition Labour party Samsom, the other winner, actually pursued a highly pro-EU line including steps towards the creation of European parties, amalgamation of EU presidents – and hence treaty changes – and a European guarantee of bank deposits. Neither party was punished for these contrasting positions. Wilders tried the anti-EU ticket but lost support because of it.
One explanation for the fact that the EU turned out to be a lesser issue is that only 11% of the Dutch public in a Clingendael poll grant the Dutch much influence at the EU level. Wisely, the public apparently acknowledged the relative weight of an individual country amongst 27. Secondly, the public has remained on the traditional pragmatic pro-European integration line: no experiments implied in this case ‘no major leaps in any direction’. The return of the center, as one major newspaper labeled the election outcome, also manifested itself here.
Future of the Dutch EU stance
If the Dutch electorate has opted for the traditional pragmatic pro-European line, what future consequences might this have for the Dutch EU position? Can we rest assured that the Netherlands will be a stable partner – or could it reappear as a threat towards the euro or further integration?
First, this depends on what majority will form the new government. It is most likely that the labour and liberal parties – that have started the coalitions talks - need to cover their backs. The Liberals will probably remain EU-critical if only to prevent leaving its flank open to the PVV. Similarly, Labour can be expected to be realistically in favour of European integration and even deeper integration. Yet, it will have to prevent alienation from the wider public that remains skeptical. And while the liberals will want to apply the brake to more ambitious proposals, the social democrats might push for a greater EU role in stimulating the economy and more democracy.
What unites most parties and most citizens is the Dutch emphasis on rules and respect for rules that is likely to remain a dominant element of Dutch EU policies. We call this the 100% Union where because agreements are respected and implemented, surprises like the near collapse of Greece are ruled out. Further steps to solve the eurocrisis but also the enlargement of the EU or the future of the Schengen zone, will most likely be judged in this light of the 100% Union too.
Secondly, there are some important dossiers scheduled for the coming year. One issue will be the banking union and the costs of supporting current deficits in the financial systems in the member states (especially in Spain). A second issue will be the deeper integration agenda. This might lead to a re-visiting of 2005 when the public just did not accept EU symbols. Discussions about the creation of true EU political parties, turning the EU commission into separate ministries and an elected president might prove politically counterproductive. Thirdly and crucial for the Dutch long term affiliation to the EU project, is the question of ‘which Europe?’ If deeper integration means a growing gap between the EU10 (including the traditional allies such as the UK, DK and Sweden) and the EU17 of the eurozone (predominantly the southern member states), many in The Netherlands might as well prefer to be alongside the UK rather than France. This seems to be the basic position of the liberals but they probably will have to find a compromise with the labour party with its close links to European social democracy. The best bet would be in that case: line up with Germany.
Finally, related to the previous point, with a EU heading for a kind of political union ( on the basis of the Lisbon treaty, following the politicisation of the Commission under president Barroso, and following the changes in the role of the ECB under Draghi), the EU might become more of a southern type of Europe less in line with the 100% Union preferred by the Netherlands, and with a different vision on fiscal austerity and structural economic reforms.
Limits to the Dutch pragmatic support?
For the time being the Dutch stuck to the pragmatic line. This does not mean that there are no limits to it. Given the state of the debate (see the above mentioned) and the different positions of the major parties and taking into account the remaining skepticism of many voters which will be exploited politically by attacks from the right and the left, a new government might want to avoid serious rifts within the EU and choose for the continuation of the incremental approach – supporting only those steps that are seen to be in the interest of the Netherlands. A new government coalition will have to define what this interest exactly is. Most likely it will not exactly be the same as before when deeper integration, closer integration within the EU17 and a more political role for the ECB dominate the agenda.
The relevance of the election outcome beyond The Netherlands
Acknowledging differences between countries in terms of size and political sensitivities, this analysis might also have some implications for political discussions in other member states. It suggests that, when put on the spot, voters might opt for stability. Greece opted for security, Hollande had little room diverting from the lines of Sarkozy, Slovenia continued as before, etc. Elections may changes political faces but may have less impact on political voices. As a corollary, elections are feared in view of the instability they create. However, fundamentally, they contrary to expectations create less volatility. So far, non of the elections proved to be a major hurdle for the EU project. All in all, the EU and the euro are more stable than the day to day discussions in the media seem to suggest.
See also our paper on the Dutch EU debate from before the elections. https://www.ecfr.eu/content/entry/commentary_reinventing_europe_the_dutch_paradox
De Volkskrant, 13-09-2012
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