Open Europe Blog

A Dutch election primer

Emile Roemer, leader of the Dutch Socialist Party

On 12 September, elections will take place in the Netherlands. Due to the country’s traditional role as an ally to Germany in monetary affairs, they will be watched with close attention (and by coincidence the German Constitutional Court is due to rule on the ESM Treaty the same day).

What do the opinion polls say?

The latest opinion poll shows that caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s right-of-centre-liberal VVD party and the EU-critical left-wing Socialist Party would get the most votes, with each obtaining 34 seats in Parliament. Sniffing around third place are four parties: the social democratic PvdA (21), the Christian democratic CDA (16), Geert Wilders’ PVV (14) and the left-liberal D66 (13). The Christian Union, which sits with the Tories in the ECR-group in the European Parliament, would get around 7 seats, and GreenLeft 4.

What are the coalition options? 

There are broadly two possibilities:

– Firstly, a centrist coalition might emerge from the VVD, PvdA and CDA. However, the polls suggest this currently falls a few seats short of the necessary majority. This coalition could be expanded to include D66, which would make for a eurofederalist formation, but this might not be convenient in the face of an EU-critical, although disparate, opposition composed of the Socialist Party and Wilders’ PVV.  Alternatively, the seats of the moderately EU-critical Christian Union might be sufficient but then the government would only have a narrow majority, if the current poll results materialise.

– A second option, the preferred solution of the Dutch social democrats (PvdA), would be a government with the Socialist Party, CDA, and GreenLeft. This would only narrowly obtain a majority and probably also need the support of D66. While the CDA would need to be convinced, it is questionable whether a government led by what many consider a far-left party is a viable political option in the Netherlands. The Socialist Party started off as a Maoist formation (a bit like the current European Commission President) but has moderated its tone and could now be described as left wing populist. Its current leader, Emile Roemer, who vehemently opposes the fiscal pact, has repeatedly warned that he won’t pay any EU fines for breaching budget deficit limits, saying he would “put his body on the line”.

Other options are theoretically possible, but unlikely: the divisions between the VVD and Socialists look too deep, while it’s unlikely that the VVD would choose a new deal with Geert Wilders, after the previous  Dutch government fell due to Wilders’ opposition to austerity. The most likely outcome remains some kind of centrist government, possibly after several months of negotiation (last time around, it took four months to form a government).

What are the campaign themes?

Unavoidably, Europe is high on the list. The last government fell over EU-imposed austerity and it is no surprise that Socialist leader Roemer has raised it as an issue. Roemer has also warned that any transfers of power to the EU would need to be agreed by referendum (in a similar vein the UK’s ‘referendum lock’). Things have been moving in a more EU-critical direction for a few years now. Only 58% of Dutch voters are currently in favour of EU membership, a stunning drop from 76% in May 2010. Two thirds of Dutch voters want to see less of their cash going to the EU budget. Last, but certainly not least, there is general discontent about the eurozone bailouts, with  at least half of Dutch citizens saying in May that they wanted to see a stop on money being sent to Greece and a majority opposing the eurozone’s permanent bailout fund, the ESM.

Another important issue is pensions, following reports that cuts very likely will need to be made. Dutch pension rules are also under threat from upcoming EU initiatives such as Solvency II, which are being fiercely opposed by the Dutch government.  

Economic policy is, as always, high on the agenda. Dutch PM Mark Rutte entered the campaign this week, promising tax cuts in order to reward those who work, in a bid to present his party as the alternative to voters who are scared of the SP and draw left vs. right battle lines.

What’s the political context?

Much of what’s happening in the Netherlands today is still seen in the light of the murder of Pim Fortuyn in 2002. The Pim Fortuyn List, certainly started to break down the consensus in Dutch politics on issues such as immigration and the EU. Of course, a lot of has happened since: a range of unstable coalition governments, the no-vote in the referendum on the European Constitution in 2005, the rise and influence of Geert Wilders.

The sluggish Dutch economy also appears to have become somewhat decoupled from the German economy. There is particular concern about the housing market.

What will be the consequences for the EU and the euro?

Dutch daily De Volkskrant ran an article earlier this month noting that the current Dutch government has increasingly been playing EU hard-ball behind the scenes, under the headline “European patience with the annoying Dutch is almost up”. An EU diplomat was quoted as saying, “the problem is not that the Netherlands is obstructing, the problem is that the Netherlands is almost always obstructing”.

Given that around a third or more of the Dutch electorate now seem prepared to vote for more or less EU-critical parties, that isn’t going to change anytime soon. Still, it will make a big difference whether the Socialist Party will make it into government or not, and perhaps more symbolically, whether it will become the biggest party in the country. Both remain uncertain.

However, it is clear that the consequences could be far reaching, especially for Chancellor Merkel if one of her most loyal allies starts to make things even more politically fraught at the level of the eurozone.

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