Alexander Damiano Ricci: Over the past few months there has been much speculation about a “Nexit” scenario that could follow the electoral success of Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the upcoming Dutch elections. What is the general attitude towards Europe in the Netherlands?
Haans Vollaard: To start with, a Dutch exit from the European Union is unlikely. After the elections, the majority of the Parliament will still be in favour of remaining. Moreover, I think that there would not even be a majority for a referendum on EU membership to be organized. And even such a referendum should be held eventually, I expect the Dutch people to vote to stay.
Pragmatism is indeed a cross-class and cross-educational feature of the Dutch population. Still, it is clear that less-educated and low-earning classes tend to be more pessimistic about EU membership. This is quite understandable because they experience more labour competition.
ADR: After Brexit, what makes you so confident that Dutch voters would choose to remain?
HV: It is just a pragmatic consideration: for a small trading country like the Netherlands EU membership is an advantage. In the country, there has always been a 10% of people holding a Eurosceptic stance. But at the same time, there has always been a 10-15% in favour of a federal European Union. The latter group might have become smaller since the turn of the century, but the large chunk of people in between these two extreme positions have a rather pragmatic position.
Pragmatism is indeed a cross-class and cross-educational feature of the Dutch population. Still, it is clear that less-educated and low-earning classes tend to be more pessimistic about EU membership. This is quite understandable because they experience more labour competition. They perceive migrants as a threat, given that the their economic means are limited.
ADR: Still, in the 2005 referendum on the EU’s constitutional treaty the Dutch people voted no…
HV: The “no” vote back then was informed by the diminishing power of the Netherlands inside the EU and the “identity erosion” process that was at play. These concerns could be expressed safely in that referendum which, at the end of the day, was not about EU membership.
ADR: How do you explain the success of Wilders over the last ten years?
HV: Let’s not forget that in 2010 Wilders won 24 parliamentary seats. However, since then, whenever he has participated in a local election, he has lost. It is a mistake to talk about an astonishing progression of his party, the PVV. Even if according to the polls he might the upcoming election, he might not fare well afterwards. Wilders is not entirely a success story.
ADR: Over the last decade or so Europe has experienced the failure of the European constitution, a financial crisis, the risk of a Grexit and the vote on Brexit. To what extent has all this helped Wilders?
HV: Of course, all this has helped Wilders, but I would say that the main reason for his success, are his discourse and rhetoric on immigration. In the Netherlands, this is a deeply rooted concern. According to electoral surveys, since the early 1990s, voters have consistently listed immigration and integration among their major worries. Nevertheless, only in 2002 did a party offering a clearly anti-Islam platform appear. This was the list led by Pym Fortuyn, who clearly demonstrated that a considerable part of the Dutch electorate is in favour of limiting immigration. On top of that, Fortuyn was one of the first cases of a European politician holding an anti-establishment and Eurosceptic rhetoric. At that time, Fortuyn managed to get 26 seats out of 150. However, one year later the economic crisis hit and the Labour party won back an incredible amount of votes at the expense of Fortuyn’s party.
Ironically, it is partly thanks to the recent successful reforms passed by the recent coalition governments that economic issues are not a priority today. Indeed the Labour Party is scoring low because it has no “identity card” to play.
ADR: So Wilders is basically following Fortuyn’s footsteps…
HV: Yes. And the support for Wilders has been boosted by the refugee crisis, which became one of the major issues in the Netherlands a few years ago.
ADR: Still, economically speaking the country is in good shape. Not the ideal setting for a populist party to thrive, don’t you think?
HV: Ironically, it is partly thanks to the recent successful reforms passed by the recent coalition governments that economic issues are not a priority today. Indeed the Labour Party (PVDA) is scoring low because it has no “identity card” to play. On the contrary, the Liberal Conservative party (VVD) can do so.
ADR: Still, Wilders is blaming the EU. What is he complaining about? Is it about austerity?
HV: Austerity has played a role. Over the last decade, the Netherlands has complied quite well with the Maastricht criteria. In 2012 Wilders withdrew his support from the minority coalition, because of the welfare cuts planned by the government. At that time, he said that he would rather protect the elderly than stick to EU rules.
ADR: Is he still making this argument?
HV: Occasionally. In general, Wilders is mostly using the rhetoric of “taking back control”.
ADR: Does Wilders make a distinction between non-EU (primarily Islamic) and EU migration, within his anti-immigration discourse?
HV: Yes, he focuses mostly on Islam. He is actually most interested in linking the anti-Islam argument with the migration crisis. Thanks to the this strategy, Wilders claims that the EU is not able to set up proper borders, limit terrorist infiltrations and to grant security to its citizens.
There are many differences between the UK and the Netherlands. It all boils down to the awareness of being dependent from other countries, especially Germany.
ADR: Did the Brexit vote play into Wilders’s hands?
HV: Not that much, actually. The referendum result in the UK probably reinforced the opinions of those who were already Eurosceptic in the first place. However, Wilders does often refer to Norway and Switzerland, two countries that perform uqite well outside of the EU.
ADR: So, what if Brexit eventually becomes a success story?
HV: Then it could have effects on the voting behaviour of the Dutch: a part of the pragmatic electorate that I mentioned before could buy the “leave” argument.
ADR: But, Wilders aside, you have some political parties running on an explicitly Eurosceptic agenda.
HV: There are only minor parties that focus on Euroscepticism, and they will not win any seats in the next elections. These parties are in favour of a northern European free trade association with Germany and push for a restricted monetary union with it—something you would not be able to find among UK Eurosceptics. So you see that there are many differences between the UK and the Netherlands. It all boils down to the awareness of being dependent from other countries, especially Germany.
ADR: Apart from the Netherlands, do you think that we will soon be facing exit scenarios for other countries?
HV: No, I do not expect other countries to follow the example of the UK. Most countries would not leave the EU, even if they could be better off outside, such as Greece. The same holds for France: despite the country’s economic problems, I do not think that French citizens would dare support “Frexit”. I am also sceptical about the very ability of the French President to organize such a referendum: it would need to go through the Parliament and the Government first.
ADR: The way you put it, it seems that populist forces do not constitute such a risk for the EU after all.
HV: That is incorrect: I believe that populism would not destroy the EU, but rather weaken it from within. Let’s take the EU budget for example. It has already happened that, under the pressure of several countries, budget allocations have been reduced or redirected strategically. Another way to weaken the EU would be to kick out or block weak countries from further integrating. For instance, it could be an option to prevent Romania and Bulgaria from entering the Schengen area. Or, alternatively, reintroduce border controls, as is already the case in some countries. Moreover, some mainstream parties are already calling for the definition of precise exit procedures from different parts of the EU. That would allow, for example, to kick Greece out of euro without pushing the country entirely out of the EU.
Debates about Nexit, Frexit and the like are not strategic arguments. There is not much support around for leaving the EU altogether and, at the same time, a lot of diffused Euroscepticism. In this context, the most realistic scenario is given by politicians looking for concrete options to decrease the political and economic costs of EU membership from within the EU institutions.
This article was also published on l’Unità
Photo Credits CC Sebastiaan ter Burg
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