Opinion
14.03.17

What will the Netherlands elections mean for Europe?

Few Dutch elections have been this high profile, which says a lot about the EU, according to Markus Jachtenfuchs.

The United States has often been accused of understanding little of the world, and even of important allies. But Germans are also hardly conscious of elections taking place in small neighbouring countries, let alone the details. This has changed. The elections in the Netherlands are having the same effect as Germany’s state elections, which act as a barometer of the general mood and sometimes change the balance of powers.

It is a good sign that the EU is growing together and debating issues across borders. It is also a sign that the EU isn’t just a series of European Council meetings that appear to revolve only around success and failure, and where government leaders seem to communicate exclusively with and about their own compatriots. It is a sign that a European public does exist, although more than 20 languages are spoken in the EU and the media remains largely national.

But it also shows the difficulty of setting aside ideas about one's own political system when discussing the developments in a neighbouring country. If a party wins the elections in Germany, it is also entitled to appoint the chancellor. This is all the more true for the UK. If a party wins the elections in the Netherlands, it means that it won most of the votes. The Dutch system has many relatively small parties. Compromise and negotiations, consensus and cooperation are important for the formation of a government. Dutch right-wing Party for Freedom candidate Geert Wilders rejects this. With this anti-establishment attitude, he is winning votes, but also reducing his chances to become part of the government, since most of the other parties reject a coalition with him. Maybe he does not even want to be part of the government.

With this attitude he shows the same ethics of irresponsibility as the right-wing populists in the UK where, one day after the Brexit referendum, Nigel Farage declared that he had achieved his political goal and could now resign. The real, enormous political task, to withdraw from the EU without massive damage to the UK, was left to the heavily criticised political establishment. From Farage's point of view this is clever, because the only losers are those who have to face the real political and economic problems. It’s easy to demand free trade agreements, but concluding them takes a little longer.

Geert Wilders’ is also campaigning for the Netherlands to withdraw from the EU. That the large and powerful USA is favouring protectionism and sovereignty and wants to withdraw from international agreements is at least somehow explicable, even if one disagrees. For the medium-sized UK this is more difficult to understand. For the small Netherlands it just seems absurd. Some states are already pursuing this path, such as Norway and Switzerland. Their situation is simple: for them, access to the world's largest market is vital, and they secure this access by accepting all of the EU's regulations but foregoing participation in their adoption. They cannot even complain about the alleged democratic deficit in the EU, because their own parliaments must rubber-stamp the EU regulations.

But one should not be deceived by gloomy forecasts of decline. The EU is an economic superpower, and it wields this power. There is little scope left for the national sovereignty of small marginal states. Therefore, the smaller states have always seen the EU as a protection against the power of the larger states.

But why is such a programme so successful in a country that is doing well economically and that has no reasonable alternative option outside the EU? Certainly, one reason is that the old mechanism still works: everything good is home-grown, everything bad comes from Brussels. Another reason is the lack of alternatives that has long been presented as a necessary effect of globalisation and European integration. No one likes a lack of alternatives, and so alternatives arise even though they may be bad. However, the main reason is that the state of political conflict in Europe is slowly but fundamentally changing. Apart from the classical left-right conflict, we see a brewing conflict between international openness and national isolation. This makes the situation more difficult for parties on the left than for those on the right. Even though German Left-Party politician Sahra Wagenknecht has tried to explain them to left-wing voters, restrictive asylum and migration policies and a focus on special national arrangements are hard to explain to her supporters. This is easier for the right, which is why there is no strong left-wing populism, but a strong right-wing populism in Europe. This gains popularity by focusing attention on problems caused by migration in the broadest sense, without having to pay the cost of the proposed solutions.

Therefore, the elections in the Netherlands are part of a larger conflict that has been emerging in Europe over a longer period, and that will not go away overnight. This does not mean that right-wing populism will hold the upper hand in the long term. The upward trend of the Dutch Green Party and the support for Emmanuel Macron in France demonstrate that there is no need for the opposition to hide if it takes up the political fight and isn’t paralysed by doom and gloom scenarios. The damages would simply be too large.

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