As the dust settles from Italy’s “no” vote to constitutional reform, and a parliamentary vote in Westminster nudges Brexit a little bit closer to reality, the next big event for euroscepticism looms large. The Dutch elect a new parliament on March 15, 2017, and there are strong indications that parties critical of European integration will take a significant share of the vote. Beyond the more widely recognizable Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV), there are a multitude of movements, old and new, pushing to cut ties with Brussels. The Netherlands has become a powderkeg of euroscepticism, and is likely the next EU domino to fall.
Origins of Dutch euroscepticism
The Netherlands has traditionally favoured European integration, being a founding member of the European Coal and Steal Community (the EU’s predecessor). Since the early 2000s, however, a number of factors have turned the tide of public opinion against further integration.
The watershed moment to galvanize anti-establishment (and, by extension, anti-EU) sentiment was the assassination of outspoken Dutch academic and politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. He was neither the first, nor the last public figure to call for a return to border controls, but his provocative language regarding Islam made him unavoidable in public discourse. In particular, he argued that traditions of tolerance in the Netherlands were under threat if growing numbers of newcomers to the country did not share these same values.
On May 6, 2002, Fortuyn was assassinated by an animal rights activist, who accused the politician of scapegoating Muslims. Public sympathy for –if not agreement with– Fortuyn’s views grew as a result.
Similar events occurred in the years that followed, including the murder of controversial filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, and threats of similar actions against anti-Islam politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Sentiment against unfettered immigration grew, alongside disaffection with continued European integration. The introduction of the euro was seen by many as eroding purchasing power, and the accession of poorer east and central European countries into the EU has often been perceived as a threat to Dutch wages and employment.
Dutch euroscepticism today
After more than fifty years of European integration, the Dutch were given their first chance to vote on its deepening in June 2005. Voters were asked whether they agreed with their government’s approval of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE), to which 61.5% voted against (here’s one of many articles on why). However, the EU circumvented this vote, along with the French “no” vote, by introducing the Lisbon Treaty. Although similar in almost every meaningful way to the TCE, the Lisbon Treaty only required parliamentary ratification, which was obtained in 2008.
This context of eroding trust in political elites, in both Brussels and the Hague, fuelled the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Geert Wilders.
Since the party’s inception, it has grown to be the third largest party in the Dutch parliament, and is leading in most polls for the next election. Furthering its rise has been the highly-publicized trial of Geert Wilders over the past few months, following comments he made at a political rally in 2014. During his sole appearance at the trial, he gave a 26-minute speech defending freedom of expression, and blasting the courts and “elites” for “politically correct arrogance”. The subsequent sentence he received (inciting discrimination) appears to have further boosted the VVD in the polls.
But beyond the 2005 vote against the Constitutional Treaty and the rise of the VVD, a multitude of new eurosceptic voices have entered Dutch political and public discourse.
Throughout 2015, a well-organized campaign developed around a petition to trigger a referendum on the Netherlands’ approval of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. This treaty would signal closer economic and political ties between Ukraine and the EU, a rapprochement that sparked the armed conflict that has plagued Ukraine since 2014.
The petition garnered well above the 300,000 signatures required to hold a referendum, which was held in April 2016. Campaigning against the treaty was a diverse but determined coalition including but not limited to the pro-direct democracy, anti-EU Citizens’ Committee, and the pro-border control, equally pro-direct democracy Forum for Democracy, while the political initiative GeenPeil focused its energies on ensuring the necessary turnout to validate the vote. Motivations for opposition to the agreement ranged from a proxy vote on continued European integration, to worries about free movement of people from war-torn Ukraine, to the mistreatment of animals in that country’s food industry (for more details on campaign positions see here).
Turnout for the referendum was low, at just over 32%. However, this sufficed to make the result –a decisive 61% of voters against the treaty– binding.
In the wake of the referendum, the government has dragged its feet on implementation. About 70% of the Association Agreement has already been applied provisionally, making disentanglement complex. As a result, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has gained assurances from the EU that the agreement does not constitute Ukrainian candidacy for EU membership, and does not engage member states in military assistance to Ukraine. By obtaining these assurances, Rutte hopes to justify overriding the referendum result in parliament.
After Brexit, Nexit?
With March’s election rapidly approaching, all signs are pointing to a eurosceptic revolt in Dutch politics. Despite efforts by governing parties to allay growing public discontent, like the Dutch Parliament’s recent rejection of the creation of an EU public prosecutor’s office, the momentum remains with movements against continued European integration. Beyond the PVV and the softer eurosceptic stance of the long-established Socialist Party, the upstart For the Netherlands party (VNL), as well as the Forum for Democracy’s newly-minted political wing will contest March’s election, providing a wide range of eurosceptic options. Should any or all of these movements enter parliament, or reinforce their presence in it, the chances of future referenda on further integration are greatly increased –perhaps even a Brexit-style in-or-out vote on EU membership. In any case, 2016 was only the beginning of the democratic insurrection sweeping across the West, and the next flashpoint is almost certainly the Netherlands.