Dutch torn between UK sympathy and EU solidarity

by Quentin Peel | 22.02.2017

Geert Wilders, the perma-tanned right-wing populist whose Party for Freedom (PVV) is currently topping the polls in the Dutch general election, will not be the next prime minister. That is one of the few outcomes one can predict with much confidence from a campaign in which 28 parties are competing for seats.

The latest poll-of-polls suggests a race to the line between the PVV, which has slipped in recent weeks below 17%, and the VVD headed by Mark Rutte, the current prime minister, on 16%.

The probability is that a complex coalition of at least four parties will emerge after weeks if not months of negotiations, combining the liberal VVD, Christian Democrats, D66 (pro-European liberals) and Greens. None of them is prepared to embrace Wilders, whose nationalist and often racist rhetoric has split the country.

What it means for the Brexit negotiations is less obvious. Wilders has long been an enthusiastic supporter of British exit from the EU, calling for the Netherlands to have its own referendum on membership. The other mainstream parties are torn between pro-British sympathy and a determination to preserve EU solidarity.

“We have to play our game very carefully,” says one former senior government minister. “Given our trade and financial links… we need to keep the flow of goods and ideas. We must make sure our Dutch people (in the UK) get a special status.

“But if we are too obviously in favour of trying to create a nice Brexit, it won’t work. We must remain together at 27: the EU is even more important to us than Great Britain.”

The Dutch election is the first test of the rise of right-wing populism in Europe in 2017. Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform – summed up in a one-page party programme – has set the agenda. Even though he will not be part of any future government, the size of his vote is likely to influence its actions and curb its room for manoeuvre.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president have cast twin shadows across the campaign trail. Last year, both political earthquakes seemed at first to boost the popular support for Wilders. In recent weeks, however, he has been falling back in the polls as the consequences of both events became more obvious.

The main focus of his anti-immigration rhetoric has been anti-Islam: he referred to “Moroccan scum” in his campaign launch. But criticism of the EU has also focussed on open borders, and East European migrants taking “Dutch jobs”, similar to arguments made by Brexit campaigners in the UK.

That could raise the pressure on a future Dutch government to be sympathetic to Theresa May’s desire to curb freedom of movement within the EU, according to some senior officials. But Rutte said in January that the UK will pay a “huge price”, because restricting internal EU migration is not compatible with remaining in the single market.

Meanwhile Dutch diplomats are already planning their strategy for a “post-Brexit” world in the EU. The most popular scenario in the foreign ministry is for the Netherlands to forge a coalition of like-minded countries such as the Nordic states, the Baltic states, Ireland and Austria. But others argue that the Dutch have no choice but to cling as a loyal partner to Germany, above all in regulating behaviour within the eurozone.

“The UK leaving is a very sad fact,” says one senior diplomat. From the Dutch perspective, although the UK was a useful counterpoise to the Franco-German axis dominating EU decisions, London was not seen as a reliable partner. “I trust the Germans and the French more than the British,” the former government minister says.

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe

    5 Responses to “Dutch torn between UK sympathy and EU solidarity”

    • Heard on the Dutch news this afternoon, that in the latest polls that Wilders and the PVV have dropped into second place behind the VVD. He has not taken part in any of the television debates. I hope that he drops a few more points..

    • Wilders simply was to loud in his anti-Islam rethoric to be acceptable for the average Dutch voter, even if they share his vision that the country could be islamising because of the perceived higher birth rate within that religious sector of the country. What is doing Wilder’s party in is the fact that like UKIP, it really is a one-man show. Like UKIP is faltering without Farage, PVV will wither immediately on Wilders quitting. There is no structure to continue like there is in a normal political party, and people are picking up that fact too. Thirdly, like UKIP the PVV (and Wilders himself, come to that) have no costed and timed plan to get any of their visions realised without massive cost to the country. People see in the U.K. and USA how that is going to wreck prosperity. The only things Wilders did well Is criticising the present government and the selection of his hair dresser.

    • As a Dutch voter in the UK (for 28 years), I have read the five principal election manifestos and follow campaigns closely. 1) You are way, way to non-committal about Wilders, 2) UK sympathy is certainly not a theme.
      The PVV’s one-page is far more shocking than you suggest. First point is De-Islamization of Holland including no immigration from any Muslim country (far worse than Trump), closure of all mosques and Islamic schools and prohibition of the Quran. Second (indeed) exit from the EU. It further states “No more money to Development Aid, windmills [presumably alternative energy], art, innovation, broadcasting, etc” [Who knows what the ‘etc’ means]. Funds re-allocated towards elderly care, pensions, healthcare, ‘lower rentals’ and lower car tax.
      This is a blatantly discriminating platform, destructive to the culture and future of society and aimed squarely at the older generations. Nothing in the PVV works towards the future or for the young; it is Trump-squared. Bad enough that the BBC and the Spectator (through the diatribe of Douglas Murray) ‘normalize’ Wilders, but from InFacts I would have expected more condemnation.
      The crux of the immigration question in Holland, from conversations and the other political platforms, is ‘criminality’, ‘citizenship’, in the sense of language, values & ethics, contributing to society through volunteering & work, and ‘abusing hospitality’, particularly benefits abuse. It is not about ‘stealing jobs’; that is looking at Holland through the tinted spectacles of Brexit & UK opinion polls (which in my opinion downplay the racism & plain anti-foreigner aspect, but that is an aside).
      If you were to read the manifestos, it is those issues that the parties seek to address. The Right, VVD and CDA cum suis phrase it in stronger specific proposals while D66 puts in more general terms. Yet, there is the focus and in my view you are simply incorrect in suggesting that it is a ‘job stealing’ issue.
      The quote that “EU is more important than GB” is absolutely what I see too. Every other manifesto is EU-centric; the UK does not feature. There is consensus on improved efficiency, transparency & cost effectiveness of the EU and agreement on the Freedom of Movement. There is debate on limiting the ‘Right to Initiative’ of the Commission and re-allocating it. There is disagreement over EU-wide taxation and EU-backed bonds. There is mention, indeed, by the Right of a “group of like-minded countries”, but it appears as a potential practicality which does not question in the slightest the EU raison d’être. D66 is most vocal about the Union and the “Acquis Communautaire” of 60 years of co-operation. For them, the EU is not a ‘cafeteria plan’ or ‘à la carte’ and they do not believe that “EU benefits [to the members] should be disproportionate to the contribution.” You carry that to the logical conclusion and Mrs May would find in D66 just as tough an opponent as Emmanuel Macron.
      I have received InFact’s emails since its early days – primarily by seeing an excellent interview with Hugo Dixon and having met Sebastian Mallaby in New York – although I see he is no longer involved. Generally, I find InFacts terrific. Yet, I suggest that the tenor of the article on Holland is plain wrong.
      Disappointed regards,
      Arend Dikkers

    • As a Dutch citizen, I can say, sympathy for the UK is not on my mind at all.
      Brexit and the problems it will cause are more important to me.

    • The times that I visited my country of birth lately I cannot say that I detected any understanding, let alone sympathy, for the British Brexit issue. To the contrary, there was no understanding and irritation about the cost this originally internal British political spat has cost everyone on the Continent. That is not mentioning the idiocy of sending a buffoon like Boris Johnson to gather a positive frame of mind among the EU politicians.