Last week’s Dutch election amounted to a clear rejection of any suggestion of “Nexit” – a Netherlands exit from the European Union – as a response to Brexit. Geert Wilders, the right-wing populist who campaigned on an anti-immigration and anti-Muslim platform, had hoped to capitalise on the Brexit vote in the UK to mobilise Dutch eurosceptics. In the event he trailed in second with just 13% of the vote, or 20 seats, well behind the 21% (and 33 seats) for prime minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party.
Wilders cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, however, because he has forced worries about immigration to the top of the political agenda. But he will play no direct role in any future government.
What the result did underline was the extraordinary fragmentation of Dutch politics, with 13 parties winning seats in parliament, leaving Rutte the daunting task of trying to forge a four-party coalition in order to have a majority. Judging by past experience, the negotiating process could take up to six months, leaving a political limbo in the Hague as Theresa May starts her Brexit negotiations.
The most dramatic result was the demise of the Labour party (PvdA), Rutte’s junior partner in the present coalition, which collapsed from 29 to just 9 seats in the 150-seat parliament.
The three virtually certain members of the government will be Rutte’s conservative-liberal VVD (33 seats), the centre-right Christian Democratic Alliance, and the progressive and strongly pro-EU D66 party, with 19 seats each. The fourth member could be either the moderately Eurosceptic and socially conservative Christian Union, or GroenLinks (green-left), a pro-EU environmentalist party which quadrupled its vote to replace the Labour party as standard-bearer of the left. Neither would be an easy partner.
The balance of power in Rutte’s future government will be clearly pro-European. That would be more apparent if GroenLinks, rather than the Christian Union, were the fourth member. The CU is an ally of the British Conservative party in the European parliament, and is likely to disagree with D66 on social issues.
While a future Dutch government will not want to “punish” the UK government in the Brexit process, because of the close trade and investment links both countries enjoy, the UK negotiations will not be its top priority.
“We don’t think a lot about Theresa May or Brexit,” says Adriaan Schout, senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute. “We don’t understand it, and there is little we can do about it.”
He sees the top priority for the Hague as coping with the continuing economic crisis in the eurozone, followed by the need to reinforce Europe’s external borders to cope with the refugee crisis.
Ben Bot, former foreign minister and for many years Dutch permanent representative in Brussels, says that instinctively the Netherlands would be the strongest UK ally in its negotiations. But he cautions that “if we are too obviously in favour of a nice Brexit, it won’t work.”
He believes the Dutch strategy will rather be “staying together at 27”, because “the EU is even more important to us than Great Britain.”
Edited by Hugo Dixon