Will the Netherlands follow Brexit with Nexit?

Rise of Dutch right and similar sentiment among voters to UK’s suggest trouble ahead

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party, is “channelling” Donald Trump, with slogans like “Make the Netherlands great again!” Currently topping the polls, he promised that, if he becomes prime minister next year, his first act will be to call an in/out referendum on EU membership. Photograph:  Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right Freedom Party, is “channelling” Donald Trump, with slogans like “Make the Netherlands great again!” Currently topping the polls, he promised that, if he becomes prime minister next year, his first act will be to call an in/out referendum on EU membership. Photograph: Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

 

It’s not yet three months since the last referendum in the Netherlands. That was in April, when voters decisively rejected closer political and economic ties between the EU and Ukraine. Two weeks later, MPs voted by 75 to 71 to turn their backs on that vote – and endorse the agreement anyway.

It’s true that the vote on April 6th was non-binding. It’s also true that turnout was historically low at just 32 per cent. Still, the threshold for a legitimate referendum in the Netherlands is 30 per cent. So, one way or another, the people delivered their verdict. It just wasn’t the right one, apparently.

Governments act this way for many reasons: sometimes out of conviction, sometimes out of expediency, and occasionally because the issue has, on the face of it, generated so little interest they feel they can get away with it and save some face internationally.

But it’s a dangerous game. It can smack of short-termism, rarely a tenable strategy in politics. It can smack of hypocrisy: telling the electorate the decision is theirs and then ignoring it. These days, when it comes to the EU, it’s particularly ill-advised, not least because it can smack of cronyism.

Founders of the European Union they may be, and often seen from outside as champions of deeper integration, but when it comes to rebellion against those “faceless Brussels bureaucrats”, the Dutch have form.

Who can forget then European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, rubbing his eyes in disbelief as the Netherlands rejected the Maastricht treaty in June 2005 by a stinging 61.6 per cent? On that occasion, turnout was 62.8 per cent, far exceeding expectations.

In the maelstrom of recrimination afterwards, prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende observed memorably: “The idea of Europe has lived for the politicians – but not for the Dutch people.”

More than a decade later, the same could be said of British politicians and the British people in last Thursday’s historic Brexit vote.

And if the leader of the anti-EU, anti-immigrant Dutch right, Geert Wilders, has his way – and opinion polls show he is getting it – the same will be true of the Dutch.

Grandstanding

No stranger to grandstanding, there are times when even Wilders doesn’t have to say much. The Dutch parliament’s endorsement of the EU’s Ukraine treaty was one.

Even after Friday’s Brexit outcome he was relatively restrained. “Hurray for the British” he tweeted, using the hashtag, ByeByeEU. “Now it’s our turn. It’s time for a Dutch referendum.”

Wilders is topping the polls. He is “channelling” Donald Trump, with slogans like “Make the Netherlands great again!” He is preparing for a general election early next year – promising that, if he becomes prime minister, his first act will be to call an in/out referendum on EU membership.

Political anger in the Netherlands tends to be a slow burner.

Dutch prosperity was grievously damaged by the economic collapse in 2008. The number of migrants arriving here in 2015 alone was a record 59,100, sparking violent protests, threats and intimidation in small towns hosting or planning to welcome refugees – to such an extent that King Willem-Alexander was forced to appeal for calm.

At the same time, polls in the Netherlands have been strikingly similar to those in the UK. They have shown a country split down the middle, on whether or not to hold an in/out referendum – and on whether to stay or leave if they do.

The political parties are also deeply divided, most notably prime minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals, with 47 per cent in favour of staying and 45 per cent in favour of going it alone.

In the UK, a crucial Brexit component were the over-65s who voted by 60 per cent to cut their EU ties – while a Dutch poll a week ago showed that, similarly, 63 per cent of supporters of the 50Plus party, which courts older voters, favour a “Nexit”.

Eight out of 10 Dutch voters no longer regard an unravelling of the EU as out of the question.

As political leaders across the EU reflect on how to deal with the wave of populist anger that led to Thursday’s UK vote, perhaps they would do well to keep in mind one well-tested electoral principle that recognises no national borders: voters never like to be taken for granted.

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