by Welmoed Roeten. Originally published on 2014/05/05
Traditionally a pro-European nation but more recently sceptical, the Netherlands will elect 26 MEPs in a few weeks time.
The Netherlands was one of the founders of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and is signatory of all the treaties that followed. For many years, the Dutch were considered as proponents of further European integration. However, since the people of the Netherlands chose to vote ‘no’ to the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005, the Netherlands has held a more reticent approach towards the European Union.
The political landscape
The Netherlands is a monarchy with the king as head of state. The Kingdom of the Netherlands consists of two parts, a European part with (the Netherlands) and a Caribbean part (the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, Sint-Maarten, Bonaire, Saba and Sint-Eustatius). The king, who ascended to the throne in 2013, has only limited powers regarding co-signing legislation. With the national elections in September 2012, the parliament took over the king’s powers concerning the formation of a government.
The Parliament (Staten-Generaal) consists of two chambers. The upper chamber (or Senate), with 75 members, is indirectly elected and scrutinises the quality of legislation. The lower chamber (or House of Representatives), with 150 members, is directly elected. In the Netherlands, all governments are coalitions, due to a multi-party system. Most coalitions exist of two or three parties. The current coalition was formed in November 2012 by the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the Labour Party (PvdA). This is the second coalition led by prime minister Mark Rutte.
At the moment, the coalition has a majority of seats in the lower chamber (79 of 150), but not in the upper chamber (30 of 75 seats), which makes it difficult to pass legislation. This means that the coalition has to find support amongst other parties in the first chamber for each legislative bill. In October last year, the coalition did come to a pragmatic agreement on the budget of 2014 with three other parties, namely the social-liberal Democrats 66 (D66), the Christian Union (ChristenUnie) and the Reformed Political Party (SGP). Furthermore, large reform packages on housing and social welfare were agreed upon in 2013 between the coalition and these parties.
In the Dutch Parliament there are, including the two coalition parties, eleven parties. The medium-size opposition parties are the Socialist party (SP), the Party for Freedom (PVV), the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and the Democrats 66. The smaller opposition parties are GreenLeft (GroenLinks), the ChristianUnion, the Reformed Political Party, 50PLUS and the Party for Animals (PvdD). Due to the only slight majority of the coalition in the second chamber and no majority in the first chamber, even the smaller parties are considered important.
The political landscape in the Netherlands has changed since the last European election. In 2009, the coalition was formed by the Christian Democratic Appeal, the Labour Party and the Christian Union. However, this coalition resigned in 2010 before the scheduled elections caused by insufficient confidence between the Christian Democratic Appeal and the Labour Party. After the following national elections, an uncommon minority coalition was formed by the People’s Party and Christian Democratic Appeal. The minority coalition received the support of the Party for Freedom in Parliament. After unsuccessful negotiations on austerity measures, the Party for Freedom withdrew its support and therefore this coalition resigned as well. The Dutch political landscape often shifts; the Netherlands has had six cabinets since 2002, none of them finished their four-year term, apart from the current cabinet.
In the Netherlands, the Party of Freedom and the Socialist Party are considered as Eurosceptic parties, and both parties have currently fifteen seats in the second chamber of Parliament. In general, these parties insist on calling a halt to the European integration process and the transfer of national competences to the EU. However, the Party for Freedom, led by Geert Wilders, wants to take a step further and dismisses the idea of the EU as a supranational organisation. Moreover, this party is known for its controversial statements on the Islam, the immigration of Eastern Europeans and the euro. In anticipation of the European Parliament election, Wilders wants to form an alliance of anti-EU parties, with parties such as Front National (France), Vlaams Belang (Belgium), Lega Nord (Italy) and FPÖ (Austria), in order to campaign Europe-wide against the EU.
Generally speaking, the increased Euroscepsism in the Netherlands has its origins in 2005. In a consulting referendum, the people of the Netherlands choose to say ‘no’ to the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty. Reasons for the ‘no’ vote by the Dutch people can be found in the months and even years preceding the referendum. First, the dissatisfaction with the national government led to a general negative vote. Furthermore, the campaign in the Netherlands was dominated by financial matters on European level. Topics of debate were, for example~: that the contribution to the EU-budget by the Netherlands was considered proportionately high; the attempt of the Netherlands to strengthen the Stability and Growth Pact had failed; and the – at that moment – still ongoing agitation about the introduction of the euro. Moreover, the ‘no’ by France three days before the referendum in the Netherlands did boost the opposition to a European constitution.
After this referendum, the approach of the Netherlands towards the EU shifted. The Netherlands has a history of stimulating the European integration process and after this referendum the government changed towards a more restrained approach. However, in general, the Netherlands still contributes on a European level to the European integration process, but on a national level, the government finds it difficult to explain the decisions made by the European institutions. This ambivalent attitude of the government does not contribute to an open discussion on European issues.
In January, a citizens’ initiative on a new referendum was discussed in Parliament. This initiative aims to install a national referendum on the transfer of national competences to the EU with the emphasis on the new regulations on monetary and financial measures. However, the motion on this referendum did not find a majority in the lower chamber of Parliament.
The outlook for the 2014 elections
On 22th May this year, the Dutch people will elect 26 MEPs. In 2009, the turn-out for the European Parliament election was 36.7% of the voters. This illustrates the lack of interest in the EU among the Dutch people. It will be interesting to see how the campaign on the elections will develop, which will certainly contribute to the outcome of the turnout and of the votes. Although it is too early to consider the results from the polls, the Eurosceptic Party for Freedom and the outspoken pro-European Democrats 66 look to be in the lead.