Dermot Hodson / Nov 2023
The European Union holds its breath every time one of its member states goes to the polls. After all, what happens in Brussels is determined to a significant degree by the Prime Ministers and Presidents chosen by national voters. This month's election for the Dutch House of Representatives will be closely watched. The last thirty years have repeatedly shown that as the Netherlands goes, so goes Europe.
Dutch elections are invariably a battle royale due to the country's proportional representation voting system. On 22 November, more than twenty parties will compete in the knowledge that most will gain a seat, but none will secure a majority. Forming a coalition will take months, leaving the Netherlands with a caretaker government when the EU is engaged in a high-stakes review of its long-term budget and ready to open membership negotiations with Ukraine.
The Netherlands is a proven bellwether for long-term shifts in European politics. In 1994, the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) lost twelve seats, but the centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal lost twenty, allowing Wim Kok to become the Netherlands' first Labour Prime Minister in almost two decades. The result showed that the European left's luck was finally changing. By 1999, ten out of the EU's fifteen member states were led by social democrats.
Pim Fortuyn's growing prominence at this time prefigured another seismic shift in European politics: the rise of right-wing populism. A sociologist turned broadcaster, Fortuyn gained notoriety and followers by describing Islam as a 'backward culture' in defiance of the Netherlands' multicultural tradition.
Nine days before the 2002 Dutch general election, Fortuyn was murdered in the car park of a Hilversum radio station by an animal rights activist. However, his party came second in the election and paved the way for a new generation of European right-wing populist parties, including Alternative for Germany, National Rally and Brothers of Italy.
So, what can we expect from the forthcoming Dutch election and what does it mean for the EU? A strong showing by Frans Timmermans' Groenlinks-PvdA alliance would be good news for the European left, which leads governments in only five out of twenty-seven EU member states.
It would also be a boon for Brussels to see Timmermans, a former European Commissioner, become Dutch Prime Minister. Groenlinks-PvdA want the EU's €800 billion pandemic recovery fund to be made permanent, a stance which runs counter to the Netherlands' traditional reticence about EU debt issuance. The alliance also strongly supports Ukraine's accession to the EU and efforts to make the union climate neutral by 2040.
The latest polls show Groenlinks-PvdA in third place behind the centre-right People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which is performing strongly under its new leader Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius. A former refugee, who fled Turkey as a child with her family, Yeşilgöz-Zegerius won support as Minister of Justice and Security for her tough stance against international drug trafficking and pledge to reduce immigration. As Prime Minister, she would likely increase pressure on the EU to close irregular migration routes to Europe.
Yeşilgöz-Zegerius has thus far refused to rule out a pact with Geert Wilders' right-wing populist Party for Freedom (PVV). Wilders has helped to prop up the VVD before, but his inclusion in government would cause a political firestorm given his track record of anti-Islamic statements. It could also weaken EU support for Ukraine given the PVV's pledge to end Dutch weapons supplies to Ukraine.
The Dutch electoral system frequently throws up surprises. For a while it looked like the Dutch farmers' party, a right-wing populist party committed to opting out of EU environmental and migration policies, might run away with the contest. However, it has ceded momentum to the New Social Contract, a new anti-establishment party formed by Pieter Omtzigt just three months ago.
Like Emmanuel Macron in 2016, Omtzigt has tapped into voters' desire to see a different sort of politics. Unlike Macron, who wrapped himself in the European flag, Omtzigt is a Eurosceptic who previously questioned the Netherlands' place in the euro and remains opposed to deeper fiscal integration.
Pieter Omtzigt has refused to say whether he would form a government if, as polls suggest, New Social Contract wins most votes in the forthcoming election. If he does, Brussels will have to deal with a political disruptor who is against ever closer union and prepared to opt-out of EU policies that don't go his way.
It will take months for the political smoke to clear after the Dutch election, but before it does the EU will glimpse its own future. The results of this contest may come as a shock. If history is a guide, they could soon be treated as the new European normal.