Elections in The Netherlands: the role of populism and impact on the EU

The Netherlands. Known for its windmills, tulips and “Netherlands Second” plea, this week it’s attracted international attention to its parliamentary elections. After a turbulent 12 months in which the UK voted for Brexit and Donald Trump was elected US President, the question was whether the populist trend would continue in continental Europe during the first of a number of parliamentary elections taking place in 2017.

Ultimately, the election could be summarised as a good day for the establishment, quite a good day for populism and a really bad day for socialism. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won the most votes and 33 of the 150 parliamentary seats, clearing the way for him to continue as Prime Minister, despite losing eight seats. The really big winners were Jesse Klaver and his GroenLinks (Greens), which nearly quadrupled its number of seats. Other notable winners included Alexander Pechtold, leader of the social-liberal D66 party and Sybrand Buma from the Christian Democrats (CDA), both securing 19 seats. On the other side, the labour party (PvdA) lost 29 seats, which weren’t scooped up the Socialist Party (SP) that lost one seat, in what was a rather ignominious day for socialism.

Still, it was quite a good day for populism. The international media has been focused on Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) not acquiring the most votes. But with the PVV the second largest party with 20 seats, their landgrab can’t be ignored. And his is no longer the only party in Parliament aiming to leave the EU and curb Islamic immigration. Thierry Baudet, vocal campaigner against the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine and leader of Forum for Democracy, won two seats, an impressive accomplishment considering his newly founded party had to contest the election against 27 others. The generally feared populist revolution didn’t happen, but the results still show a very polarised country.

So, what does this mean for Europe? It’s likely Mr Rutte will form a coalition with CDA, D66 and one other party, making it a Euro-friendly government. Having been Prime Minister for the past six years, Mr Rutte is part of the European establishment and has formed good relationships with many EU leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel who congratulated Mr Rutte by stating she wants to continue “good cooperation as friends, neighbours and Europeans”. So, at least at a European level, continuity from the Dutch side can be expected.

While Mr Rutte was contemplating his next steps, the Queen gave Royal Assent to the Brexit Bill, clearing the way for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 and start the negotiations for leaving the EU. The UK Prime Minister will be happy to have a familiar face remaining on the other side of the table, but she will also be aware that despite having always been a key ally in EU decision-making, the Netherlands wants to maintain unity and make any exit from the EU by any country, friend or not, look very undesirable. That sentiment could possibly be magnified by pro-EU party D66 joining the Government, a development European Parliament Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt will appreciate, as he is particularly close to some its members. Mrs May might just have to look for allies elsewhere…

What happens next? It won’t be easy for Mr Rutte to find common ground amongst such a divided group of parties. It could take months to form a coalition, which means that in terms of European policies and Brexit, the Netherlands might take a back seat for a while. 150 seats, 13 parties, one coalition. Only time will tell how long it will take.

France, over to you.