The EU is the Netherlands’ “elephant in the room” – Will the Dutch elections results change Rutte’s discourse in Brussels?

From 15th to 17th March, the Netherlands held its general elections. Following today’s official announcement, it is now a done deal: the Dutch conservative-liberal party VVD will once again be the largest party in the lower house of Parliament (“Tweede Kamer”), with 34 seats. The results mean Mark Rutte will be given another chance in the Hague, leading his fourth coalition government. An outcome with some interesting twists and turns, we have looked into what this teaches us.

Jungle-gym journey

The Netherlands has been in turmoil in the last months, to say the least. Rutte’s government resigned in mid-January, as thousands of families had been wrongly accused of child welfare fraud, leaving them in financial trouble. Only ten days later, riots broke out due to the government’s decision to introduce a nationwide curfew as one of the measures to slow down Covid-19 infection rates. Police noted it was the first time it had to handle so much violence in several decades. Yet, these events were not enough for the Dutch to choose a different course for their country politics, deciding to maintain the status quo and vote for the party of their current prime minister.

Neigh neigh Nexit

Many in the Netherlands, and around Europe, held their breath for fear of a rise in support for Dutch Eurosceptic parties, particularly the PVV and Forum for Democracy (FvD). Despite the political chaos caused by the Brexit referendum in 2016 – still visible – they insist to this day that the Netherlands should follow in the UK’s footsteps. Some similarities with the Brexit campaign rhetoric can be seen when it comes to their reasoning as to why the country should leave the EU27 bloc (such as regaining control over immigration policies and getting rid of burdensome regulations). PVV leader Geert Wilders also hinted at the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine success to stress the benefits of going solo. With 25 seats in total for these two right-wing parties, support for their rhetoric among Dutch voters has not evaporated. However, any suggestion to cooperate with that side of the political spectrum is generally dismissed.

“A monkey coming out of the sleeve”

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and the path to recovery thereof dominated the elections, overshadowing matters such as the Netherlands’ relationship with the EU. Little attention was paid to Brussels during the different political campaigns, with some labelling the topic as the “EU elephant in the room”. It seems, generally, that party leaders decided to stay away from the issue, thinking it would not help them win over any voters in the face of bigger, more pressing issues.

Despite the absence of the EU from the debate, a distinctly pro-EU party, Democrats 66 (D66), led by former United Nations diplomat Sigrid Kaag, gained an impressive 24 seats. Pan-European party Volt also experienced a modest breakthrough with 3 seats, indicating that there is a push for the Hague to speak with a more pro-European voice. Quite the turn of events if you ask me, and a strong message against the populist far-right. Do voters realise perhaps that the Netherlands has a lot to gain from being inside of the EU, brought to their attention due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic disruptions and Brexit mayhem? Or can these parties’ victory be ascribed to something else?

Fishy frugality

During his 11 years in office, Mark Rutte – while pragmatic at home – has sometimes come across as quite scornful in Brussels. He also certainly did not make any friends when he and three other heads of state advocated for EU budget rebates and tight fiscal policies in the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The Financial Times even drew parallels between the Dutch and British discourse in terms of their stances towards the EU, and we all know what that led to in the UK. Have all the crises since 1st January made Rutte realise the benefits of being part of a group, now that chaos is happening domestically? Also, now that Rutte has Kaag directly behind him, will he adopt a different approach in Brussels?

As coalition talks kick-off, one thing is clear: the cards are looking to be reshuffled, and even with the same prime minister, the Netherlands will likely be setting forth a renewed course.

Political Consultancy

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