Electing Europe?

The Dutch will be electing a new Lower House of Parliament, which is made up of 150 seats. Under the proportional electoral system that is applied in the country, all citizens’ votes will count equally and there is no threshold to enter the parliament, so it is possible to enter the representative body with just one seat, thus ensuring optimal representativeness of the population. After the elections, the parties will set up a governing coalition, comprising a majority of the representatives in the chamber. Usually (but not necessarily), this government is led by the biggest party following the elections.

Although Wilders has been leading the polls for quite some time, it seems unlikely that he would enter a governing coalition. All major parties have ruled out working with the PVV, making it very difficult for him to bring together a critical mass of parties to govern. PVV might not even become the biggest party, either. While soaring ahead in the polls, Wilders has traditionally struggled to actually get his voters to the polling stations on election day.  Furthermore, Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD party has recently passed Wilders in the polls. And, importantly, a large share of the population is not certain yet of what party they will vote for. Thus, it is more difficult than ever to predict the results.

What is clear is that the political landscape in the Netherlands is strongly fragmented, with the PVV and the VVD expected to be the winners, while another two parties (the Christian Democrats, CDA, and the ‘pro-European’ Social Liberals D66) closing up on them. Therefore, the most likely outcome is a coalition of four-five parties at least, on either the centre-right, or centre-left axis.  PVV, as already explained, is unlikely to form part of this.

Even if they do not get a place in government, however, many Dutch voter do support the PVV – and one of the reasons they do so is because Wilders strongly expresses the doubts many people have about the European project. In fact, an anchoring point in his party programme is for the Netherlands to leave the EU. The newly elected government, no matter its ‘colours’ will be wise to address these concerns – and some of them also do.  Beyond the traditionally Eurosceptic parties like the far-right PVV and far-left Socialist Party, we now also see e.g.  the centrist and formerly Europhile Christian Democratic party, who are getting out of a low after the last elections four years ago, raising more and more questions on EU membership. While commentators were quick to talk about a possible ‘Nexit’ in the wake of Brexit, it seems unlikely that a referendum on exiting the EU will be held in the Netherlands any time soon. First of all, it would require that the referendum law be changed (a referendum can currently only be triggered for newly adopted legislation). But more importantly, despite serious concerns about the functioning of the EU among the Dutch population and a general consensus that the EU institutions need to change, the Dutch still generally do believe in European cooperation and see that the Dutch economy is strongly connected with Europe.

As one of the founder-members of the European Economic Community and a key driver in the EU today, it is pivotal that the Dutch electorate continues to ‘buy into’ the overall EU project at a time where the future of the project is being openly discussed, not least following the publication of the White Paper on the future of the EU by the Commission on 1 March. In it, 5 options for the future of the EU are put on the table to open a debate about how to respond to the challenges the EU is facing because of Brexit and the rise of Euro-skepticism (both cause and consequence of Brexit) in some Member States, including the Netherlands. As such, the elections in the Netherlands, nestled between the release of the White Paper and the official triggering of Article 50 by British PM Theresa May are much more than just a national election in a sizeable member state of the EU. With important elections coming up in France and Germany later this year, the Dutch election offers a first indication of what way the wind is really blowing, and whether the Euro-skeptical voices that have grown over the past period will be somewhat silenced, or continue to gain traction. That in turn will have an impact on the discussions of what direction the EU should and can head in, and, consequently, what sort of market businesses will have to operate in moving forward: one that will be stripped to its core, the Single Market, one that will see a strengthening in decision-making and enforcement, meaning that more power will be centralized in Brussels, or something in between, the most realistic option, that will see some level of a two-or-more-speeds-Europe.

After today’s election results we will have more clarity on what options the parties will have for forming a government and thus what implications this will have for the Netherlands and for the EU.