In Dutch election, Europe is not an issue
Europe is rarely mentioned in the ongoing Dutch election campaign. Most parties seem to agree the European Union is necessary, even if they are loath to say so openly.
Few people might have recognised him, but on Tuesday Mark Rutte, leader of the right-wing liberal VVD party, visited the European parliament in Brussels. He had an unpleasant message for European bureaucrats. Not only did he announce that he would "clean house" in the Netherlands, but in Europe as well. "I can't wait to get started," said Rutte, whose party, current polls predict, looks set to become the biggest in the Netherlands in the coming election.
Rutte wants to dismantle what he has called the national "happiness machine" – a government founded on the idea that it should provide its citizens with happiness, a pursuit Rutte believes should be a private affair -and he aims to do the same in Brussels. He wants to rid Europe of the funds dedicated to supporting the continent's less developed regions, which he sees as a waste of money. According to Rutte, The EU should limit itself to its core competencies. And, if it is up to him, the Dutch contribution to the European Union will be reduced, by another one billion euros, on top of the one billion euro reduction that an earlier cabinet was able to negotiate.
Rutte's campaign field trip to Brussels left other parties in the Netherlands
unmoved, as Rutte's reservations regarding the "meddlesome" EU are shared
across the political spectrum in the Netherlands. Apart from left-wing
liberal D66 and the Green party, GroenLinks, all political parties argue
restraint when it comes to the EU.
Debate falls silent
The EU mostly figures in parties' political programmes as a potential cutback to shore up the national budget. Europe itself is barely an issue in the election campaign. The lively debate that surrounded the Dutch referendum on the European constitution five years ago has made way for a deafening silence.
This seems odd. In recent weeks, apocalyptic predictions regarding the euro and, by extension, the European Union, ran rife. Greece was saved from bankruptcy, if barely, but forces threatening the entire European Monetary System could not be restrained. The Dutch alone have reserved 30 billion euros to pay for guarantees and emergency loans to Greece. A necessary evil, parliament concluded three weeks ago, when it reluctantly voted in favour of the support. No one bothered with campaign rhetoric.
Adriaan Schout, director of the EU-studies programme at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute for International Relations, thinks he knows why Europe has not been an issue in the current campaign. He sees this as a “normalisation of the debate". Europe has become "a given," he said. "It is not that people aren't interested. Europe simply isn't a divisive issue."
According to Schout, a broad consensus exists in Dutch politics regarding Europe, with D66 and GroenLinks as the explicitly pro-European exceptions to the rule, and the PVV as a very vocal opponent of the EU. "Eurosceptic appearances are deceiving," Schout said. The political debate no longer centres on Europe itself, but specific matters the EU deals with. Parties' political programmes reflect that , Schout argues. "Mostly they are the outcome of normal policy considerations, which do not result in an all-out approval or denouncement of the EU."
Europe: can't live without it
While most Dutch parties argue that Brussels should show more restraint in spending, Schout claims this should not be explained as a negative attitude. "Parties argue for more Europe just on certain issues, such as more ambitious climate goals, stricter oversight of banking, and unified representation in the IMF or [UN] Security Council. When it comes to matters like the European agricultural policy, they do not want to abandon it altogether, but alter it. All very normal."
The EU is also used as a means to justify national austerity measures. All major parties have argued in favour of cutting the Dutch diplomatic service's budget. Closer cooperation with other EU countries would allow for the closing of certain Dutch embassies, for instance.
Today, the EU is seen mostly in the light of the national interest. This is a huge shift from the past, when all major political parties in the Netherlands were anything but shy with their warm feelings regarding Europe. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s former secretary general, recently voiced his concerns over this development. "Even the traditional parties in the Dutch political spectrum try to limit positive comments regarding Europe to a minimum, especially during an election campaign,” De Hoop Scheffer said in a speech. “It could cost them votes.”