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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Too soon to jump to conclusions: the Dutch debate on Europe has only started

As we said in our pre-election briefing, the Dutch elections saw a shift back to the centre, compared to the early signs of the campaign. Granted, a stronger combined majority for the two main parties - centre-right VVD and centre-left PvdA - than many had expected. The Socialist Party stayed on the same number of seats as last time around, while the populist Party for Freedom suffered a pretty heavy defeat (losing nine seats).

Senior Brussels figures were quick to hail the result as a victory for the pragmatic, pro-European centre over the crazy fringe. A victory for further European integration, euroscepticism can't win votes, sort of thing. Some media outlets drew similar conclusions - with some exceptions - claiming the anti-bailout mood in Europe is much over-stated. But is this interpretation right?

There's no doubt that the centre parties mounted a strong comeback, in the face of an increasingly sceptical public on Europe. But to see this election as a victory for the very specific vision of Europe that involves "ever closer union" is spurious. A few points:

First, Geert Wilders is no proxy for unease about where Europe is heading. In almost all aspects of policy Wilders is extreme, and his decision to bring down the last government has undoubtedly worked against his party. The Dutch may not like bailing out other countries, but they do not like reckless politicians either, and some voters considered a vote for him wasted.

As we noted in our pre-election briefing, the centre parties too - particularly VVD - have struck a more euro critical tone of late, perhaps in response to the strong rhetoric coming from Wilders and the Socialist Party. On Europe, the VVD may have crowded out Wilders, particularly by talking tough on bailouts. Regarding Greece, almost exactly repeating Wilders's words, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, for example, that:

“Enough is enough…An exit may be inevitable, but it will be up to Greece to make that decision…An orderly exit is possible, but not desirable.”

In a comment piece in the FT last year, Rutte was one of the first to call for a clear mechanism to push countries, which do not meet the austerity targets, out of the eurozone – at the time widely acknowledged to be a shot across Greece’s bow. On the EU budget, he has sided with the UK in trying to achieve a real terms payments freeze in the EU's 2014-2020 budget, saying, "If we countries need to cut our budgets, also the European institutions need to do with less."

The Social Democrats, led by Diederik Samsom, played a role in triggering the elections by refusing to support the previous government’s budget dictated by EU deficit rules. It is true, this was their prerogative as the opposition. Nonetheless, they did their fair share of anti-Commission posturing such as:
"[It's about] how the Treaty is being applied…The economy is suffering damage in an unnecessary way because of the demands of the Commission".
And during the election campaign, the party had some other interesting things to say about European integration, such as:
“I’d reserve [Eurobonds] for the moment Europe is away from the abyss. Eurobonds are no rope to drag you out of the abyss. Economies need to converge and public debt needs to stabilise first.”

“I don’t support the blueprint of [EU-federalist D66 leader Alexander] Pechtold with his European government, Finance Minister and Parliament.” 
In the party manifesto, it called for a reduction to both the EU budget and the Dutch contribution to it - not even the UK Tories did that.  

Equally, Europe Minister Ben Knapen, a CDA member - whose party may be needed to achieve a government with majority in both houses of the Dutch parliament - said that "there should be a legal possibility for countries to voluntary or forcefully leave the eurozone. Only then the moral hazard - which is like a hostage - can be dealt with". He also urged to "correct the power the European Commission, which has been enormously growing in recent years."
On the wider point about the Netherlands in Europe - and whether this election will make it more or less assertive - the centre parties may be far more supportive of the status quo in Europe, but they are different on economic and social policy, completely different sides of the political spectrum in fact. Making the coalition work at all will be a huge challenge. Throwing the difficulties of the eurozone crisis into the mix makes the task even harder, while any pressure for greater integration may force the governing parties to be seen as acting tough, under the pressure from opposition parties.

No, the Dutch haven't turned into head-banging eurosceptics. But all of this is to say that the debate about the Netherlands' role in Europe, in the face of further euro integration, may just be kicking off.


Rollo said...

Let's hope so.

Rik said...

This is a move to Euro-positive parties not one to pro-Euro in itself.
The pro-Europe influence was very small. This was mainly who will be the biggest party and who will provide the PM.
But it is an anti-populist policy vote. These should work on their presentation less oneliners shot from the hip.

The story starts with Mr Roemer (Socialist) who did very well with the voter and his party went the last years continuesly up in the polls.
The first deciding moment was when the SP could have become the largest party (in the polls) and the one that basically provides the PM. Mr Roemer however for everybody with one braincell is clearly not PM material. However his party brought the PM issue up. And clearly played that card in the campaign. That went sort of ok until Mr Roemer had to go into serious debates and he was clearly exposed.
Which started a large move from The SP to Labour/PvdA whose main man Samson did very well.
It also had already woken up the voter on the right who saw Mr Roemer becoming PM as the last thing they wanted.

The PvdA got the momentum and was tearing massively votes away from the SP.

The rightwing who saw now Mr Samson iso Mr Roemer as a potential challenge for their Mr Rutte's PMship also saw Mr Rutte pulling a lot of votes from his main 2 competitors (Wilders and CDA) and D66.

Ending up with both having around 40 seats of in total 150.

However 40% of the voters were till the last day undecided. And looking at preferences probably 10 of the VVD seats and 20 or even more of the PvdA seats were either strategic voting or due to the good campaign their own leaders had and the poor one their direct competition had. Simply real last minute votes and not stable.

This effect is pretty relevant mainly for 2 issues.
-A cabinet needs basically both VVD and Labour. Other majority options look nearly impossible.
Hopwever these 2 combined do not have a majority in the Senate (and are not very likely to get one the next election). It might be a problem it might be not, but stable is different.
Therefor still either the D66 or the CDA will likely have to join the cabinet. Both are in between the 2 large parties so no real huge obstacles for that.
-cabinet looks not really stable (whichever it wil be). Now they have had a good campaign and the competition a horrible one, but that is simply not a given for the future.

The cabinet will have to do some unpopular cuts to make ends meet and supporting the Euro is till very unpopular. So things can change easily.

Both leaders of the 2 large parties have clear and huge weaknesses. Rutte is a Dutch Cameron and Samson a former left wing activist and his party has still a lot of jobhunters running around (who are pretty unpopular).
And they havenot been attacked on that yet and certainly not properly.

Rik said...

Wilders looks to realise his mistakes. Basically no more stupid one liners, oneliners ok but backed up with some sensibel talk. Make the Eurocase simpler, put immigration back and blame that via things like Schengen also on the EU.
SP are pretty well organised (unlike Wilders). Their main mistake was not coming up with a proper PM candidate iso, better next to Roemer. And work on making Samson and his party unpopular. Samson look to break when put under pressure over a file he doesnot really master. His party still has a lot of very unpopular people walking around, focus on those and show them as job hunters. Work on the activist past of Samson.
In other words it is not rocketscience what they will have to do and very likley will do.

Government will likely be more or less stable for 2 years, but a referendum on more Europe succeeding is as unlikely as a few weeks ago.
Will depend also on how successful the renewed opposition is. And if some larger things go bad in Europe. If it works they will put a lot of pressure on both the VVD and PvdA to become more Euro-sceptic.
And btw the current/next PM is more Euro-sceptic than Merkel anyway only misses the technical ability/qualities to push it through in Europe.
Austerity is marginal difference between the 2 is may be 0.5% more deficit. Samson is no Hollande.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how honest the Dutch elections were.

In fact, I wonder how honest ANY electons of EUSSR nations are any more, with the political elite of all ofthose countries being so closely allied with the EUSSR political elite/so-called "Commission."

Rik said...

Doesnot look to be anything wrong with that.
Probably fairer than even in the UK. You actually have something like 12 parties in parliament there. People can vote for pretty weirdo parties Party for the Animals got 2 or 3 seats. And could have real influence if a cabinet is balancing on the border between majority or not.
The Dutch Taliban the SGP (against women voting, great idea btw) helped the former government to pass some legislation and got things in return.
Looking at these elections there are probably too many parties in Holland. Many people voted for one of the 2 biggies to make their vote count more. But that is not the same in every election.

Problem is always in other things.
Like the UKs de facto 2 party system, which makes starting new parties for new developments (like anti-EU) extremely difficult to nearly impossible.
The Euro-sceptic group in Holland was still seen as semi-pariahs (they are a bit weird tbo but for other reasons).

Information: often biased very few media are really trying to be impartial, most have a clear preference. Take your BBC, looks clearly left of the centre (from taxpayer money). Huge influence by Murdoch before (at least not from public money).
In Europe it looks like the pro-EU wing of the media is clearly overrepresented and looks to have much larger budgets.
Very few people understand this crisis and most people will base their vote on signals that most of the time donot show the whole picture. If you are able to supply much more of these signals than the other side you have a huge advantage.
In Holland the majority of the press is clearly but not extremely left from centre. It is getting better with commercial TV stations, but still these are overrepresented. So the Dutch Socialists SP not even to mention Wilders simply get usually somewhat to pretty much (for Wilders) negative press.
And generally the Dutch press is pretty poor. They donot have the real garbage like Sun, Bild, but also no real quality (only ones that pretend to be quality).

Media is the thing to watch, not East block style elections. You donot have to make them worse than they are they are bad enough.

Robin Redbreast said...

I wish the Voters would deliver a bloody nose to EU overpaid commissioners'like Danish in June 1992, Dutch,French voters in June 2005...EU is more like 4th reich for multinationals. 90% of UK firms have nothing to do with Europe yet have to comply with 135,000 directives