The Netherlands is euro-pragmatic rather than eurosceptic

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Among the Dutch public, both europhilia (though declining) and euroscepticism are present. The largest share, however, is rather of utilitarian inclination. Similar to the pragmatic parties, European integration is supported if it can effectively and efficiently handle the interests of a small trading country, writes Hans Vollaard.

Hans Vollaard is an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands.

"The Netherlands is not necessarily against more European integration, despite the vocal opposition to European integration from Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party and the government’s Euro-rhetoric. As long as European integration would serve the national interests of a small trading country, a considerable share of the Dutch public and political parties as well as the government would accept it for pragmatic, utilitarian reasons.

Together with the europhiles favouring a fully-fledged political union, majority support for more European integration could therefore still be obtained in the Netherlands, also after the national elections of 12 September. Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether Euro-pragmatism provides a sufficiently solid basis for the EU to function effectively and legitimately in the long run.

The Netherlands used to have a pro-European image, and not without reason. Despite mixed feelings about supranationalism, popular support for EC/EU membership used to be above the European average. Even after a considerable majority rejected the European Constitutional Treaty by referendum in 2005, the Dutch Euro-opinion continued to be relatively positive in comparison with the public opinion elsewhere in the EU.

After initial anti-supranationalist and anti-continental inclinations in the 1940s and 1950s, the Dutch governments also adopted a pro-European stance. In the negotiations on the Single European Act in the 1980s, it described itself as “one of the maximalists”. At that time, it could rely on the europhile preferences of all major political parties: the creation of the internal market had to be pursued without hesitation, the European Parliament had to be strengthened to democratise the European Communities (EC), and more supranationalism should foster efficient decision-making.

Notwithstanding their flowery Euro-rhetoric, Dutch governments did not forget about national interests. Supranational decision-making also helped to constrain the domination of larger member states such as France. Furthermore, efficient decision-making served Dutch trading interests, as a British diplomat once quipped: when the Dutch say supranationalism, they mean cheese.

This focus on trading opportunities also reflected the limits of European integration in the eyes of Dutch governments: NATO had to maintain its primacy in European security.

In the negotiations on the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the Dutch government attempted to introduce a unified framework for the European Union. It would have fit nicely with the parliament’s europhile rhetoric, while it could also serve to keep control of the larger member states after the end of the Cold War. After it failed to do so, the Dutch government dropped its federal rhetoric, and more explicitly emphasised the need to defend national interests.

In contrast to the EU specialists in the Foreign Office and the ministry of agriculture, the Foreign Office’s security directorate, and the ministries of finance and justice also adopted a more pragmatic and less europhile position regarding the evolution of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Economic and Monetary Union, and Justice and Home Affairs.

Since the 1990s, Dutch governments have rather pragmatically perceived European integration largely finished with the creation of a fully free market (including services) and a stable common currency. That also holds for the centre-right minority cabinet Rutte (2010-2012), even though it expressed itself rather bluntly about fellow EU member states, most probably to please the eurosceptic Freedom Party, on which parliamentary support it relied.

In the 1990s, partisan euroscepticism declined. GreenLeft, a merger of extreme-left parties resisting the capitalist and undemocratic nature of the European market, has adopted a europhile position, while criticising the EU for not being sufficiently green, social, and democratic. The orthodox-Protestant parties still resist the making of a European super state, in which a (formerly) Christian nation would become an indistinct entity.

Nevertheless, they have gradually accepted the supranational EU as a means to serve policy aims such as the protection of God’s creation. At the turn of the century, the left-populist Socialist Party (SP) was almost the only party in parliament that continued to be principally opposed to any further European integration. It believed that transnational companies and the large countries called the shots in the EU, which would lead to democracy and the welfare state being sacrificed to increased economic competitiveness.

In the last ten years, partisan euroscepticism has been on the rise, however. In 2002, Pim Fortuyn’s LPF party suddenly obtained 26 out of the 150 seats in parliament. Notwithstanding his emphasis on preserving Dutch identity, democracy, and sovereignty, Fortuyn described himself as a “loyal supporter of the EU”. After a short stint in government, the party adopted a more eurosceptic opposition towards enlargement and more integration.

In 2004, MP Geert Wilders split from the VVD party, because the party did not refuse Turkish EU accession in the long run. He established the Freedom Party (PVV). This anti-Islam party advocated the restoration of Dutch sovereignty and also the abolition of the European Parliament. The party has now turned against the EU completely and focuses almost exclusively on the EU and the euro in its campaign for the national elections in September.

Due to the electoral successes of PVV and SP, euroscepticism grew considerably in parliament. Also the Animal Rights party (PvdD), in parliament since 2006, opposes further European integration because of its animal-unfriendly and undemocratic nature. Nevertheless, the SP’s euroscepticism has softened. It still resents how the neoliberal European “super state” constrains national democracy and (inter)national solidarity, but considers European cooperation as “absolutely necessary”.

And despite its eurosceptic rhetoric, the SP favours a “enormous” European social agenda, and wants the non-elected European Central Bank to buy government bonds to fight the debt crisis in Italy and Spain.

The eurosceptic parties SP, PVV, PvdD and the orthodox-Protestant SGP would obtain about more than one-third of the seats in parliament according to the polls. Facing tough electoral competition from PVV and SP respectively, the conservative-liberal VVD and the social-democratic PvdA have been reluctant to express themselves full-heartedly in favour of European integration.

Nevertheless, they are rather Euro-pragmatic than Eurosceptic. Led by Frits Bolkestein in the 1990s, the VVD discarded the europhile idea of a fully European democratic union as infeasible and also undesirable. In contrast to hard core euroscepticism, however, Bolkestein’s VVD has not opposed the euro (facilitating free trade), or supranational decision-making per se (if it would make the EU more effective and efficient). It rather pragmatically calls for an effective and (cost)efficient EU that would serve Dutch interests.

In the last decade, the Christian-Democratic CDA and the Social-Democrats have also an adopted more pragmatic stance, although they may have different understandings of what Dutch interests would be.

They have been joined by the orthodox-protestant ChristianUnion, which resists the creation of a European political union as it would alienate the largely nationally oriented citizens. Nevertheless, it would support measures to stabilise the Euro if properly controlled by parliament. Today, only the social-liberal D66 and GreenLeft party are europhile, characterised by an aversion of nationalism and a positive stance towards supranational and political European integration. Taken together, the europhile and europragmatic parties constitute almost two-third majority in parliament, also after the elections of 12 September.

Among the Dutch public, both europhilia (though declining) and euroscepticism are present. The largest share, however, is rather of utilitarian inclination. Similar to the pragmatic parties, European integration is supported if it can effectively and efficiently handle the interests of a small trading country.

There have been increasing reasons to doubt whether that ‘if’ can be fulfilled. The Dutch EU contribution is often called too high. The well-paid members of the European Parliament meet both in Brussels and Strasbourg. European Commission bureaucrats receive high salaries. The EU is often associated with bureaucratic, superfluous and detailed regulation. Enlargement limited the relative power of a small country.

A number of relatively poor countries that not always tackle criminality, corruption, border control, and illegal immigration effectively, entered the EU in recent years. The large member states France and Germany bent the rules of the Stability and Growth Pact. The financial problems in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus, and Italy have raised scepticism about the effectiveness of the EU and the profitability of EU membership.

In addition, the economic downturn has made the Dutch less willing to express international and European financial solidarity. No wonder concerns have been expressed that the EU and its large states would force the Netherlands to pay for countries in financially bad condition, or would interfere into politically sensitive policy-areas such as pensions, taxation and wages.

If the EU cannot convince the Dutch public that it would serve their interests, support for (more) European integration may further decline. Nevertheless, as long as the public and parties can be and are convinced that more European integration can effectively and efficiently serve Dutch economic interests, it could rely on Dutch support.

Nevertheless, that faces the European Union with a huge challenge. National utilitarianism is a feeble basis for European cohesion and solidarity. Are the EU and its member states able and willing to strengthen the EU’s legitimacy among the Dutch by addressing also specifically Dutch desires in times of economic crisis?"

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