CALL them the hipsters of European neurosis. Take any of the anxieties that have lately beset Europe’s politics and you find the Dutch got there first. Concerns over fiscal waywardness in the euro zone? They were fuming at German and French profligacy over a decade ago. Asylum and immigration? The Dutch were agonising over multiculturalism while Angela Merkel was still plotting her ascent to the Bundeskanzleramt. The threat from anti-European populists? The Dutch have seen several come and go.
Such worries have now gone mainstream across Europe. So it is an interesting time for the Netherlands to take over the rotating six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union (the forum for national ministers). As one of the six founding EU members the Dutch are practised at steering the machinery, even if the presidency is not the force it once was (see article). But they are taking charge at a tricky moment. The EU was supposed to be a “fair-weather union”, says Bert Koenders, the foreign minister. Now it must prove itself in a storm.
The refugee crisis and the Paris attacks have threatened the EU’s passport-free Schengen area. Migration and security will therefore be at the top of the Dutch in-tray. Mark Rutte, the competent if plodding prime minister, should make a decent fist of the job, so far as Europe’s squabbling governments allow. But he has his own difficulties at home. The first is a bizarre referendum in April on an EU association agreement with Ukraine. The vote, triggered by a satirical website that gathered the necessary signatures, will inevitably turn into a simple test of the voters’ mood.
That could mean trouble for Mr Rutte, for like many of his EU peers he has a populist problem. Geert Wilders, a Dutch Donald Trump (with equally striking hair), is way ahead in opinion polls. His anti-Islam, anti-EU PVV outfit has dragged every party rightward on immigration. Some figures in Mr Rutte’s liberal VVD now take an eye-wateringly tough line; their coalition partner, the centre-left Labour Party, frets about refugees undermining support for the welfare state. The PVV has not always translated its poll numbers into votes. But the Netherlands’ complex party system could leave future governments with an awkward choice: bring Mr Wilders into office (or rely on his support), or form an unwieldy coalition designed solely to keep him out of it.
This dilemma is hardly unique to the Netherlands. But Dutch Euroscepticism has certain peculiarities. Small and highly dependent on trade (exports contribute 32% to GDP), the Netherlands does not have the luxury of British-style Euro-contempt, as is apparent at any of its hundreds of land border crossings. Indeed, when the political winds have been favourable the Dutch have been among the more enthusiastic members. Two EU treaties—Amsterdam and Maastricht—bear the names of the Dutch cities in which they were signed. The uppermost ranks of EU policymaking are dotted with Dutchmen, from Jeroen Dijsselbloem, head of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, to Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission.
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