The minority Dutch government that fell in April 2012 will probably be remembered for the support Prime Minister Mark Rutte needed - and received - from the anti-immigration Freedom Party of Geert Wilders. During that government's life the Netherlands acquired a reputation for being anti-European and introspective. The Financial Times referred to the Netherlands as arguably the ‘most obstructionist' country in the EU and European Commission President Barroso linked it to other populist countries. This reputation masks a deep-rooted pragmatism that is alert to some of the effects the euro crisis is having upon the EU, and resistant to the possibility that the EU's future trajectory might be incompatible with the Dutch interests that have driven its previous pro-European stance.
It is ironic that Rutte's government fell after failing to achieve a compromise on its 2013 budget and the Eurozone rule requiring its budget deficit to be below 3%. Although it has never been a real issue in any previous election, the centrality of the EU as an issue in elections due in September is assured. Geert Wilders subsequently announced that his priorities were now a Dutch exit from both the EU and the euro. Others are also critical of the EU: the Socialist Party also uses anti-EU slogans, for instance talking about the neoliberal ‘gripping jaws' of Brussels. The polls suggest the Socialist Party and the Freedom Party have the combined support of around one third of voters, with the Socialists emerging as the biggest party. This is then forcing the centre-left Labour Party and the centre-right Liberal Party (of Rutte) to incorporate some of their EU-scepticism into their platforms.
Criticism in this traditionally pro-EU country has been building. In the 2010 elections the discourse was about ‘European cooperation' rather than ‘European integration' as had been the case. In his first year Rutte framed European integration as a project that would further Dutch economic interests. Policy makers discussed reclaiming competences from the EU and defending national sovereignty. A majority in Parliament even supported a declaration asking the government not to hand over any sovereignty to Brussels and not to move towards a political union.
Several of Rutte's policies put Dutch ministers on collision courses with the EU and individual EU member states. Whereas the Netherlands had been at the forefront of Europeanising justice and home affairs issues in the 1990s, it now sought to increase the room for member states to maneuver on sensitive immigration-related issues such as family reunion rules and the rights of workers from elsewhere in the EU. The Netherlands also wanted to draw lessons on enlargement after the accession of Romania and Bulgaria (which some argue had come about too early). Romanian and Bulgarian hopes of joining the Schengen area was met with a Dutch veto, citing their poor record on respecting the rule of law (despite a positive report from the Commission). The Netherlands also vetoed Serbia's EU ambitions pending cooperation with the International Criminal Court and the handing over of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Elsewhere the Dutch foreign affairs minister Uri Rosenthal stood alone in vetoing an EU position on violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians.
The Netherlands has also displayed intransigence over the euro crisis. The finance minister, Jan Kees de Jager, followed up an initial reticence over participation in EU support funds with demands concerning IMF involvement, the imposition of tough austerity measures and an insistence on ‘PSI' (private sector involvement) that resulted in a drastic haircut for investors in Greek banks. De Jager defended outspoken comments about Greek elections in spring 2012 by remarking, ‘I am Dutch, so I may be blunt'.
This Dutch lack of subtlety came at a price. Commentators across Europe experienced Schadenfreude in March 2012 when it became apparent that the Dutch austerity package had been insufficient to bring the budget deficit below the Eurozone's 3% limit.
The roots of this outspoken questioning of the EU go back to the 1990s, when the broad political consensus about European integration began to fall apart. The Socialist Party was the first to distance itself from the project, before successive governments argued that the Netherlands was contributing too much to the EU budget. Brussels became a scapegoat whenever things went wrong. Populists like Pim Fortuyn folded EU issues into attacks on the political elite, building on a sense of unease among many about the direction society had taken, alienation from traditional political parties and alarm over the impact of immigration on large cities.
The veto of the Constitutional Treaty in 2005 is often portrayed as a watershed in the Dutch EU debate. Up to that point a large majority of the Dutch parliament had been strongly in favour of European integration (underlined by the broad parliamentary support for the vetoed Constitutional Treaty), but they had underestimated changes in the popular mood. Paradoxically the EU barely played a role in debates ahead of the referendum. Even elections to the European Parliament were dominated by national issues.
Strengthening sovereignty or strengthening integration?
The outspoken Dutch positions, however, need not be seen as eurosceptic. The (formerly pan-EU) ‘permissive consensus' towards European integration has been replaced by a more pragmatic attitude. Such pragmatism has a long history. Post-war Dutch support for integration was partly based on a fear that France and Germany might mutually lower trade barriers or agree on trade relations with the United States while ignoring Dutch interests. There has also been a strong understanding that the open Dutch economy benefits from free access to Europe's markets (approximately 80% of Dutch exports go to the EU).