Wednesday

1st Apr 2020

Dutch PM puts EU exit on agenda with election gamble

  • 'We would be weaker if we would leave.' Dutch PM Rutte opposes a so-called 'Nexit' (Photo: Council of the European Union)

It would be a "disaster" if the Netherlands would leave the European Union, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte argued in a one-on-one debate with his largest electoral opponent, the pro-Nexit MP Thierry Baudet.

The EU and its common currency the euro were "not perfect", but the risks of the alternative were greater.

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  • Dutch MP Thierry Baudet (l) wants his country to leave the EU (Photo: Frans Peeters)

"We would be weaker if we would leave," said Rutte at the debate, held at a late-night TV show, less than eight hours before polls opened in the Netherlands on Thursday (23 May) at 7.30am.

The Dutch will elect 26 of the EU's 751 MEPs.

A Dutch EU exit, or Nexit, is not an option on the ballot box and MEPs have nothing to say about individual member states' membership.

But Rutte argued that the EU vote were very important elections, because of the possibility, suggested by many polls, that Baudet's party would emerge on top.

Forum for Democracy is the main challenger on the right, doing much better in polls than the other, perhaps better known, anti-EU party, Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom.

Rutte called for the debate between him and Baudet after Forum for Democracy, only 31 months old as a political party, came out as the largest party in the country's provincial elections two months ago.

Forum was set up as a think tank in 2015 and although Baudet said at the time that the group "does not want to start a political party", it did exactly that less than two years later.

The reason for the U-turn, Baudet has said, was his disappointment with the Dutch ratification of the EU-Ukraine treaty despite the outcome of a citizens-enforced referendum - in which Baudet had actively campaigned for the winning 'No' side.

Baudet has often said that he believed the Dutch should leave the EU, but other party members have been more hazy about Nexit.

In fact, the party recently removed the word 'Nexit' from its website. Baudet explained last month that this was to reassure voters that his party would not plunge into Nexit without a plan, UK-style, but rather that the Dutch exit should be done "in phases".

At Wednesday's debate, Baudet said he wanted to give voters an option to decide in simultaneous referendums on a "Europa a la carte" - giving them the option to support or reject membership of the eurozone, whether they support the open borders, and a European army.

How that would work in practice, and how a government would honour the potentially conflicting outcome of such multi-referendums, did not become clear at Thursday's debate.

'Deep state'?

What did become clear, was that Baudet said he believed a "deep state" was preventing Brexit in the UK and that he still saw Ukraine as a suspect in the 2014 downing of flight MH17 - despite the official investigation having determined the missile having been Russian in origin.

If anything, Rutte handed Baudet a stage to profile himself as the main challenger of the establishment.

Whether that will backfire, will only become clear when the results are in.

But even if Baudet does well, only a minority of Dutch people, according to polls, is in favour of a Nexit.

A recent European Parliament survey put the Dutch among the ten most enthusiastic EU member states: 78 percent said that the Netherlands had benefited from EU membership, with 16 percent saying it had not.

Another poll, carried out by Ipsos and the Free University of Amsterdam, suggested that only 4 in 10 supporters of Baudet want a Nexit.

The poll also suggested that citizens think much more nuanced about EU membership than the political campaign's main frame of pro-EU vs anti-EU.

By challenging Baudet however, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte may have elevated him - and the issue of Nexit.

"Can you imagine the headlines?", Rutte said a week before the vote, referring to the possibility that Forum would become the largest party.

He called on voters to support his party instead, to prevent the Netherlands sending a eurosceptic "signal" to Europe, by awarding a plurality of votes to a pro-Nexit party.

'The largest' is relative

But it should be noted that with increased fragmentation, it has become much less impressive to be the largest party in the Netherlands.

Twenty years ago the Christian-Democrats, affiliated with the European People's Party (EPP), won that year's EU parliament elections with 27 percent of the votes.

But the largest party in 2014 - the pro-EU D66 of the Liberal family - received only 15.5 percent.

There are no fewer than 16 political parties competing for the Netherlands' 26 EU seats (Photo: Peter Teffer)

One recent poll puts Forum at 16.9 percent, slightly behind Rutte's Liberals at 18.1 percent.

The other pro-Nexit party, Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom, would receive nine percent according to that poll.

That means that 75 percent of voters would still support a party that is against a Nexit.

Moreover, it frankly does not matter whether MEPs want their country to leave the EU - it is not up to them.

Rutte of course has his eyes on the 2021 national elections - where a Forum win would bring Nexit closer.

But the move also allowed him to present himself as the one true pro-European choice - when in fact several other parties have been much more consistently pro-EU.

The Baudet-Rutte focus could be overshadowing another possible surprise success: that of the Greens.

In several polls, the environmentalist party comes out third, ahead of the traditional mainstream centre parties affiliated in the EU parliament with EPP and S&D.

Spitzenkandidaten

Centre-left Labour has the European Commission's current second-in-command, Frans Timmermans, as its main candidate.

Timmermans is one of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten, which the outgoing European Parliament believe should become president of the new commission if able to muster a majority support of MEPs.

The Spitzenkandidaten system was introduced in 2014 to Europeanise the elections.

Last Monday, Timmermans had a one-on-one debate with his main contender, EPP leader Manfred Weber, on national Dutch television - with Timmermans speaking in Dutch and Weber in German.

While only 18 minutes long, the debate introduced viewers to the larger issues than just Nexit - it was viewed by some 666,000 people.

Almost 13 million Dutch people will have the right to vote on Thursday - although past experiences showed that more than half of them will not bother to show up.

Voter turnout in 2014 was 37 percent - the last time it was higher than 50 percent was in 1984.

While the official results will not become public until Sunday evening, there will be an exit poll that will be published already on Thursday evening, at 9PM.

Additionally, some 1,400 volunteers have said they will go to polling stations on Thursday evening, to report the result to Dutch blog GeenStijl, which will attempt to aggregate these reports into an estimate of the actual result.

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