Dutch EU elections: 'Are you for or against Europe?'
By Peter Teffer
On a recent Saturday afternoon in January, volunteers in the Dutch city of Utrecht were handing out soup and hot chocolate on behalf of the ruling coalition’s centre-left Labour Party. There was an open air event, with speeches and music, to mark the beginning of its electoral campaign.
This does not mean that Dutch voters are already thinking about the May elections to the European Parliament, however.
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Labour held the Utrecht event because there are local elections on 19 March: The EU elections are barely on the public's radar.
While over half of respondents to a recent poll knew there will be another election this year, only a quarter knew that it will be for the EU parliament. Just three percent were able to pinpoint the date: 22 May.
Interior minister Ronald Plasterk, a Labour member, expects the campaigns for the two elections to be “very distinct” from each other.
“The campaign for the European elections will be about the question 'are you for or against Europe’,” he told this website, referring to the prevailing issue on people's minds.
He added that the question "doesn't make sense."
But at the same time, the “are you in or are you out” of the EU framework, which British Prime Minister David Cameron has put on the agenda in Britain, is popular in the Netherlands too.
Three days after the Labour event, a group of eurosceptics gathered in the Dutch parliament in The Hague. Some 63,000 people signed a citizens’ initiative to “stop the creeping transfer of powers to the EU” and to demand a referendum if more powers are transferred to Brussels. The spokesperson for the initiative was invited to speak to parliament on the issue.
A majority of MPs (112 to 38) voted No to a proposed referendum for the next potential transfer of powers, however.
A Cameron-style referendum on leaving the EU altogether received even less support. Only the Socialist Party (15 seats), the Party for Freedom (14 seats), and an MP who recently left the Freedom party, voted in favour.
For Geert Wilders, the populist Freedom party’s leader, the EU elections will “give the Dutch a chance to reconquer the Netherlands from Brussels and improve our country's strength.”
Wilders is riding high in the polls, with a campaign platform which says the Netherlands should leave not just the single currency but the EU itself.
In early February, he announced, with great fanfare, an assessment of the impact of The Netherlands’s leaving the Union. The report showed that a “Nexit,” or Netherlands' exit, would be profitable for the country, even though questions were later raised about the objectivity of the methods used in the survey.
Wilders’ popularity has further exposed Dutch discontent with the EU - a phenomenon which had its watershed moment in 2005 when 61.5 percent of voters rejected a proposed EU constitution. Since then, most political parties have become more critical towards Brussels.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently remarked that the next European Commission should focus on being “European where necessary and national where possible.”
Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans has also been active. In a letter published in the Financial Times he stressed the need for a manifesto describing “what Europe needs to focus on, and also what Europe needs to leave to the states.”
While Wilders has not yet announced who will represent the Party for Freedom in the European elections, the presentation of his Nexit report marked the start of the party's EU election campaign.
All other Dutch parties currently represented in the EU assembly have announced their candidates, but some are awaiting official confirmation at party conferences.
Remarkably, there are hardly any new faces at the top of the parties’ lists: Eight of the nine candidate delegation leaders are already MEPs.
Sophie in 't Veld, of the liberal-democrat D66 party, part of the Liberal Alde group, has been MEP since 2004. Toine Manders recently left the Liberal party and now hopes to be elected for 50PLUS, a party for the elderly. Manders has been an MEP since 1999.
The only outsider to top the list of a party so far is Paul Tang, who is Labour's candidate. He is an entrepreneur, but was also a member of the country's national parliament from 2007 to 2010.
MEPs are not particularly well-known in the Netherlands, where having a seat in the EU assembly is considered something to be done at the beginning of a political career rather than at its peak.
The current defence minister was an MEP, but there are no former ministers representing the Netherlands in Europe, let alone a former prime minister, like Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium.
On top of this, national media tend to focus on domestic politicians. A list of the 25 most mentioned politicians in newspapers and on TV did not feature one MEP, a recent report showed.
Meanwhile, turnout for EU elections is lacklustre.
While almost three quarters of voters went to the urns for the last national election in 2012, the 2009 European elections saw a turnout of 36.7 percent. The last time that more than half of the Dutch electorate showed up at an EU parliament election was 1984.
Dutch politics have become more volatile in recent years, with party loyalty decreasing rapidly. This makes predicting election outcomes difficult.
Despite this, polls do give some indications.
Ipsos Synovate calculates in a biweekly poll how many of the 150 seats parties would receive if there were national elections.
According to its latest figures, published 6 February, the current combined majority of 79 seats for the Labour and Liberal coalition partners would be reduced to a minority of 43.
The poll predicted a big win for Wilders’ Party for Freedom (it would be the largest party with 27 seats, up from 15). Meanwhile, D66 would get 23 seats, up from 12.
A competing poll by Peil.nl has slight differences, but a similar trend: a loss for coalition parties and a win for the Party for Freedom and D66.
Dutch voters will elect 26 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 22 May.