Dutch euroscepticism moves mainstream
By Peter Teffer
In the Netherlands, voters who are critical of the speed or intensity of European integration have plenty of alternatives to the populist right. The country has eurosceptic progressive and conservative parties too.
Take, for example, the left-wing Socialist Party (SP). When voters granted the party two seats in the national parliament for the first time in 1994, the party's programme already opposed "a devaluation of our country towards a powerless province in a undemocratic European superstate".
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Now, with 15 of the 150 seats in the national parliament, and one member in the European Parliament, the socialists are still critical of European integration. "We are saying no to this EU," says Harry van Bommel, member of the Dutch parliament for the SP. "We are not warning of something in the future, this Europe already has too many features of a superstate."
Since Van Bommel became an MP in 1998, public debate on European integration has "changed dramatically", he says. The watershed moment was on 1 June 2005, when the Dutch electorate rejected the European Constitution in a referendum. While the government and more than 80 percent of members of parliament had spoken out in favour of the new treaty, 61.6 percent of voters said "Nee".
Mainstream parties realised they were running faster towards an 'ever closer union' than their constituencies wanted.
"The parties that have always been responsible for furthering integration have also become eurocritical," says Marianne Thieme, member of parliament for the green Party for the Animals since 2006. (It has two seats in national parliament, none in the European Parliament). "All of a sudden, every party is eurocritical."
At the same time, Thieme says that mainstream parties still "stigmatise" eurosceptic parties. "If you are eurocritical in the manner that our party is, then you are 'hiding behind the dykes', you 'don't love Europe', you're 'a nationalist'. That conditioned response is still there."
A third party traditionally critical of European integration is the orthodox Calvinist party SGP (three seats in the national parliament, one in the European). Established in 1918, this conservative party is the oldest party in the Dutch parliament. In the European Parliament it often cooperates with another christian party, the ChristenUnie.
The party's thinktank published a book in April entitled Europa op een kruispunt [Europe at a crossroads]. The author noted in the introduction that most parties are now "making statements that are suspiciously similar to positions that SGP and ChristenUnie have held for years".
Van Bommel has had a comparable experience. Looking back to his pre-2005 days, he says: "Back then we were the party that had a deviant opinion on Europe. We were on the margins." Now, although their views on Europe haven't fundamentally changed, the socialists' criticism has become more politically mainstream. "We are no longer being shelved as anti-European."
Now, the 'deviant opinion' is held by the populist Freedom Party (PVV) which advocates a Dutch exit from the European Union.
While Van Bommel is not a proponent of a radical exit, he does advocate a "more modest Europe", which only provides "European solutions to problems we can't solve nationally".
The 'subsidiarity' test
However, it would be difficult to find a Dutch politician who does not agree with that opinion. Most politicians frequently make use of the word subsidiarity, the principle that the EU should only act when it can do so more effectively than lower levels of government.
But each politician uses the term to bolster their own argument. After all who decides which level of government is most effective? There is no objective test for subsidiarity. "You're right, you can't measure that," acknowledges Van Bommel. "Ideology will always come into play there."
So the Socialist Party, which is critical of the free market having a large role, will also be critical of neoliberal policies at a European level. And the Party for Animals, which believes "large-scale factory farming industry is disastrous for people, animals and the environment", wants to reform the EU's agricultural policy.
The current practice, according to Jan Schippers of the SGP thinktank, is that the subsidiarity 'test' is being decided in Brussels. "The European Commission and the European Parliament always find a reason to justify new European policy," Schippers writes.
Additionally, the European Parliament is unable to effectively audit the European Commission, says Schippers. "The European Parliament is not quite the watchdog that defends the interests of the residents of the member states. On the contrary, the EP is in favour of raising the EU budget, even in a time of crisis," he writes.
While both national parliaments and the European Parliament have received more powers since the Treaty of Lisbon came into force, Thieme points out that this does not solve the democratic deficit. "You can see a trend in Europe towards less democracy," she says.
Thieme is worried about "the lack of a democratic foundation" for a proposed free trade agreement with the US. "Europe is heading towards elitist backdoor politics in the form of free trade agreements whose contents are decided by big multinationals."
The European Parliament promotes its elections with the phrase "this time is different". Van Bommel agrees, but for different reasons. He used to think that the steps towards a closer union were irreversible.
"I changed my mind when I heard Nout Wellink, the previous president of De Nederlandsche Bank [central bank] say it's not certain that the euro is a success," says Van Bommel.
Thieme agrees that keeping the eurozone together should not be a goal in itself. "There are more scenarios than to continue towards a banking union and a political union," she says, referring to those who argue for keeping the euro for the sake of the euro as "narrow-minded and fanatical".
The 'alternative' eurocritical parties are doing well in most opinion polls, and so is the PVV. Van Bommel points out that the larger challenge is to convince people to show up at the ballot box at all – at the previous European elections voter turnout was 36.7 percent.
Van Bommel: "Our biggest adversary on the street will not be the PVV voter. It will be the apathy of the non-voter."