23rd Oct 2016

Tough talk on Europe as Dutch go to polls

  • Despite all the tough talk on Europe, elections in the Netherlands are likely to have a more balanced outcome. (Photo: Flickr)

When Mark Rutte last week on live TV was asked whether he would do everything to keep the eurozone together, he said no.

The caretaker prime minister of the Netherlands, debating with contenders for today's elections (12 September), said he would not sign up to a third rescue package for Greece.

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“If countries do not put their house in order, they cannot count on our support,” he told some two million viewers, looking them straight in the eye.

“Enough is enough. If the Greeks need more money still, they can find it themselves,” he said later.

It is the kind of tough talk that has characterised the Dutch debate about Europe. But much of it is campaign rhetoric and polls suggest a more balanced outcome.

Much talk, no walk

Rutte, who is also the leader of the liberal VVD party, is in campaign mode. His opponents were quick to point out that it is not the first time that he talks tough on Greece - and that often, later, he makes concessions.

“One thing is clear: this ‘no’ is valid until 12 September. And on 13 September, it becomes a ‘yes’,” retorted Sybrand van Haersma Buma, leader of the christian-democrat CDA party.

Jan Kees de Jager, the country’s caretaker finance minister, the next day said that contrary to Rutte’s comment, the government’s position is that it would do everything to keep the eurozone together.

“It is not easy being prime minister and party leader at the same time,” he joked.

Standing next to Rutte was his old-time friend and former fellow party member Geert Wilders.

Wilders, who in 2004 started his own party, the far-right PVV, and went on - successfully - to ride a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, had decided this year to take on the EU.

“It just doesn’t stop. Billions and billions are needed to save the euro. And you, people at home, are paying the price. That is why we say: stop. Not a cent more to southern Europe. Let’s leave Brussels, and be boss in our own country,” he told viewers.

But Wilders is losing in the polls and seems set for a future on the sidelines.

He claims the polls are skewed as voters may lie to pollsters. But even if they are, he stands to lose at least some of his now 20 seats in the 150-strong parliament (down from 24 after four MPs this year defected).

He already was a political outcast, too radical to be a fully-fledged member of the former minority government, keeping it afloat instead. But since he walked out on budget talks in April, rushing the country to snap elections, even fewer parties are willing to work with him.

Across from the two right-wingers, there was Emile Roemer, leader of the far-left Socialist Party (SP).

He, also, said he would not do everything to keep the eurozone together, “because it would be like bringing water to the sea.”

Earlier this year, he told newspaper Het Financieel Dagblad that if he were elected prime minister, he would not pay "a ridiculous fine" for breaching EU budget rules - something he said he was intent on doing.

"Over my dead body," he is quoted as having said.

The SP, whose logo is a red tomato (to throw at the establishment with), has recently warmed up to the idea of European integration but remains fiercely critical of the EU and its institutions, which it accuses of creating “a neoliberal superstate.”

It caused something of an uproar in July when it was leading in the polls - a first in the history of Dutch politics.

Roemer, a former school teacher and the friendly neighbour type, had managed to win the hearts of the people. But after a couple of poor TV performances, he failed to win their minds.

Doomed to each other?

Instead it is Diederik Samsom, the young, new leader of the PvdA labour party, who has been able to present himself as the number one contender.

Samsom, a nuclear physicist (who is against nuclear energy), is a believer. His answer to the eurozone question was yes.

“We will have to share more competences than we find comfortable, and we will get less money back than was promised. And still I defend that. Because I want to build a Europe where we make each other stronger,” he said.

Samsom and Rutte are neck-and-neck in the polls, vying for the job of prime minister. But whoever wins, forming a majority government is going to be difficult. Both on right and left, it is unlikely that parties will have enough seats.

One possibility, much talked about in the Dutch press and reviled against by those who would be excluded, is a so-called purple government, of both liberals and social-democrats.

It is an uneasy thought, for both. Rutte has called the PvdA “a danger” to the country. Samsom called the VVD’s policies “rotten.” But it may turn out to be the only real alternative, other than going back to the polls.

For it to work, though, they are likely to need the help of the europhile D66 party. In which case the new government is bound to do everything it can to keep the eurozone together.

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