When the clock struck midnight in Brussels on January 1 2016, the Dutch presidency of the European Union officially started. Bert Koenders, the Dutch Foreign Minister, was ambitious early in 2015 when he defined the main goal of the presidency of the Low Lands to create a ‘unifying union’. Yet, looking back at the various problems that arose on a European level over the past year it becomes apparent that the Dutch plan for Europe seems hard to achieve. In the light of domestic, foreign and European crises, the goals envisioned by the Hague – first and foremost higher employment and mobilization of citizens and the enhancement of security only in second place – seem less focused on present issues. One explanation for this is the brief nature of EU presidencies and the overlapping set of goals that are usually shared by three Member States in order to ensure effectiveness. Yet, the peculiar state of Dutch domestic political affairs offers another dimension behind the country’s 12th presidency.
Not all Dutch citizens and politicians greet the presidency with Koenders’ ambition, let alone excitement. The Dutch Liberty Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders is social Euroscepticism incarnate and it appears to be quite successful and persistent in the political arena. Opinion polls show how this anti-Islamic, anti-European party would gain 37 out of 150 seats in parliament if elections were held in December 2015. In spite of Wilders’ harsh, egregious language on the refugee crisis and Islam – in 2014, after municipal elections, he promised to reduce the number of Moroccans in Dutch society, for example – his party would presently be the largest in parliament.
The Liberty Party’s success can largely be explained through its strong anti-European policy-goals, a desire to re-introduce the Dutch Guilder as national currency and the protection of the welfare state. When it comes to the European Union, Wilders’ rhetoric is largely based on common misinterpretations of the Community Method. Brussels is portrayed as a distant entity, which dictates new laws to which the Dutch should adhere, however displeasing their effects might be. The anti-European voice in the Hague is thus not based on a factual appropriation of the European Union, but it sure is a loud voice. Pro-European parties have not been successful in turning the electoral anti-European tide. The usage of commonly accepted political jargon has led some voters to pick a populist alternative in the first place. A more pronounced, louder reaction to Wilders’ distorted portrayal of the European Union has remained absent in the political debate.
Knowledge about the intricacies of the European Union, its modes of decision-making and policy-goals thus remains wanting. From the political spectre, misinformation is more dominant than education on the topic. Moreover, a part of the Dutch public only looks at European Policy in a sporadic, topic-based fashion. This can be illustrated by another example. In October 2015, the website Geenstijl – a semi-political, lad-ish website which uses a rather juvenile way to approach Dutch politics – successfully issued a petition for a Dutch referendum on the EU’s association treaty with Ukraine. As the petition passed the threshold to be considered by Dutch parliament, the actual issuing of a referendum has to be discussed during the Dutch presidency. This certainly does not attribute to the credibility of the Dutch presidency.
If one looks at the arguments issued by Geenstijl in favour of a referendum, it becomes apparent, however, that the concept of an association treaty is completely misunderstood. The website claimed how the treaty could be a first step towards the integration of Ukraine in the European Union as has happened in the past with Croatia. Not only is this interpretation a naïve, unrealistic construct of a false reality, it also reveals a lack of geopolitical insight in the minds of this lad-ish website and its supporters. The European Union has expanded in the past, and might in the future, yet this does not mean that it does so without any rationale. By taking away exactly this rational aspect, the sentiment of fear has raised ample support for the referendum. From the Dutch domestic perspective it is clear that any possible, thorough, explanation of the European Union is overshadowed by irrational arguments that play on emotion. It shows how the Dutch presidency will not be met with enthusiasm from the entire electorate. Moreover, it partially explains why the Dutch goals for the presidency seem so uninspired; increase of employment, increased citizen participation and enhanced security can be considered to be reactions to these aforementioned fears.
By Thomas Kerstens1989 Generation