Elections for the European Parliament in the Netherlands have traditionally been described as either “dull” or “extremely dull”. They were overshadowed by national elections in 1989 and 1994, and in 1999 by the collapse of the national government. And, in several EP elections (1979; 1984; 1989; 2004) opposition parties campaigned against heavy budget cuts to national welfare. A relatively large number of voters, who could often see little difference in the EU positions of the various competing parties – if they were aware of these positions at all – stayed at home.
But in the early 2000s, the introduction of the Euro, the big-bang enlargement of 2004, negotiations on Turkish accession, and the violation of the Stability and Growth Pact by Germany and France raised public awareness of the EU. That awareness rose in particular by the referendum on the European constitution in 2005, when 63% of the voters turned out to reject it by a two-thirds majority.
Meanwhile, criticism on European integration from the free market-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the left-populist Socialist Party (SP), the nationalist-populist List Pim Fortuyn and the anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, offered voters more choice in EU issues in elections. Despite this, the most recent European elections, in 2009, were once again a lacklustre affair, dominated by national politics. The question of whether parties would be willing to cooperate with the PVV in a future national government drew most attention. Turnout was a meagre 37%.
The 2009 EU election results reflected current patterns in national politics: the fragmentation of the party political landscape, the declining vote share of classic mainstream parties, electoral volatility and the antitheses between populist and mainstream parties as well as between cosmopolitan and nationalist parties.
Pro-European parties won a clear majority but, thanks to the rise of the PVV (17%), Eurosceptic parties were also well represented. And, since the 2009 elections, the crisis with the euro and the increasing migration of workers from new Eastern European member states has increased both the public’s awareness and criticisms of the EU.
The Dutch public and their politicians still by and large agree that a small trading country such as the Netherlands needs international cooperation – and for a long time have looked to the USA and NATO as preferred partners for security and foreign matters, while European integration has been mostly considered useful for free trade. The continuing majority support for EU membership is therefore mainly pragmatic – political integration towards a European federal state with redistributive transfers meets with much more reluctance.
At present, only the progressive-liberal D66 and the Green Left (GroenLinks) favour European political integration, seeking a supranational EU that can effectively defend the common interests of its citizens. The Christian Democrats (CDA) and Social Democrats (PvdA) and the VVD are against political union and now pragmatically support European integration only insofar as it serves national interests – preferring a strict application of the principle of subsidiarity in which decisions are devolved as far as possible to member states. Nevertheless, CDA and PvdA adopt now a less critical, more positive tone than in 2009, even though they both face constituencies clearly divided on European integration.
Meanwhile, the orthodox-protestant Reformed Political Party (SGP) and ChristianUnion (CU) have pragmatically moderated their eurosceptic position over the past 30 years. Having said that, they still resist any move towards political union, prefer the EU to focus on its core tasks. They would also be in favour of forcing exit of weaker Eurozone countries. The main eurosceptic opposition is polarised between the Socialist Party (SP) who see the EU as too neo-liberal and undemocratic and the Freedom Party which demands a Dutch exit from the EU and commissioned a report, which makes the case for the economic benefits of such a “Nexit”. SP’s and PVV’s main supporters tend to be less educated voters, who are – as elsewhere in Europe – more ambivalent and reluctant about European integration than more highly educated voters.
A variety of online voting advice applications and some attention on public TV channels for the EP elections provide voters information about the choice they can make. Additionally, voters are concerned about the question of more or less European integration, and also more in particular about the Euro, asylum policy, EU interference in pensions, cross-border criminality, enlargement and the 3% budget rule.
Yet, the EP campaign is likely to remain a lacklustre affair. For a start, many people don’t even know there’s an election happening. Voters and parties have also just been through local elections in March (in which the governing VVD and PvdA lost considerably). And, the leading party candidates for the EP elections are rather unknown among the public.The turn-out is expected to be low. We’ll most likely see a pro-European majority returned to Brussels but the party political landscape is likely to be even more fragmented than it is already with the possible entry of the Animal Rights Party and the 50Plus party for the elderly into the European Parliament.