FIRST Brexit, then Trump. As the Dutch go to the polls today, the world watches with anxiety – will the Netherlands be next to fall into the grip of right-wing extremism?
In the leafy Dutch village I now call home, you’d never guess anything was happening, although we did abort a day out to Rotterdam on Saturday when it became the focus of tensions with Turkey. In the cities, official billboards are neatly pasted with all posters from 20 or so parties, and a fold-out leaflet arrived through the letterbox containing the names of all 900-odd candidates for our careful study.
The good news is that it’s not as bad as it looks. The polls have anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) on just 13 per cent and they will be locked out of any coalition. The bad news is that he has already succeeded in dragging mainstream Dutch politicians to the right.
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However, there’s good news for Nicola Sturgeon. The next Dutch government is all but guaranteed to include members who have promised to fight Scotland’s corner. Any coalition will almost certainly include the liberal pro-European party D66, whose manifesto states that: “If Scotland or Northern Ireland secedes and wants to remain in the European Union, D66 will look favourably upon their membership.”
Kees Verhoeven is D66’s member of parliament with responsibility for European affairs. “We’ve been following the post-Brexit developments in Scotland with great interest,” he told me. “We believe Scotland should be able to choose a different future from the one Theresa May is chasing.
“A European future, that is. Scotland should be able to remain a part of the single market, with or without the rest of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, Theresa May’s Brexit speech was crystal clear – the entire United Kingdom will have to leave the EU, including the single market. It is a pity she does not take the sensible position of those in Edinburgh into account.”
“Whether this Scottish voice should be independent, I leave to their voters. But the least that could be done in an attempt to maintain an actual United Kingdom is to listen to the voices within this Union. I will pressure the Dutch government and our European Parliament Brexit negotiator to have the Scottish voice heard.”
There’s also a real chance GroenLinks (GreenLeft), the rising stars of the progressive left, will, for the first time, be included in government. GreenLeft and the SNP both belong to the Greens-European Free Alliance grouping in the European Parliament, and the party is supportive of Scotland’s cause. “The Scots can be very proud of what they have achieved in the past years,” a GreenLeft spokesperson told me.
“Scotland is truly European and if there is no option to keep going in that direction in the EU, then we will, of course, support Scottish independence, and eventually reintegrating into the European realm.”
The Socialist Party is also rooting for Scotland. Its leader, Emile Roemer, confirmed, “Yes, if Scotland wishes to apply for membership after the Brexit, we will welcome its application. After all, Scotland is already part of the EU.”
The other parties are holding their cards closer to their chests. The Dutch parliament’s two official “Brexit rapporteurs”, from centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and New Labour-style junior coalition partner the PvdA, visited Edinburgh last month as part of a fact-finding mission to the UK and Ireland.
The CDA’s Pieter Omtzigt told me at the time: “In a few weeks our paper on Brexit will become public and parliament will then take a stance on all issues concerned, including the issue of Scotland.”
That paper is still being written, and Omtzigt and others refuse to be drawn.
Those two parties, along with Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s ruling conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), usually come out of elections on top, but time has seen their support fall away, while myriad smaller parties have risen up to meet them. The result is an even cluster of six competing parties across the political spectrum, all in the 15-25 seats range (out of a total 150), followed by a band of tiny parties hoping to play powerbroker.
The anti-establishment narrative which explains Trump and Brexit is, to some extent, playing out here too. Wilders refuses to play by the usual rules. His party’s election campaign resembles a bizarre electoral experiment.
The PVV manifesto consists of just one A4 sheet. He has pulled out of most televised debates with flimsy excuses including “because we don’t like it”, and made few public appearances for fear of assassination. Instead, he tweets furiously, Trump-style, bypassing traditional media outlets entirely.
The cosmopolitan, intellectual D66 has always been fiercely opposed to Wilders’ rhetoric, but as serious veterans of coalition government, the party are less attractive to young voters looking for a break from establishment politics. That mantle has been taken up with enthusiasm by GreenLeft, under the leadership of bright young star Jesse Klaver.
Taking a leaf out of Nicola Sturgeon’s book, the 30-year old part-Moroccan “Jessiah” has filled rock-concert venues to capacity for upbeat rallies celebrating the party’s vision of a socially just, pro-immigration and environmentally pioneering Netherlands. They’ve made the most of social media too, maximising their appeal to younger voters. They have just four seats in parliament at the moment, but some are daring to whisper that GreenLeft has the momentum to catapult Klaver all the way to the Prime Minister. Meanwhile, PM Rutte has indulged in borderline xenophobic rhetoric to try to claw voters back from Wilders, and he jumped at the perfectly-timed chance of an ill-tempered stand-off with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Rutte’s VVD look like they will edge it to remain the biggest party after today’s vote.
Every key party has explicitly ruled out a coalition with Wilders, but that suits Wilders fine – he can inflame his base support with a Twitter frenzy.
But whoever is crowned after tonight as the largest party will also win the dubious honour of being the smallest largest party ever. Negotiations will not be easy. With 150 seats in parliament, the magic number is 75. The arithmetic tells us that means at least four parties, maybe five, vying to be part of the government and getting them all to agree will take months. The VVD will most probably return to power, along with their traditional sidekicks, the CDA. The next obvious partner is the pro-Scottish D66, who have governed with both of them in numerous previous cabinets. That should add up to around 63 seats, if the polls are to be believed. After that, it gets interesting. The Labour Party (PvdA) would be a safe choice but, having seen their vote decimated after delivering the VVD’s austerity measures in coalition, they probably can’t get enough seats, unless the smaller Christian Union is brought in too. But could they justify leaving out two larger parties, the Socialists and GreenLeft? The Socialists have ruled out working with the VVD, but GreenLeft is prepared to cooperate if it absolutely must.
There’s an intriguing alternative if Rutte is squeezed out – a centre-left coalition of CDA, D66, GreenLeft, the Socialists and PvdA. Real change could be achieved. Wilders would be long-forgotten. And three openly pro-Scottish parties would be in power.