Thank goodness for The Netherlands!
Their March 15 vote for their House of Representatives was exactly what Europe needed at this point – the reassuring voice of a founding member of the European Community (EU) expressing its belief in Europe while being open to the world. The result was greeted with a sigh of relief by pro-Europeans. It was another sign — after the victory of the Green Party-backed Independents in the Austrian elections of December 2016 — that populism and rejection of Europe are not inescapable.
A brief look at history will help better understand the elections of The Netherlands and realize how coherent the Dutch position is. During its “Golden Age” in the 16th and 17th centuries, Holland was an opulent merchant class society marked by Calvinist ethics of discipline and frugality. It stood out as being tolerant toward religions and a place where liberty of conscience was inscribed in the constitution.
The founding of the Dutch East India Company opened a maritime and commercial empire, becoming a hub of finances and trade. The first ever stock exchange was created in Amsterdam. Erasmus (1466-1536), the humanist Renaissance scholar, gave his name to a most successful student exchange program established in 1987.
Someone described The Netherlands of that time as having high literacy and low interest. Rotterdam, until recently the largest port in the world, is still number one in Europe. What was tolerance has developed into permissiveness and it is one of the dominant traits of the Dutch people today. Finally, that small country, located well below the sea level, has shown incredible courage in carrying out its Pharaonic fight against the elements.
“The Netherlands is the country, which has the most to lose from the Brexit” says Marc-Olivier Padis, from the Terra Nova Think Tank. It shares with the UK an attachment to free trade policies and also to the unhindered circulation of goods and capital within the European Common Market. Holland’s agriculture, horticulture and dairy industry have always profited from Europe’s Political Agricultural Policy (PAC). The reason the Dutch voted “No” to the 2005 referendum on a European constitution was because they worried about the seemingly uncontrolled expansion of Europe, especially with Holland being the largest of the small countries in the continent.
The participation in the March 15 elections was incredibly high at 77.6 percent. The ballot system by proportional representation produces multiple parties. In order to be able to govern, any of the 28 parties has to join a coalition with others.
Here is a snapshot of the votes showing the changes since the 2012 elections. The winner was Mark Rutte (VVD), former prime minister, head of the conservative liberal centrist party with 21.3 percent votes and 33 seats. He lost eight seats. In second place, the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), led by Greet Wilders, obtained 13.1 percent and will have 20 seats. Two pro-European parties, Christian democrat Appeal (CDA) and centrist reformer (D66) won 19 seats each. Those two may share an alliance with Rutte.
Rutte said he would not join Wilders again, as he had done in 2012. The Labour party Social democrats (PVDA) collapsed going from 29 seats to only nine seats. The radical left also did not perform well. One notes two interesting developments: a young 30-year-old had a spectacular rise — Jesse Klaver has a Dutch-Indonesian mother and a father of Moroccan origin. His party, Groenlinks (GL) or green- left, will secure 14 seats.
A new party, Denk, meaning “think”, headed by Unahan Kuzu, received 2 percent of the votes and will have three seats. It is 100 percent Moslem.
Wilders, the “peroxide candidate,” leader of PPV, the only extremist party, gained five seats. He progressed but did not win. “We are the party, which did not lose,” he commented.” He is well-known for his outrageous attacks against Islam. He wants to outlaw the Koran , close all mosques and expel the Moslems. As a consequence, he is under constant threat.
For the past 13 years he has been living in a safe house with a “panic room,” is under police protection round the clock and rides in an armor-plated car. “I would not wish my life to anybody” A “buffer zone,” to use the expression of German journalist Michaela Wiegel, isolates Wilders in the parliament.
The Dutch elections took place at a time of high tension between Ankara and Europe. The Turkish minister of foreign affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu was about to land in Rotterdam as part of a political campaign among the Turkish diaspora of 2.8 million. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objective is to gather the Turkish population’s support prior to the April 16 constitutional referendum on his increased powers. After Erdogan called Holland the Nazi capital of the West and kept hurling other insults, Germany and Holland had the courage to forbid the Turkish officials from entering their territories. Rutte was very firm and impressed the voters scrambling during the last minutes before the polls.
Today Dutch economy is so healthy as to make its neighbors drool with envy with 6 percent unemployment and an economic growth rate of 2.1 percent. The government reacted quickly to the recent economic crises in 2008 and 2010-11. In 2012, it was even able to generate a trade surplus. Its rigorous austerity program was so efficient as to lower public expenses down from 65 to 45 percent. The reforms were not imposed on the people but accepted by them in a form of consensus.
The main issues at stake are not so much economic nor social but a fear of losing one’s cultural identity and also anxiety about security. Therefore immigration and the challenge of integration are at the core of the people’s concerns.
Holland is a multicultural society with a surge of a Turkish and Moroccan immigration — something which has occurred during the past 50 years. Half the population of Rotterdam consists of recent immigrants. The Dutch have been working hard at establishing good relations with these populations: 70 associations act as go-between; a minister from a reformed church in Rotterdam just gave a sermon in a mosque; Ahmed Aboutaleb, mayor of Rotterdam, is of Moroccan origin, and is strongly against the radicalization of Islam.
The Netherlands should be considered as a model for the other EU members. Unfortunately, many of their qualities are not to be found in other countries. It is hoped that the position and demands of the Dutch are heard in a restructuring of the EU, possibly to unfold in the next few months.
Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.
About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.