Dutch go to polls with repercussions for the rest of the EU
by Francesco Guarascio
The uncertainty hovering over the eurozone will be reflected in tomorrow's Dutch elections when a divided country will choose a new government in a vote prominently focussed on how to deal with the single currency crisis, PublicServiceEurope.com reports from Maastricht
The legendary Dutch thriftiness reached new limits when Dutch tourists refused to pay their bill in a Greek restaurant a few months ago. "We have already paid with bail-out money," they told a dazed Greek waiter, according to media reports. Not many Dutch would have the stomach for such a patronising stance, but most of them share the fundamental thinking behind this gesture. The Dutch feel they are throwing their money away to profligate and lazy Greeks - without considering any other southern nationalities potentially in need of future help. Most of the people in the Netherlands are opposed to the idea of paying for new bailouts.
This sentiment has been initially well captured by the leader of a rapidly expanding Socialist Party, Emile Roemer. To avoid cuts to the Dutch budget, he has openly spoken against new bail-outs. He went as far as opposing the tighter fiscal discipline imposed by the European Commission - despite the fact that the new draconian policies have been pushed forward upon request by the Germans with crucial support from the Dutch, the Finns and other northern countries.
Roemer's party has even hinted at a return to the guilder, the traditional Dutch currency which preceded the euro. "Europe has often been a problem rather than a solution, we need more debate about the role of the euro, changes are needed," says Sherko Kamal, a militant of the Socialist Party, campaigning at his party elections stand in the market square in Maastricht.
It may sound paradoxical that the party that emerges as the election winner campaigns against the euro in the very city where the euro was born with the signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. It should not, however, come as a surprise. Even more moderate sections of the Dutch electorate are now sceptical about the euro. "Since the euro came into circulation, prices have gone up, life is more expensive," says Trudy Kamphuis, a hotel manager and former financial planner at the Dutch bank ING. She has not yet decided how to vote but certainly not for the Socialists, she says - adding: "They would lead the country into bankruptcy".
However, one critical view about the euro should not be confused with nationwide rejection. "Going back to the guilder would make no sense, it would be too expensive a process," adds Kamphuis. The latest Eurobarometer poll about the perception of the common currency confirms this trend. When data was collected last spring, 73 per cent of the Dutch declared themselves in favour of the euro - well above the Germans at 65 per cent and the French with 69 per cent and slightly less than the Greeks at 75 per cent.
The anti-bailout mood, which is widespread in the country, should also be viewed through this more cautious lens. "There is a limit to the money we can give to the Greeks but we should keep helping Greece even with more money if it is needed - this would ultimately help our companies which trade with Greece," says Ursula Garnier, a representative in the Maastricht City Council for the Labour Party. Her party positions itself on the left of the political spectrum but it is more moderate than the Socialist Party. The last government led by the Liberals by Mark Rutte was supported by the Labour. But this alliance seems now to be creaking. "I would prefer to work with the Socialists," Garnier admits.
Labour has made an impressive climb in the opinion polls in recent weeks, after their charismatic leader Diederik Samsom performed well in televised debates. Some of this support has instead been lost by Roemer because of his poor TV performances. The latest polls suggest that the Liberals and Labour are neck and neck to win the election, with the Socialists finishing third. An alliance between the Socialists and Labour seems more natural but is also less likely, as the two parties are divided on key issues – especially on how to deal with the euro crisis.
A repeat of the alliance between the Liberals and Labour is another possible outcome, but it will require long negotiations. It is easier to shape a partnership when the power relationship is clear, but will be more difficult between two equal partners. In any case, the coalition which will run the country will need be composed by more than two parties since the electorate is divided between more than a dozen factions.
"It is very difficult to foresee the final result because Dutch voters usually switch their preference between two or three parties, many voters will decide last minute," says André Krouwel, of Amsterdam University. The uncertainty dominating the Dutch elections is a valuable representation of the polarised public opinion in the eurozone. Footing the bills of countries in need, or going for a break-up of the eurozone is an option under consideration in many European Union capital cities despite official statements about the irreversibility of the euro.
A core country of the EU, one of the six original members, the Netherlands has often anticipated European trends. In 2005, the Dutch were the first to reject the European Constitution, de facto killing the ambitious project. The extreme right emerged initially in Holland and spread later to the entire continent. Now the support of Geert Wilders, the leader of the extreme right, is in freefall. If this trend were to be exported to other European countries, it would be good news.
But the most evident similarity between the Dutch and the rest of the eurozone remains uncertainty about the future. As with most Europeans, the Dutch have little certainty about their immediate outlook. Reversing this trend would be a huge achievement and a positive omen for Europe, but the fragmentation of the electorate and the predictable long period of negotiations to form a coalition government do not seem to leave much room for hope.
Should voting be compulsory for young people?
First-time voters in the UK should be required to cast a ballot by law – and fined if they do not – in order to inculcate a lifetime habit of taking part in elections and boost overall turnout, writes Guy Lodge