Dutch vote to test EU popularity in tough times
By Raf Casert and Mike Corder, AP, Sep 9, 2012
BOXMEER, Netherlands (AP)—The Netherlands has long been a source of inspiration for closer European integration—and a bellwether of European discontent.
It was one of six nations that forged fledgling European unity from the ashes of World War II, and a force behind the treaty that created the euro currency. Yet, along with France, it also put itself at the vanguard of the euro-skeptic tide by rejecting a proposed European constitution in a referendum.
As the nation heads into elections on Wednesday, observers are wondering which of the two Netherlands will emerge: the EU guiding light or the harbinger of European disarray.
The answer could be an indication of the very direction of Europe.
“Every Dutch election has been at the forefront of what is the mood everywhere in Europe,” says political analyst Piotr Maciej Kaczynski of the Center for European Policy studies.
In 2005, Dutch voters deepened a major continental crisis by rejecting a historic EU constitution just three days after the French gave their historic “Non”—effectively killing the charter. In the upcoming elections, the Dutch are pondering even greater existential questions for Europe—whether to stick with the union and its currency or try to fix both from the inside.
Not surprisingly, the most extreme view—ditch the European Union—comes from firebrand populist Geert Wilders, who first rose to prominence with strident anti-Islam rhetoric that resonated across Europe. At the other end of the spectrum is outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte, a staunch believer in EU integration who also hews closely to the hardline budgetary conservatism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In between are a slew of euro-skeptic parties that are also nonetheless conscious of the bloc’s importance to the Netherlands, a nation whose economy is built on exports.
The Netherlands and an expanding EU were long a perfect match for this centuries-old trading nation.
In the wake of World War II and ensuing hunger, Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch farmer who became the fourth president of the European commission, formed a vision of a united Europe in which nations would work together to stave off famine. He was the architect of a common European farm policy that eventually evolved into deeper economic union.
The Dutch government also was one of the driving forces behind the 1993 treaty that ushered in monetary union and, eventually, the euro currency. The treaty was signed in the picturesque southern Dutch city of Maastricht and still bears its name.
But the 2005 “No” vote on the EU constitution and anti-EU resentments that have deepened ever since show the Netherlands now to be possibly at the forefront of a continental tipping point.
Certainly, the generosity that once accompanied the EU’s expansion into poorer nations has largely evaporated.
And the way the Dutch vote on Wednesday will be parsed for potential insights into the outcome of elections next year in a much more important rich northern European country: Germany.