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European show will go on

European show will go on

Why some Dutch want the Brits out 

by Roel Janssen in Amsterdam

Wed 18 May 2016

The Netherlands has always been strongly in favour of British membership of the European Union and (before) the European Community. Though on many issues – the euro, refugees, defence – the Dutch work more closely with neighbouring Germany, Britain is considered an indispensable counterweight to balance Germany and France.

The UK is the Netherlands’ second largest trading partner after Germany – accounting for almost 4% of Dutch exports, providing about 300,000 jobs. No wonder the Netherlands employers association says, ‘Brexit will produce only losers.’

The Dutch see themseves as a bridge between the UK and the Continent. According to Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, who holds the six-month EU presidency, ‘For the Netherlands, UK membership remains vital, because the UK is one of the few EU countries which is market- and growth-orientated – and we need that outlook.’

Others see things differently. Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-EU, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim party PVV, advocates UK exit: ‘Brexit would create enormous incentives for others to follow.’ At the other end of the spectrum, some pro-European Dutch also want the British to leave – to pave the way for more European integration, even though they know this would be an uphill struggle.

Euroscepticism is relatively new in the Netherlands. In 2005, the Dutch voted No to the European constititution. Last month, in another referendum, the Netherlands rejected the EU association treaty with Ukraine, showing deep misgivings about Brussels among much of the population.

Encouraged by the Ukraine result, Dutch eurosceptics are already envisaging a ‘Nexit’ referendum if Brexit takes place. ‘If the Brits decide to leave, this will be a seismic shock, also for the Netherlands,’ a former Dutch ambassador to the EU warns.

Rutte, leader of the conservative VVD, considers himself a friend of David Cameron, the UK prime minister. He helped broker the February deal with Cameron on Britain's EU membership demands. A lot of these overlap with Dutch interests. The government and opposition in The Hague broadly support subsidiarity, strengthening the role of national parliaments, restricted access for EU migrants to social benefits and limits on the centralisation of EU power in Brussels.

On the contentious issue of ‘ever closer union’ Rutte has used the famous Monty Python phrase to term it ‘a dead parrot’. Rutte has suggested that, if Britain leaves, the EU should implement for all other EU members the results negotiated with Cameron. All the same, Rutte says Brexit would hurt the Brits themselves. ‘If the UK decides to leave, Britain will turn into a medium-sized economy in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, playing a much smaller role on the world stage.’

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Dutch finance minister and chairman of the eurogroup of finance ministers, predicts Dutch companies could move their headquarters from Britain to the Netherlands if the UK leaves. Banking group ING has announced it will pull back some London staff to Amsterdam if that happens.

Many pro-European Dutch follow the UK debate with growing resignation. ‘Let’s get it over with, let them leave, and see what happens.’ They see Brexit as showing eurosceptics from the Netherlands and elswhere the serious consequences of leaving the EU, even for a major country. Liberation from the British could catalyse the rest of Europe.

Many Dutch are fed up with Britain’s perennial scepticism and self-righteousness. The UK’s permanent opt-out from fundamental policies like Schengen and the euro, and blockage of progress on financial regulation and other contentious issues, are sources of irritation.

If Britain says No, this could prompt the EU to accelerate further integration with a European ‘coalition of the willing’. The day after Brexit, Rutte will undoubtedly emphasise that the European show will go on – without the Brits.

Roel Janssen has covered economic and financial affairs, fiscal policies and the euro for NRC Handelsblad, a leading Dutch daily newspaper, for more than 30 years. This is No.60 in the series – the 100th article will appear on 23 June.

OMFIF’s series on the UK EU referendum presents a wide variety of perspectives from Britain and around the world ahead of the 23 June poll. We are assuring a balance between many different points of view, in line with OMFIF’s overall neutral stance on the issue.

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