The Dutch opt for centre-right reliability over populism

Like elsewhere in Europe, the leftist camp in the Netherlands is struggling to grow.

The Netherlands has voted – and no one really expected the result. The centre-right liberal party VVD of Prime Minister Mark Rutte achieved its best score ever (26.5 per cent) and is set to lead the next government. The social democratic PvdA under its young and dynamic leader Diederik Samsom came a close second (24.7 per cent) and defied all negative predictions. A grand coalition between the two election winners seems most likely: together, they could form a comfortable parliamentary majority of 80 out of 150 seats. And if deemed insufficient, the third winner of the night, the centre-left social-liberal D66 (7.9 per cent), looks willing to join. All three parties are committed to the European project; all three defend Dutch openness and a tolerant society. Despite significant differences in socio-economic questions, a reliable platform for cooperation is perfectly within reach.

The election losers are no less difficult to discern: both Rutte’s partner, the Christian democratic CDA, which slumped to one of its worst result ever, and Geert Wilders’ xenophobic Freedom party PVV, which supported the government from the margins, lost some five per cent of their electoral share and ultimately paid the price for the collapse of the coalition. As such, they both confirmed and defied a powerful trend in recent European elections: yet another government was voted out of office in the face of the eurozone crisis.

Indeed, 17 incumbent governments have now been angrily removed from office since the Greek crisis in May 2010. At the same time the Dutch have offered their Prime Minister (not his coalition) a second mandate. In this sense, Mark Rutte joins a small group of centre-right politicians who have survived and won back-to-back elections in the crisis era: Frederik Reinfeld in Sweden; Donald Tusk in Poland; and Andrus Ansip in Estonia.

At first glance, the Dutch result seems telling: Wilder’s extreme right and the far-left Socialist Party, which stagnated at around 10 per cent after predictions that it could compete for the top spot, wanted the elections to be a referendum on Europe. Both parties voted against any of the Eurozone rescue measures and are fiercely critical of the kind of deeper integration envisaged by EU leaders. But the hope of capitalising on widespread disillusion, if not anger, with the European project turned out to be misguided. The Dutch electorate rejected populism and opted for reliability instead.

According to Erik van Bruggen, a campaign insider, polarising narrowly around the EU question has been a strategic mistake. Faced with serious social and economic challenges, the Netherlands had to choose between different paths of reforms. Both the Liberals and the PvdA understood this choice and presented sharp alternatives. Against it, Wilders’ Freedom Party and the far Left remained stuck in a fight many were just tired of.

The consequence was a late surge in strategic and tactical voting. Polls in the run up to the election could not possibly predict the huge swing driven by a high number of undecided voters. Rutte skilfully occupied the centre stage on the right, arguing for tax cuts and market liberalisation to revive the economy. Samsom’s PvdA managed to regain the hegemony on the centre-left by offering voters a vision of social and ecological renewal without compromising on economic credibility, for instance on budget deficit limits. In the end, it was a two horse race. Each side tried to push their leader over the line first. In a political system ridden by fragmentation and polarisation, the strengthening of the mainstream and a moderate shift to bipolarity has been the actual revelation.

None of this, however, can obscure another truth: for all the talk about resentment towards financial capitalism and enragement with collective austerity, this was yet another election where the centre-left could not win. To be sure, the PvdA staged a remarkable comeback and achieved its best result for over a decade. But even this wasn’t enough. The last victory goes back to 1998, when the reformist Wim Kok championed the modernisation of the Polder Model. More worryingly, yesterday’s PvdA gains came largely at the expense of GroenLinks, a natural ally on the centre-left. The leftist camp thus struggles to grow. A problem the Dutch share with many of their European counterparts.

Olaf Cramme is director of Policy Network. Find him on Twitter as @olafcramme

Mark Rutte's centre-right liberal party achieved its best score ever. Photograph: Getty Images
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.