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Home Opinion No going back to business as usual
Brexit - The Netherlands

No going back to business as usual

Michiel van Hulten - 30 June 2016

The manner in which the EU handles Brexit and its fallout could end up deciding the fate of Dutch membership

When I graduated from secondary school in 1987, I chose London as the place to pursue my university studies. As a vibrant, cosmopolitan city London had much to offer. The London School of Economics had a solid academic reputation, and its student body was a good mix of home and international students. Plus, thanks to the anti-discrimination principles enshrined in EU law, it was free of charge. I wasn’t alone; thousands of young Europeans found the lure of a strong academic tradition and affordable studies in an exciting environment too much to resist. Many stayed in the UK and became important contributors to its economy and society. Others, like me, went back home and became everyday ambassadors for the UK. There is no other EU member state I feel more affinity with, and that was even before I married a Brit.

As someone who has followed UK politics closely for over 30 years, I was not surprised by last week’s narrow vote to quit the EU. But it still came as a big shock – to me personally, and to the Dutch. Germany may be our biggest trading partner and France our most popular holiday destination, but in political and cultural terms we’re Brits.

There are few countries in the world where the economic consequences of Brexit will be felt more keenly than the Netherlands, which, according to a recent report by consultancy firm Global Counsel, is the EU member state most exposed to Brexit in terms of trade, investment and financial links. But the political impact could be even greater.

Over the last two decades the Netherlands has grown increasingly Eurosceptic. In 2005 the European constitution was resoundingly rejected in a referendum. In April of this year the Dutch voted against the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine. Geert Wilders' far-right Freedom party, which wants to take the Netherlands out of the EU, is leading in the polls, ahead of a general election due to be held in March next year. The far-left Socialist party says it wants a referendum on reducing the powers of the EU, including “abolishing the European commission”.

Already anti-EU politicians are calling for the Netherlands to follow suit with a referendum on a Dutch exit from the EU, a so-called Nexit. According to a poll carried out straight after last week's Brexit vote by peil.nl, 47 per cent of Dutch support holding a referendum and 43 per cent would vote in favour of leaving the EU.

That may well turn out the be the high water mark of Nexit support for some time to come. If, as expected, the negative domestic economic consequences of Brexit continue to dominate the news and the Dutch economy also begins to feel the effects (for instance, shares in leading bank ABN Amro were down 13 per cent on Monday, before recovering slightly on Tuesday), the cautious and calculating Dutch are likely to grow more sceptical of any moves that could put their economic and financial security further at risk.

But while there is little support for Nexit, the Dutch parliament said this week the Brexit vote should act as a “wake-up call” for the EU. The government has made it clear it is in no hurry for the Brexit negotiations to begin. Pro-EU forces in the Netherlands are acutely aware that the manner in which the EU handles Brexit and its fallout could end up deciding the fate of Dutch membership as well. Prime Minister Rutte, a Liberal, said “more integration is not the answer”. Many progressives will disagree with such a sweeping generalisation. In many policy areas meaningful results can be achieved only by working even more closely together. But following last week’s dramatic vote, there is no going back to business as usual.

Michiel van Hulten is a Brussels-based analyst and independent consultant. He is a former chair of the Dutch Labour party and a former MEP


This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The Future of the EU.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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