Euro debt crisis top of mind as Dutch head to polls

As The Netherlands feel the pinch from austerity measures, Wednesday's Dutch parliamentary election will likely turn on the degree to which voters are willing to commit to the eurozone.

Michael Kooren/Reuters
Campaign posters are seen in front of the Dutch Parliament in The Hague September 11. Voting begins for the Dutch general election on Wednesday.

Martijn van Dam, a Dutch member of parliament for the pro-Europe Social Democrats party, has a simple reason for why the European common currency has to prevail. “The Netherlands is a small country. If we want to compete with China, India, the US, and Brazil, we will have to work together with other European states,” he said at a recent debate in Amsterdam.

But despite being one of the six founding countries of what is now the European Union, The Netherlands have become increasingly skeptical about the bloc and its currency as the eurocrisis has spread across Europe. Now, the Dutch parliamentary elections look set to be an unofficial referendum on the Netherlands' commitment to the future of European integration.

Dutch voters will go to the polls on Sept. 12 to elect a new parliament, five months after the collapse of the coalition government led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the center-right Liberal party. And while The Netherlands face an array of concerns, including rising unemployment (6.5 percent of the Dutch are now without a job) and increasing healthcare costs, it is the eurozone that is drawing the most attention in the campaign.

In fact, it is debate over the eurozone that led to the election in the first place. Mr. Rutte's government collapsed in April when coalition partner Geert Wilders of the right-wing populist Freedom Party withdrew his support to protest an austerity budget, necessitated by the euro debt crisis and pushed by the EU, that cut 14 billion euros in government spending and hiked taxes. Rutte was able to assemble enough opposition support to pass the budget without Freedom Party support.

But with the economic crisis, The Netherlands are feeling the pinch. Consumers are being more careful, opting to save instead of spend, and companies are increasingly shy of giving new employees a permanent contract. And as the Dutch tighten their own belts – and as southern European nations like Greece and Spain struggle to do the same – some have been having second thoughts about the wisdom of joining the euro.

“A single European currency should have been the crowning of European integration,” said Emile Roemer, leader of the left-wing Socialist Party, in an interview in Arnhem recently. “But the differences in culture and economy between the northern and southern member states are far too large,” said Mr. Roemer, who hopes to become prime minister.

But parliamentarian Jesse Klaver of the GreenLeft party, speaking at the same debate Mr. van Dam was attending in Amsterdam, pointed out that European integration has brought peace and stability to the continent. “I am a European,” he proudly said.

In a recent survey, 64 percent of the Dutch said that having the euro was “a good thing," and 28 percent called it “a bad thing.” Only three of the 17 member states of the eurozone were less positive about the euro.

Three weeks before election day, Dutch media portrayed the campaign as a horse race between current Prime Minister Rutte and Socialist leader Roemer. But after doing well in some of the television debates, Diederik Samsom, leader of the more moderate Labour party, is now said to be Rutte's main challenger.

But a survey showed that one week before election day more than four out of ten eligible voters were still undecided. A good performance on a television debate or a gaffe can quickly move several seats from one party to the other. The voters' fickleness in party preference is reflected in coalition stability. While an elected parliament normally has a four year mandate, the September 12 elections are the fifth in ten years.

But while The Netherlands' place in the eurozone is at the core of the election, it is not a question of "in or out." A Dutch exit from the European Union is highly unlikely, said political scientist Jean Tillie of the University of Amsterdam. He points out that because there is never one party in the Netherlands that gains a majority of votes, a coalition government is always needed. In 2010, ten different political parties were elected in the 150-seat parliament.

Only the Freedom Party, headed by Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders, advocates exiting the euro and a reintroduction of the guilder. All the other parties want the Netherlands to remain in the eurozone.

Thus, the question is to what degree The Netherlands commit. The Socialists and the Liberals are against further political integration. It is mostly the center parties like Labour, the Christian Democrats, and the Liberal Democrats that wish to centralize more power in Brussels. So whatever the election's outcome, an extreme new government is highly unlikely.

“If the opinion polls are right, then we maybe need four or five political parties for a majority in the Dutch parliament," Mr. Tillie said. "So there will always be a compromise and a more moderate policy.”

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