Nexit threat: EU warned Netherlands viewed bloc ‘with growing suspicion’

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The Netherlands heads to the polls on Wednesday, with Mark Rutte – leader of the centre-right People’s party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) – expected to claim victory, and a fourth term in office as prime minister. Polling has narrowed in recent weeks, however, with the anti-EU Freedom party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, closing the gap on Mr Rutte. Support for the PVV has grown, and Mr Wilders has insisted in his manifesto that he wants to hold a vote on his country’s EU membership.

In recent months euroscepticism has been on the rise throughout the bloc, particularly as member states grow critical of lawmakers in Brussels for its botched handling of the coronavirus vaccine rollout.

Nations such as the Czech Republic have been forced to ask other countries for help in gathering jabs, as slow manufacturing and infighting over vaccines divides the EU.

The divisions have not been helped as countries look towards the UK, which left the bloc last year, and see how its prospering now alone outside the EU.

Most notable, is how well the UK’s own vaccine drive is currently going.

And in the immediate aftermath of the UK voting to quit the EU to “take back control” of its laws, seas and trade, experts described the feeling within countries such as the Netherlands, and its views on Brussels.

Rem Korteweg, a senior research fellow at London’s Centre for European Reform, argued the Dutch had been growing wary of the bloc since the start of the millennium.

He wrote: “Since the early 2000s, the Netherlands’ image as a mainstream, no-nonsense partner has changed: the Dutch have started to view the EU with growing suspicion.

“EU enlargement in 2004 altered the union’s internal balance and member states’ voting weights. The Netherlands has less of a say than some of the newest members, yet it is one of the largest per-capita contributors to the EU budget.”

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Mr Korteweg, writing a piece for Carnegie Europe a year after the Brexit referendum, noted that while there were benefits in mutual trade under a larger bloc, more member states inside the EU “meant the Dutch voice became softer”.

This “proved particularly uncomfortable” for lawmakers in the Netherlands after member states agreed to hand over more powers to Brussels.

He also detailed how Dutch opposition to the EU had “hardened”, adding: “The rejection of the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine in a referendum in April 2016 underlined the image of the Netherlands as a country critical of the EU.

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“Today, support for EU membership hovers at around 40 percent, feeding speculation that the Netherlands could be next to leave the club after Britain voted to quit in June 2016.”

His comments mirrored other experts, who also examined how Dutch euroscepticism was bolstered after Brexit, and that the nation could follow its ally, the UK, away from Brussels.

Mr Wilders remains a staunch opponent of Brussels, and declared his enthusiasm for Brexit immediately after the vote was announced in 2016.

He wrote on his personal website after the Leave campaign’s win: “We want to be in charge of our own country, our own money, our own borders, and our own immigration policy.

“If I become prime minister, there will be a referendum in the Netherlands on leaving the European Union as well. Let the Dutch people decide.”

The Nexit predicament was assessed by University of Groningen researcher Simon Otjes, who wrote that the Brexit result “was quite a shock for the Dutch government”.

In a blog for the London School of Economics, he said: “The Liberal prime minister, Mark Rutte, has already expressed his displeasure at the vote.

“The reasons for this displeasure are obvious: the Dutch and the British share a common Atlantic orientation and a commitment to free trade.

“Therefore, the Dutch strongly favoured the entry of the UK into the European Economic Community in the Seventies to counterbalance the French and the Germans.”

He explained, like Mr Korteweg, the Dutch referendum of the same year could again have a bearing on whether the Netherlands eventually has a vote.

Mr Otjes added: “In this sense, the British referendum on EU membership may not be the end of a set of referendums on EU issues.

“After the success of the eurosceptic side in this referendum and the previous Dutch referendum on the Ukraine-EU treaty, the eurosceptic forces in the Netherlands are likely to use the tool more often to obstruct EU integration.”

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