international analysis and commentary

The EU elections in the Netherlands, looking for a winner

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“We have won the European elections!” This was the predominant sentiment on June 6, 2024 among almost all political parties in the Netherlands, which was the first EU member state to vote in the European elections. The electoral combination GroenLinks-PvdA ‘won’ the elections by achieving eight seats, but the radical right-wing PVV led by Geert Wilders also won. This party went from one to seven seats. Other parties won slightly or held on, presenting themselves as the big winners as well. Celebrations were held in almost every party headquarters. However, did they really win?

To understand what happened in the Netherlands, ones must look into the parliamentary elections of November 22, 2023. The PVV achieved a huge victory. Another newcomer, the New Social Contract party (NSC) arrived with 20 seats in the 150-seat parliament. The farmers’ party BBB was also a big winner. Together with the right-wing conservative liberal VVD these parties have formed a right-wing government, which will soon be sworn in by King Willem-Alexander.

The other winner of the November election was GroenLinks-PvdA, a combination of the green and social democratic parties, headed by former European Commissioner Frans Timmermans. He left Brussels to win the elections and become the new Prime Minister of the Netherlands. That turned out differently. The veteran won seats but fell nine short of forming the largest party in the country. The unwritten rule is that the biggest party in parliament also supplies the prime minister. Ever since November, Timmermans has been struggling into his new role: leader of the opposition.

Frans Timmermans

 

Back to the June 2024 European elections. As in Italy, the European elections are always biased in the Netherlands as far fewer citizens are motivated to cast their vote for the European parliament than for their national one. Those who do vote are often higher educated, live in more agricultural areas or are predominantly senior citizens. Progressive Dutch voters are also more likely to vote in European elections than right-wing voters. Europe just motivates them. Nevertheless, this produces a distorted picture, both in terms of turnout (which was 46.8%) and in the results.

With eight of the 31 Dutch EP-seats, the red-green party combination may call itself the winner of the elections. In reality, this is an illusion. Back in 2019, the green party (GroenLinks) won three seats and the social democratic party (PvdA) took five. In that sense, the combination of these two parties has the same number of seats as five years ago. The CDA – the Christian democratic party – lost slightly to newcomers such as BBB and NSC, but still managed to maintain itself and spoke of ‘gains’. The left-liberal D66 won an additional seat and also celebrated during the evening.

The real winner was none other than Geert Wilders. Five years ago, his PVV even disappeared from the European Parliament, but due to Brexit, the number of Dutch seats was gradually expanded slightly and the party still gained one residual seat. The fact that the party ended up with six instead of seven seats in the final election results, however, does not change the situation. Timmermans celebrated his ‘victory’ in any case. It is correct numerically, but in reality there is only one in the Netherlands who can be the biggest winner, which is Geert Wilders.

Right-wing voters gave Wilders support for the upcoming right-wing cabinet. After the November 22nd elections, a difficult and messy formation of the new cabinet began. Under pressure from NSC leader Pieter Omtzigt, Wilders promised that he would respect the democratic institutions and that he would not become the next prime minister. Furthermore, a so-called ‘extra-parliamentary cabinet’ was created, with a short coalition agreement paper. In this way, parliament will have more power, according to Omtzigt.

Geert Wilders

 

The four parties presented their agreement in May. Some points: The Netherlands will have the strictest migration policy ever and due to financial setbacks, the government has to make cuts again. This Dutch tradition of austerity has existed since the early 1980s and has been enforced again by the right-wing liberal VVD. In particular, an increase in VAT on books and cultural products such as museums from a low rate (6%) to the normal rate (21%) received a lot of criticism from left-wing parties and groups. There was no protest against the fact that €2.4 billion will be cut from the Department of Development Aid.

The Dutch European election results are in line with those in other European countries, where right-wing radical parties won. Migration is the issue these voters worry about most. With the exception of the Danish Social Democrats, the left-wing parties in Europe do not seem to have their own answer to the migration crisis, which almost automatically drives voters who are concerned about the issue into the hands of anti-migration parties such as the PVV, the French Rassemblement National, the Austrian FPÖ or the German Alternative für Deutschland.

The lesson of these European elections is that left-wing parties must come out of their bubble and think carefully about a new, realistic and unique voice on the migration issue. For the time being, this will remain a major theme in Europe. If the left-wing parties do not come up with their own story on migration, the right will continue to win elections. The price of controlling migration will be high: fewer opportunities and more socio-economic problems for citizens with lower incomes. In the long term, this may cause new social unrest and new dissatisfaction.