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Mar 28, 2013 | 14:26 GMT

In the Netherlands, Challenges to Future EU Integration

FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

A Dutch group's campaign for a referendum on the Netherlands' relationship with the European Union highlights the discomfort in core EU countries over the course of integration in the union. Euroskepticism is not new in the Netherlands, but a deepening of the crisis domestically as well as growing supervision from Brussels will likely exacerbate it. The Netherlands is a trade-dependent country at Europe's core, meaning the Dutch government has to balance opposition to political integration with the country's strategic interest in continued European economic integration.

On March 26, a group called the Citizens' Forum presented a petition bearing more than 56,000 signatures — far more than the 40,000 needed for consideration — to the Dutch parliament demanding a referendum addressing the Netherlands' participation in efforts at political integration among EU countries. After a parliamentary commission confirms the validity of the signatures, the lower chamber of parliament has to decide whether a referendum should be held or not.

Euroskeptics

Citizens' Forum, a group of about a dozen citizens, most of them in academia, launched their campaign in the weeks after British Prime Minister David Cameron announced in January that he would organize a referendum after elections in 2015 on the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union. Cameron said his government would seek to reclaim power from the European Union, and that if the United Kingdom fails to renegotiate its position in Europe, a referendum on EU membership could be held.

The Citizens' Forum initiative does not yet go that far. The group claims that Dutch citizens should be consulted via referendum before their country is forced into deeper EU integration. The group supports the European Union as a trade union, but it specifically opposes deeper political integration. The group sees current plans for political integration as being led by Europe's elite and criticizes the European Union's lack of democratic legitimacy. Group members also criticize Brussels' growing interference on budget, tax and migration policy. Critics claim Citizens' Forum actually wants the Netherlands to leave the European Union but that it shies away from that claim so that it does not lose public support.

Considering the current weakness of Euroskeptic forces in parliament, the current initiative will probably not receive support from that political body. However, the group that launched the campaign plans to collect 300,000 signatures, which under a law expected to be passed soon will be sufficient to trigger a non-binding referendum.

Euroskepticism has long been a feature of Dutch politics. In a 2005 referendum, the Dutch rejected the proposed EU constitution, highlighting their opposition to deeper political union. The Dutch are reluctant to give up sovereignty and, like other small EU countries, fear being dominated by larger powers France and Germany. Furthermore, as a wealthy northern economy, the Netherlands fears being locked into a system where it constantly has to support the south. Over the past few years the Dutch government has been one of the strongest supporters of German demands for austerity in the periphery.

It remains to be seen whether Citizens' Forum becomes an actual political party. In the Netherlands, the leftist Socialist Party and the right-wing Party for Freedom have long carried the banner of Euroskepticism, and these parties supported the recent call for a referendum. The socialists mainly oppose the centralization of budget policy, while the Party for Freedom — and especially its leader, Geert Wilders — have received ample media attention in recent years for stringent anti-immigration rhetoric and, more recently, for calling for the Netherlands to the leave the eurozone. Despite strong results in pre-election polls, both parties lost support in the 2012 parliamentary elections, thus weakening the Euroskeptic voice in the Dutch parliament.

While the government does not support the current initiative for a referendum, it has made clear it concurs with London that the European Union needs to be reformed in a way that strengthens its democratic legitimacy. The government would likely support a referendum in the case of EU treaty changes. A poll in early March commissioned by Citizens' Forum but conducted by respected pollster Maurice de Hond showed that more than two-thirds of respondents would want a say in case of EU treaty changes. It also showed that they oppose further delegation of sovereign powers.

Strategic Value

However, the government wants to avoid a referendum addressing the Netherlands' membership in the European Union. This is because European integration is of strategic importance to the Netherlands.

The economic prosperity of the Netherlands — a founding member of the European Union and a country at the core of Europe — depends in large part on trade and on economic integration with other countries. Indeed, the Dutch are largely pro-European. This also explains why the country has participated in bailouts despite Dutch criticism of the practice.

But a deepening of the crisis in the Netherlands and plans to further integrate the EU politically could fuel Euroskepticism in the country. Compared to other EU countries, unemployment in the Netherlands is still low, though it has increased gradually since mid-2011. According to Eurostat, the unemployment rate stood at 6.2 percent in February — the highest rate in more than 15 years. The Dutch economy is in recession, and the government is struggling to implement austerity measures to meet the deficit target — 3 percent of gross domestic product — demanded by the European Union. The Netherlands and France are expected to breach that limit this year.

The EU elite are pursuing fiscal and political integration as a way to overcome the eurozone's crisis. However, as the recent push for a referendum in the Netherlands indicates, governments likely will find themselves increasingly constrained by the European Union's perceived lack of democratic legitimacy and by popular opposition to the plans.

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