By Caspar van den Berg

After the British EU referendum, could the European Union erode further? In the days since the British vote, one country has been mentioned particularly often as the next possible exiteer – my own, the Netherlands.

Caspar van den Berg, Associate Professor at Leiden University
Caspar van den Berg, Associate Professor at Leiden University

Is it conceivable? Could it actually happen that the Netherlands, one of Europe’s founding Six, could decide to leave the European Union that it helped shape over more than six decades?

The constitutional and legal reality is that a Nexit following from a leave-vote in a referendum is presently not conceivable. According to Dutch law, a citizen-initiated referendum is only possible for new laws. In that case, 300.000 signatures need to be collected within two months after Parliament has adopted that new law. Longstanding international treaties such as those of the EU do not qualify.

A government-initiated referendum is also very unlikely given that there is only one political faction in the fragmented Dutch parliament that is in favour of a Nexit. This is Geert Wilders’ party, which is, like a good number of similar movement across Europe, populist as well as Europhobic. So institutional and party-political obstacles block the possibility of a referendum for the moment.

An anti-enlargement, anti-integration vote

However, the point is not so much about institutions or party politics. The point is that if the Dutch electorate would be asked if they wanted to leave the EU, what would the majority vote? My honest answer is the following: if there was a referendum called here tomorrow, I would be very worried. I would be just as worried as I was over the British referendum.

In Geert Wilders, we have a very gifted populist. Yes, his party is nowhere near gaining a majority in our parliament. But there is relatively wide euro-scepsis among the supporters of other parties, too, for instance on the far left. Public opinion in general is not particularly enthusiastic about the EU: Both the Eurobarometer and the European Social Survey show an increasing trend in anti-EU sentiments.

In a heated campaign – such as the one we saw in the UK – this could realistically yield a victory for the leave-camp. The Netherlands has been famous for its high electoral volatility in every general election since 2002.

Excruciating consequences

Just look at the referendum on the EU-Ukraine association agreement in early April. More than 60 percent of the voters who took part opted for “No”. They didn’t really choose to vote on the details of a lengthy trade and partnership accord. They used their “No” to demonstrate their opposition to any further EU enlargement as well as to any further integration within the existing Union.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all of these people would actually want the Netherlands to leave the EU. The Ukraine referendum was a completely safe and painless way to show disagreement with Europe. As we are now seeing with Britain, the cost of a real anti-EU decision is significant.

For the Netherlands, the consequences of leaving the EU would be even more excruciating than for the Brits. This is a small country on the continent, with a miniature domestic market, highly dependent on trade, services and logistics to and from its hinterland (Rotterdam is Europe’s biggest port and Schiphol one of its major airports). Exiting from the euro would also create enormous and costly uncertainties.

Enough cause for worry

On the other hand, many British leave-voters said afterwards that they did not want the UK to actually leave the EU, but simply wanted to give a signal to Westminster that “we’ve had enough”. The British referendum has shown us that in a popular vote, it’s not just the economic perspective that matters. The British voted “Leave” because of national pride, a sense of nostalgia and a desire to shake off a rule that was seen as foreign and interfering. Citizens have come to evaluate European integration in terms of what they believe it means for immigration, national identity and the crumbling welfare state, not in terms of is economic effects.

The Dutch aren’t as utilitarian in their approach to European Union as the British. But neither are they as idealistic as for instance the Germans, who for historic reasons tend to see Europe in terms of a greater good. Disenchantment with how the EU has developed has spread to a lot of people here. In short: it is a good thing that we have institutional and party-political barriers that for the moment prevent a referendum. Without them I would be very worried.

Caspar van den Berg is Associate Professor for International Governance at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He is also alumnus of United Europe’s Young Professionals Seminars.

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