Analysis of EU positions of Dutch political parties

Members of the election debate of 5 March, 2017; 10 days before the general elections. Source: NRC.nl

With the Dutch elections days away, I decided to do a quick scan of the party programmes of 13 political parties that are running in the national elections for the Tweede Kamer (similar it to the House of Commons in the UK or the House of Representatives in the US, and hereafter called Second Chamber), to see what their positions are with regards to the European Union. In most cases that does not simply mean a yes or a no as to whether the Netherlands should be in the European Union. The notable example is the far-right PVV, who would have prefer to leave the EU rather today than tomorrow, and is also the largest party in the polls, at time of writing at least. The parties analysed below are: 50+, CDA, CU, DENK, D66, GL, PVV, PvdA, PvdD, SGP, VNL and VVD.

But before we have a look at how the different parties view the EU, let’s point out two small things about the Dutch elections, and the formation process, to put the relevance of a vote into perspective:

  • The parliamentary representation is completely proportional and the Second Chamber has a 150 seats. This means that if a party gets 0.67% of the votes, it will get them 1 seat.
  • It is a general rule that the largest party in the Netherlands gets the first chance at forming a government coalition. In the recent past, there has not been a single majority rule in the Netherlands, and coalitions often contain rather 3 or 4 parties; the current cabinet of 2 is rather an exception.

What will follow is an analysis of the key EU positions of the 13 parties, roughly going from the most Eurosceptic parties and ending with the most Europhile. Here I would point out that this logic needs to be taken with a couple of grains of salt; the categorisation of parties according to their degree of Euroscepticism is far from straightforward and has been the topic of much debate in the academic sphere, with the introduction of numerous topologies, all with their strengths and weaknesses. To date, there is no widely accepted and commonly used definition of Euroscepticism. Having said that, after going over the list of the most interesting positions of parties concerning the EU, we will use a categorisation that is widely used by Dutch scholars.

Party positions on EU, roughly from least to most support

Firstly, the only party in the Netherlands which can expect a fair share of representation in parliament and is openly in favour of the Netherlands leaving the Europe Union is the PVV. It has a one-pages party manifesto — on their website this is still the only election programme, but is still a concept programme. All the other parties prefer some degree of EU cooperation. VoorNederland (VNL — For Netherlands) is the second most Eurosceptic, coming close to an EU exit. The VNL does not want to leave the EU, but wants a major transfer of competences back to the national governments, and prefers a purely economic relation (the PVV mentioned this in their 2012 programme as well). The 50+ party is the third party which is against deeper integration. 50+ wants to stop the enlargement process, not adding the ‘for now’ part like many other parties do; though they recognise the need for cooperation on an EU level on issues like the migration issue, border protection, energy and economic affairs.

The two conservative Christian parties CU (Christian Union) and SGP (Reformed Political Party) are also Eurocritical, though to different degrees. They both embrace transfers of competences back to the national governments and the need for a 2/3 majority in parliament in case an issue would be tabled to become an EU competence. Furthermore, both the CU and SGP would be in favour of preparatory work to be done in case of an EU, and/or Euro exit. However, the SGP is more in favour of a deeper domesticisation of policies, being the only party seemingly against EU level border protection and wanting to maintain the Common Agricultural Policy’s budget at the same high rate it is now. The SGP is also clearly against further enlargement and doesn’t want an EU army, instead wanting for more clarity on the purpose, content and boundaries of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. The key goal of the CFSP should be the stability of Europe. Lastly, the EU needs radical reforms where cooperation in the EU should be simplified and made more flexible. The Christian Union states in its programme that there a frustration of an unstoppable EU that does not let go of issues. It also wants to increase the role of the national parliaments but not extend the competences of the European Parliament (EP), is very restrained about further enlargement, though posits that Turkey wouldn’t have a place in the EU. Nevertheless, the CU clearly sees the need for cooperation in tackling energy issues, climate change, the migration crisis, international crime and terrorism, and believes that safety, border protection and economic stability need a common approach, thus supports a deep regulation of the financial markets and a Banking Union.

Another party with a rather Eurocritical agenda is the PvdD (the Party for Animals, calling them the Animal Party sounds weird). The PvdD is against deeper financial regulation on the EU level and does not want a Banking Union, and does not support trade deals like the EU-US and EU-Canada trade deals (called TTIP and CETA, respectively) without the incorporation of clauses on environmental protection, animal well being, food safety, human rights, privacy and employment possibilities for the poor. The party also supports the development of Euro exit scenarios in dealing with the financial crisis and wants to reconsider the current economic (monetary and financial) system of the EU, by democratising it. It also wants to stop further transfers of competences to the EU, using referendums when a transfer is tabled. At the same time, it seeks cooperation, like a common approach to the migration issues and tackling climate change, plus would like an EU level programme to tackle tax evasion and restrict arms exports to countries with poor human rights records. They are the only party, together with the PVV, to not refer to the enlargement process at all.

Next up is the Socialist Party (SP). According to this party, the EU undermines democracy, and there is a strong need to make the voice of citizens better heard. This translates into an increased role of the national parliaments, an end to the European Commission’s political function, and a halt to the transfer of competences to the EP. The focus should be on cooperation to tackle international crime, climate issues and reform the Stability and Growth Pact. They do not support the TTIP and CETA, but emphasise fair trade. Furthermore, they do not outright reject further enlargement, but do not want enlargement in the near future, and in case it would be a prospect, then a referendum should decide on accession. At the same time, it does see the need for deeper financial regulations on the EU level and EU level taxation. Cooperation is needed to fight international crime, the migration issue and tackle tax evasion.

DENK, established by former PvdA representatives, is the party which is hard to position in this overview, because they only reflect on a small number of points regarding the EU. This is what they have to say. Firstly, they are clearly in favour of enlargement when the candidate countries meets the requirements. Secondly, they are in favour of sharing the burden in the EU with regards to accommodating incoming refugees. Thirdly, they are against the trade deals that the EU is negotiating with the United States and Canada. Lastly, the EU should become more transparent, less bureaucratic and the competences of the EP should be expanded.

The differences between the next four parties — the Christian Democrats (CDA), the Green Left party (GL), the Labour Party (PvdA) and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) — are really quite nuanced. All four parties recognise the need for cooperation on a wide range of issues, concretely energy, climate change, the migration issue, economic stability, safety, border protection and fighting international crime and terrorism, and deeper cooperation in CFSP — the EU’s foreign policy framework. These four parties also are in favour of deeper financial regulations on the EU and (imply their support) for a Banking Union. Furthermore, they all state their reluctant support for enlargement; implying that accession is only possible if all the accession criteria are met completely, though GL sounds the most welcoming of enlargement.

CDA is the only party in the whole list to put special emphasis on regional, cross-border cooperation. Of these four, only the VVD is against EU level taxation, and both the CDA and VVD are against an EU army, while GL is in favour of one. One way of reading the VVD’s position is in light of their emphasis on wealth maximisation, which in their case implies the emphasis on an efficient EU without unnecessary and costly rules and regulations. Of the four, only GL states its support for a further transfer of competences to the European Parliament. GL programme clearly contains many elements that focus on the protection of the environment and human rights.

Lastly, the Democrats 66 (D66) is the only party which envisions a Federal Union, with the European Council — composed of the heads of governments of the member states drawing out the course of the EU — as the EU-level equivalent of a senate, as well as a European Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Consequently, D66 seeks deep cooperation on all the earlier mentioned policy areas. Furthermore, D66 is explicitly against transfers of competences back to the member states or the decrease in the EU budget. However, it embraces reforms of the EU to make it more democratic, transparent and efficient, something it is not at the moment. As a last point, the party supports a Europe of 2 speeds.

Main trends

After the discussion of the main points of the different political parties, some general conclusions may be drawn as to where Dutch political parties feel the EU is now and where they want it to go. Firstly, about half of the parties (50+, CU, PVV, PvdD, SGP and VNL) seem to be seriously critical with regards to the state of the European Union and where its heading at the moment. That doesn’t mean all these parties want to leave the EU, yet their language use underlines the idea that the EU is in a deep legitimacy crisis, and that member states ought to retake policy areas which are now in the hands of the unelected bureaucracy in Brussels. Yet at the same time, when it comes to an objective look of the positions of the parties towards the different aspects of EU policy, there is a broad agreement on a large number of issues, like the need to cooperation on energy issues, climate change, migration, international crime, deal with transparency issues within the EU polity (mainly the European Commission), a need to reform the European budget and establish far-reaching financial surveillance mechanisms on the EU level. In all these cases, at least 7 parties made explicit references to the issues just mentioned. One should take note that 3 parties hardly made any substantive statements regarding the EU in their election programmes — PVV, VNL and DENK. There was also wide consensus that enlargement might happen, but conditioned on a very strict application of the accession criteria.

A categorisation

In order to get a more structured view of where the parties are really standing, we will apply a topology of Euroscepticism that is commonly used in the Dutch literature on the topic. (See the book “Van Aanvallen! naar verdedigen?”, edited by Hans Vollaard, Jan van der Harst and Gerrit Voerman, for more information.) The categorisation differentiates 4 approaches of parties towards the EU: hard Eurosceptic, soft Eurosceptic, Europragmatic and Europhile parties.

  1. Hard eurosceptic parties unequivocally oppose at least one of the core principles of the EU — a European free market and sharing national sovereignty
  2. Soft eurosceptic parties resist deeper European integration by opposing a further sharing of sovereignty and extending the European free market
  3. Europragmatic parties see the national member states as the primary political actors and want to maintain this balance. They see European integration as an instrument to serve the domestic public interest and the national interests
  4. Europhile parties envision a further development of a supranational union with European citizens. This does not necessarily exclude any criticism towards the EU though.

(Vollaard and Voerman 2015, 101)

In this table you will find in which categories the previously-mentioned parties fall according to me. I motivate the choices below.

Own categorisation, but inspired by Vollaard and Voerman 2015

Hard eurosceptic parties

  • PVV
  • VNL

As we saw above, the PVV is the most explicit in wanting to leave the EU; “The Netherlands [should be] independent again. So leave the EU.” As for the VNL, it states in its programme that the Netherlands should be a sovereign country again and that the EU should focus on economic cooperation. Following the logic of the above categorisation, VNL opposes the sharing of national sovereignty.

As we saw above, the PVV is the most explicit in wanting to leave the EU; “The Netherlands [should be] independent again. So leave the EU.” As for the VNL, it states in its programme that the Netherlands should be a sovereign country again and that the EU should focus on economic cooperation. Following the logic of the above categorisation, VNL opposes the sharing of national sovereignty.

Soft eurosceptic parties

  • CU
  • PvdD
  • SGP
  • SP

I would put 4 of the 13 countries in consideration into this category. While other might disagree with my choice of parties for this category, my motivation has to do with a particular combination of positions, namely the increased role of the national parliaments and the transfer of competences back to the member states, and where necessary the general comments on the state of the Union and their vision. To start with the easiest 2, PvdD and SGP are clearly in favour of a reversal of competences back to the national governments and support cooperation on the EU on only a small number of fields. CU and SP require a little bit more explanation.

What convinced me in case of the Christian Union is this: it “is time for a serious reset. We are in favour of a depoliticisation of the European Commission, a reversal of the right to initiate legislation, and a Europe that better reflects the idea of cooperating sovereign member states.” While the CU subscribes to deeper financial and economic cooperation, and quite wide-ranging cooperation, I would nonetheless put them in the soft eurosceptic category, rather than the europragmatic one. The same holds true for the Socialist Party: “The European Commission as a political organ should be scrapped. We want cooperation in Europe, on topics such as tackling international crime, cross-border environmental pollution etc., but we will no longer submit to rules from officials in Brussels”. Both the CU and SP favour cooperation between countries without the interference of the European Commission; my argument for opposing further sharing of sovereignty.

Europragmatic parties

  • 50+
  • CDA
  • DENK
  • VVD

The first, and the most tricky case, is 50+. Initially I put them in the soft Eurosceptic category, mainly because they oppose a further enlargement of the EU. However, they also state that the EU should have three core tasks: economic and monetary policy, environmental and energy policy, and safety, defense and foreign policy. While the party programme of 50+ severely lacks any explanation of their position, and their website does not help; we have to interpret these statements ourselves. It seems logical to assume that the party supports deeper integration on the abovementioned core tasks, thus thereby becoming Europragmatic rather than Eurosceptic, since they do not refer to the cooperation in these policy areas purely on an intergovernmental level (meaning that the cooperation is between countries, kind of outside of the sphere of influence of the European Commission).

The rest of these parties embrace, and see the absolute need for deepened cooperation on a wide-ranging amount of issues, and all are, however reluctantly, open for enlargement some time in the future. The VVD clearly is the most critical of the EU, emphasising a strong need for making the EU more efficient and oriented on wealth maximisation.

Europhile

  • D66
  • GL
  • PvdA (soft Europhile)

Without repeating earlier points. D66 envisions a European Federal state, and GL also embraces further development of a political union.

PvdA is a special case, for it neither explicitly embraces a political union, nor does it favour transfers of competences back to the member states. As such, one might argue that it is ‘soft’ europhile, by really being neither really europhile nor europragmatic.

Concluding remarks

This analysis focused almost only on the election programmes, and does not compare the positions of the parties over time. However, what we can conclude is that over the last years, the main parties (CDA, CU, D66, GL, PVV, PvdA, SP and VVD) have not radically changed their visions of the EU. At the same time, one might say that the Netherlands as a whole has in fact become more Eurosceptic, and many parties are more reluctant to express open support for EU integration. A major turning point in the Netherlands was the 2005 referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. More recently, the referendum on the Association Agreement with the Ukraine again put the EU high on the political and public agenda. These are the more unusual moments when the public’s attention is focused on the EU. At the same time, despite the absence of large fluctuations in EU policies of the Netherlands, I hypothesise that the increasingly Eurosceptic voice of political parties, even when their concrete positions haven’t really changed, changes the dynamics of the Dutch decision-making process related to the EU, hereby making the Netherlands a more reluctant, and perhaps weaker, actor in the EU. That said, which parties will end up in the next government coalition are likely to shape the Dutch vision of the EU.

Links to party websites

50+ https://50pluspartij.nl/

CDA https://www.cda.nl/

CU https://www.christenunie.nl/

DENK https://www.bewegingdenk.nl/

D66 https://d66.nl/

GL https://groenlinks.nl/

PVV https://PVV.nl/

PvdA https://www.pvda.nl/

PvdD https://www.partijvoordedieren.nl/

SGP https://www.sgp.nl/

SP https://www.sp.nl

VNL https://www.vnl.nu/

VVD https://vvd.nl/

For an analysis of the positions of the political parties in Dutch, check here:

https://www.europa-nu.nl/id/vkakn0sj56md/wat_zeggen_verkiezingsprogramma_s_over#p12

Methodological notes

The aim of this piece was to analyse the positions on the European Union of 13 political parties running for representation in the Dutch House of Representatives — the Second Chamber. In order to achieve this goal, the author did a ‘rough’ manual content analysis of the latest party manifestoes of these parties, focusing on the parts that explicitly dealt with the party’s general and specific positions with regards to EU-related policy positions. The author took into consideration both the content and the language use — the discourse used — but did not explicitly refer to these issues. Only the authors hold responsibility for any mistakes or inaccuracies presented above.