by Maria Vasileiou
THE HAGUE, May 19 (Xinhua) --- Dutch Eurosceptics are set to make significant gains in the upcoming European Parliament (EP) elections, further strengthening nationalist, anti-European voices in the Netherlands and in the European Union (EU), according to expert.
ANTI-EU VOICES REMAIN INFLUENTIAL
"If anti-European party Forum for Democracy (FvD), currently leading the European election polls in the Netherlands, makes significant gains, the outcome would be critical," said Adriaan Schout, Senior Research Fellow and Coordinator Europe at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael.
The right-wing Eurosceptic FvD, founded by former academic Thierry Baudet two and a half years ago, has become the largest political party (12 seats) in the country's upper parliament after the provincial elections in March. It's the first time a right-wing populist party made it to the top, partly because of the increasing fragmentation of the Dutch political life.
Now leading in the EP votes scheduled for May 23 in the Netherlands, Baudet's party is expected to win five of the 26 Dutch MEP seats (up to 29 without the UK), the same as prime minister Mark Rutte's liberal VVD, predicted Ipsos Political Barometer.
Voters in the Netherlands will choose among 16 parties with a total of 308 candidates. GroenLinks (Green Left) led by Bas Eickhout and the Labour Party (PvdA) by Frans Timmermans are expected to send three MEPs each. Eickhout and Timmermans are both nominated candidates for the Commission presidency by their European parties (European Greens and S&D respectively).
PVV, the anti-Islam Freedom Party led by far-right politician Geert Wilders, is expected to lose two of its current four seats to FvD. FvD and PVV combined, the anti-EU voices remain influential in Dutch politics.
SHIFT TO COOPERATION WITH EU
To face rising Euroscepticism, Rutte has engaged in a delicate act of tuning his party's orientation. At the 2014 EP elections, VVD's Europe program said "Europe where needed", now "Rutte is putting emphasis on the idea of cooperation within the EU and not on more integration," said Schout.
The shift could be explained by the fact that almost half of the Dutch are dissatisfied with the EU, as shown by a recent research by pollster I&O. Late last month, two thirds of Dutch MPs voted in favor of a motion to remove the phrase "ever closer union" from EU treaties.
"The motion requested that the Dutch government work towards avoiding further EU integration," explained Schout.
"For our safety the European Union is important," said Rutte in a televised interview last week. Earlier, he had directly attacked Baudet in a speech about Europe, accusing the latter of taking an "irresponsible risk with our security, our stability, and our prosperity" by supporting the Netherlands leaving the EU.
Eighty-six percent of the Dutch would vote in favor of remaining in the EU if there was a referendum and just 8 percent would vote for a Nexit, according to a recent Eurobarometer report.
ANTI-EU PARTIES' PERFORMANCE IN VOTES
Baudet, who had called for a Nexit, also shifted his position, but remains strongly anti-European. The 36-year-old politician has said that he is "ideologically against the EU, against the internal market, against the open borders, against the euro, against the whole thing". Rutte, however, has warned that "a Nexit is very harmful to the country".
These messages are not only crucial to domestic Dutch politics, but also to the EU where anti-European parties are set to win more than one-third of seats in the next European Parliament, making legislation procedures more difficult and gaining enough power to block certain issues.
Although the anti-EU parties' performance will be more critical in larger EU countries, like France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, it is also important to hamper the rise of nationalist voices in smaller countries like the Netherlands.
"Rutte has to show EU leaders that he is a formidable leader," said Schout.
The expert added that the turnout, "which is decreasing, will be critical in determining the elections' result". Anti-European voices are easier to mobilize, as shown by the Brexit referendum held in June 2016. And voters in the Netherlands turn out less in European elections than in national elections.