Almost five years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, the bloc faces an existential question: which, if any, of the remaining 27 countries will be next?
European cohesion is threatened by a range of serious issues; some internal, some external. Mass migration and the challenge it poses to integration remains the most daunting challenge. Last year may have seen a lull in migrant crossings as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but they are ramping back up, largely from Libya. (Indeed, it is surely only a matter of time before politicians fall prey to their usual smoke and mirrors rhetoric about the “benefits” of mass migration in the context of an ageing population, without much credence given to concerns for cultural integration or assimilation.)
Meanwhile, the EU remains plagued by recurrent tensions over its pandemic response, particularly in regard to vaccine distribution. The European Recovery Fund also had a shaky path to approval, which left many member-states dissatisfied.
But will another member state leave? If you believe the bookies, the odds-on favourite is Italy (available at 3/1) — followed by Greece (6/1) and France (8/1). But as the Brexit referendum demonstrated, the bookies don’t always make the right call — and it would be unwise to rule out the country sitting in fourth place: the Netherlands (12/1). In fact, I believe it’s a strong contender.
Of all the EU-27 countries, I am most familiar with the Netherlands, where I served as a Member of Parliament from 2003 until 2006. One of my strongest memories of that period was my first trip, along with some of the freshmen Dutch legislators, to the European Parliament in Brussels. Compared with our modest parliament building, the EU building was grand and impressive.
At lunch, which started as early as 11.30am, we were welcomed with trays of tall flutes filled with the best champagne. We were then served a lavish meal, accompanied by bottle after bottle of wine. This “working” lunch went on until 3.30 p.m.
The week after, back in the national Parliament canteen with its modest assortment of sandwiches, my Dutch colleagues and I were obsessed with one question: who paid for this scandalous extravagance? In the years since, the Dutch have continued to question the financial benefit of remaining an EU member — and it’s not hard to see why.
In 2018, for example, the Netherlands contributed €4.845 billion to the EU; but in return, Brussels spent only €2.470 billion in the country. The European Union’s own website claims that “the EU budget doesn’t aim to redistribute wealth”; in the Netherlands, that doesn’t seem to quite add up.
Over the past decade, the Dutch, who are notoriously frugal, have become increasingly frustrated with the frivolity of EU spending. Exacerbating this irritation is the fact that the Netherlands is the largest net contributor to the EU budget per capita. Meanwhile, the Dutch parliament is grappling over how to afford the maintenance of the equivalent of their NHS and the rising costs of healthcare for an ageing society. Dutch health authorities estimate healthcare spending will double between 2020 and 2040, to €200 billion euros per year, up from €106 billion in 2019.
More important, though, are questions pertaining to national sovereignty and control over sensitive political issues. Every Tuesday morning, I and my fellow MPs would gather to debate both domestic and international issues. Naturally, these discussions sometimes became heated — but this principally occurred when we were told that a decision had to be made by an anonymous, faraway EU official, rather than by us.
Increasingly, we found that we didn’t have the last word on many of the issues that mattered most to us: immigration, terrorism and agriculture, among others. Nor was this feeling confined to the Dutch political class. When, in 2005, EU countries were presented with the prospect of creating a bloc-wide constitution, only two countries held a referendum that ultimately rejected the proposals: the Netherlands and France.
True, there are still glaring differences between the UK and the Netherlands that make “Nexit” seem impractical. The UK wisely never joined the monetary union, while the Netherlands was among the first to adopt the euro two decades ago. Not only do they share a currency with much of the continent, the Netherlands is also more dependent on the single market than Britain was. And then there’s the fact that the United Kingdom is the sixth-largest economy in the world, while the Netherlands trails a distant 17th (with four other European Union countries ranking higher). While the Dutch see their country as the gateway to Europe, they are not their own island, separated by a Channel, apart from the rest of Europe.
Yet, since I left office, the frictions between the EU and the Netherlands have only worsened. This month, I&O Research, a research agency for the Dutch government, released a report that showed “a larger proportion of the Dutch are still dissatisfied (43%) than satisfied (37%) with what the European Union is doing”.
And while this same report confirmed that there is still nothing close to a majority for “Nexit” — a position with adherents only among the populist FvD and PVV parties — it did reveal that “in a referendum on whether the Netherlands should remain a member of the European Union, 61% would now vote for ‘remain in the EU.’” Less than a year ago, the figure was 72 percent. That is a striking decrease of support for the EU. The 61% figure is also striking for another reason — it’s lower than the proportion of Brits who supported Remain a year before the Brexit vote (66%). And we all know how that turned out.
Context was everything in the UK five years ago. We forget now how unlikely Brexit seemed to most commentators — until the first, stunning results came in from northern English cities such as Sunderland.
Today, the context has shifted for one fundamental reason. Brexit has happened, and it has not been the unmitigated disaster that so many Remainers predicted. On the contrary, the UK’s superior vaccine strategy — nimble where the EU’s was lumbering and bureaucratic — provided a better advertisement for “taking back control” than anything in the original Leave campaign.
Could watching a successful exit by the UK push the Dutch population further in this direction? Don’t rule it out.