Dutch politics returns to centre – and Europe

September 13, 2012

By Peter Thal Larsen

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Dutch politics has reverted to its centrist, pro-European norm. After an extended flirtation with anti-austerity and anti-euro groups, voters have overwhelmingly backed parties from the country’s political mainstream. That’s a relief for euro zone leaders who feared that a radical government might end up ruling a core country of the monetary union. But the noisy campaign will complicate efforts to form a coalition, while fringe voices remain ready to exploit any future unease.

Ever since the coalition government collapsed in April amid disagreement about budget cuts, Dutch politics looked at risk of fragmenting. Populist firebrand Geert Wilders campaigned on withdrawal from the single currency and even the European Union. Meanwhile, the left-wing Socialist party topped the polls with its anti-austerity message. In the end, however, voters opted for the relative safety of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right liberals and the centre-left Labour Party. Together they will probably account for 80 of the parliament’s 150 seats. Wilders and the Socialists will be pushed to the fringes with just 15 seats each.

The Netherlands now looks set for a traditional coalition government. Yet forming one will not be an easy task. Electoral mathematics compels the two largest parties to cooperate, but important differences separate them. Rutte and his colleagues have been staunch advocates for fiscal discipline, particularly for countries of the euro zone’s periphery. In contrast, Labour leader Diederik Samson has staked a softer pro-growth message, like other centre-left politicians across Europe. In order to cooperate, the two will need to find common ground, possibly by inviting one or two smaller centrist parties into a coalition.

Moreover, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Dutch have rediscovered their enthusiasm for Europe. Possible bailouts for Spain or Italy could spark a renewed bout of scepticism, particularly if the Dutch economy fails to recover from its current malaise. Though Wilders is in retreat, fringe voices could restrain the new government’s capacity to participate in any grand euro zone compromises. Dutch voters have made the pragmatic decision that the country is better off within the monetary union. But their return to the political centre cannot be taken for granted.

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