THE HAGUE — First came Brexit. Next comes Nexit?
Euroskeptics in the Netherlands are seizing on Britain’s shock decision last month to leave the European Union, looking to inject new momentum into their own cause.
The outward-looking country was one of the founding members of the bloc, but even here the E.U. elicits discontent, disillusionment and sometimes derision.
“People feel alienated from the European project. They think that too much sovereignty has been handed over to Brussels,” said Harry van Bommel, a member of the Dutch parliament who represents the left-wing Socialist Party, which is highly critical of the E.U.
“Something has to be done,” he said in an interview in his office here, full of souvenirs from his travels around the Middle East. “We can’t go on any longer with an ever-closer union.” As in Britain, this sentiment is particularly widespread among the lower-educated living outside the main cities.
On the far right, meanwhile, the anti-Islam, anti-E.U. firebrand Geert Wilders, whose popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, is refocusing his political ambitions around a pledge for a referendum on a Dutch exit. Wilders’s party is now leading in some national opinion polls.
While there are many Dutch advocates for remaining in the E.U., this small country nevertheless has emerged as a key barometer of the forces threatening to tear the bloc apart.
“We were one of the founders of the E.U., but there has always been serious hesitation about the union,” said Mathieu Segers, an expert on European integration at the University of Maastricht who literally wrote the book on the Netherlands’ relationship with the E.U.
“There’s a rational story about economics, but there is also another story about whether we belong in ‘Old Europe.’ We feel closer culturally to Scandinavia and the U.K., so this tension has always been present under the surface,” Segers said.
That tension has become increasingly apparent since the economic crisis that began in Europe in 2009, with Dutch opinion polls showing a steady decline in support for the E.U.’s actions, albeit from a relatively high starting level.
“The E.U. has been sold to people for years as an economic ticket, but what’s on the table is a political union, the creation of a United States of Europe,” said Thierry Baudet, founding director of the Forum for Democracy and one of the country’s leading advocates for leaving the E.U. “That’s not what the Dutch want.”
The tension is now coming to the surface.
Proponents of “Nexit,” led by Wilders, are pushing for the Netherlands to hold its own referendum, and recent opinion polls suggest that a large segment of the population — one survey showed a majority — also now favors an in-or-out vote.
The issue is likely to gather momentum as parliamentary elections set for March approach. But such a vote would be constitutionally tricky as well as nonbinding, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte has made it clear he will not even consider the prospect.
Advocates of remaining in the union agree. “In my opinion, you don’t ask your people to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ when you don’t know where such a vote will lead,” said Alexander Pechtold, parliamentary leader of the pro-E.U. Democrats 66 party. “Look at Britain. It’s too much of a risk.”
Jesse Klaver, the leader of the GroenLinks green party, said the solution to the “very disturbing” increase in Euroskepticism was not leaving the E.U. but doubling down on commitment to it.
“I understand that people are angry, but it is not the fault of the E.U. or refugees or immigrants. It’s the fault of the sitting political elite,” Klaver said in an interview. European leaders have focused too much on big business and have failed to ensure social and economic equality in their countries, he said.
The answer to Brexit? “We have to make Europe better,” he said. “Where in the world can you find 28, now 27, countries who work together, who fight each other only with words?”
Yet if the Netherlands offers a glimpse of the forces undermining the E.U., it also illustrates those that may hold it together.
The British decision has already resulted in visible negative effects: The pound and the country’s stock market have tumbled, and erstwhile proponents of the “leave” campaign are warning of tough economic times ahead.
“The Dutch government will use that to make the argument that we must stay in,” Segers said.
The argument to stay is first and foremost economic. The Netherlands was a relatively early pioneer of globalization, having been a seafaring trading nation since the 17th century. Now its massive ports — it is home to the E.U.’s single largest port, at Rotterdam — serve as the gateway to the bloc, the world’s largest unified consumer market, with 500 million people stretching from Cyprus to Ireland.
Although it is a tiny country, the Netherlands is the world’s fifth-largest exporter, and it lives and dies on its tariff-free access to the E.U.’s customs union. Germany alone receives a quarter of its Dutch outbound goods. Losing that pipeline, some argue, would be tantamount to national suicide.
Plus, unlike Britain, the Netherlands uses the common currency, the euro, and any move to exit the bloc would mean ditching that, too. Doing so potentially could spark a far more dramatic bout of financial chaos than the one seen in Britain so far.
While the economic arguments for staying in the E.U. are compelling, there is another issue influencing public opinion: immigration. The refugee crisis that led to more than 1 million migrants, mostly from the Middle East, pouring into Europe last year has further inflamed discontent with the bloc.
“It’s about refugees. It’s about everything people feel is threatening them,” said Pechtold, the Democrats 66 leader. “People say, ‘Islam is coming in,’ and they think, ‘I can’t be gay anymore, now I have a problem walking with my boyfriend in the street.’ They think we are losing the lifestyle we created because of the failures of Europe and Brussels.”
This has been compounded by a sense that the E.U. moved too fast to expand its membership to poorer nations such as Bulgaria and Romania, he said.
Even though most analysts and Europhile politicians think pragmatism will win the day, the Brexit vote is a strong warning against complacency. And Wilders, who has played the joker in Dutch politics for a decade, could try to exploit that example by bundling the immigration issue with an economic argument.
“There is discontent with immigration, discontent with the European Union, discontent with the decline of the welfare state,” said Eelco Harteveld, a political scientist at the University of Amsterdam who studies Euroskepticism. “If political actors manage to bring all these things together in a nice package, as Geert Wilders can do sometimes, then I think Europe can become a more salient issue than it is now in people’s lives.”
And as the British have shown, never say never.
Faiola reported from Berlin.