Why the Dutch election matters to Scotland

First Brexit, then Trump: as the Dutch go to the polls today, the world watches with anxiety: will the Netherlands be next to fall into the grip of right-wing extremism? In the leafy Dutch village I now call home, you’d never guess anything was happening, although we did abort a day out to Rotterdam on Saturday when it became the focus of tensions with Turkey. In the cities, official billboards are neatly pasted with all 20-odd party posters, and a fold-out leaflet arrived through the letterbox containing the names of all 900-odd candidates for our careful study.

The good news is that it’s not as bad as it looks: anti-Islam campaigner Geert Wilders is polling just 13% of the vote and will be locked out of any coalition. The bad news is that he has already succeeded in dragging mainstream Dutch politicians to the right.

And there’s good news for Nicola Sturgeon. The next Dutch government is all but guaranteed to include members who have promised to fight Scotland’s corner. Any coalition will almost certainly include the pro-European liberal party, D66, whose manifesto states that “If Scotland or Northern Ireland secedes and wants to remain in the European Union, D66 will look favourably upon their membership.”

Kees Verhoeven is D66’s member of parliament with responsibility for European affairs. “We've been following the post-Brexit developments in Scotland with great interest,” he told me. “With Nicola Sturgeon, we believe that Scotland should be able to choose a ‘different future’ to the one May is chasing. A European future, that is.”

“Scotland should be able to remain a part of the Single Market,” he continued, “with or without the rest of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, Theresa May’s Brexit-speech was crystal clear: the entire United Kingdom will have to leave the EU, including the Single Market... It is a pity that she does not take the sensible position of those in Edinburgh into account.”

“Whether this Scottish voice should be independent, I leave to their voters. But the least that could be done in an attempt to maintain an actual United Kingdom is to listen to the voices within this Union. I will pressure the Dutch government and our European Parliament Brexit negotiator,” promises Verhoeven, “to have the Scottish voice heard.”

There’s also a real chance that GroenLinks (GreenLeft), the rising stars of the progressive left, will, for the first time, be included in government. GreenLeft and the SNP both belong to the Greens-European Free Alliance grouping in the European Parliament, and the party is supportive of Scotland’s cause.

“The Scots can be very proud of what they have achieved in the past years,” a GreenLeft spokesperson told me. “Scotland is truly European, and if there is no option to keep going in that direction in the EU, then we will of course support Scottish independence, and eventually reintegrating into the European realm.”

The Socialist Party is also rooting for Scotland. “Yes, if Scotland wishes to apply for membership after the Brexit,” its leader Emile Roemer confirmed, “we will welcome its application. After all, Scotland is already part of the EU.”

The other parties are holding their cards closer to their chests. The Dutch parliament’s two official “Brexit rapporteurs”, from centre-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) and New Labour-style junior coalition partner, the PvdA, visited Edinburgh in February as part of a fact-finding mission to the UK and Ireland. The CDA’s Pieter Omtzigt told me at the time that “In a few weeks our paper on Brexit will become public and parliament will then take a stance on all issues concerned, including the issue of Scotland.” A few weeks later, the paper is still being written, and Omtzigt and others refuse to be drawn.

Those two parties, along with Rutte’s ruling conservative VVD, usually come out of elections on top, but time has seen their support fall away, while a myriad of smaller parties has risen up to meet them. The result is an even cluster of six competing parties across the political spectrum, all in the 15-25 seats range (out of a total 150), followed by a band of tiny parties hoping to play powerbroker.

The anti-establishment narrative which explains Trump and Brexit is, to some extent, playing out here too. Wilders refuses to play by the usual rules; his Freedom Party (PVV) election campaign resembles a bizarre electoral experiment: with a manifesto consisting of just one A4 sheet, he has pulled out of most televised debates with flimsy excuses including “because we don’t like it”, and made few public appearances for fear of assassination. Instead he twitters furiously, Trump-style, bypassing traditional media outlets entirely.

The cosmopolitan, intellectual D66 has always been fiercely opposed to Wilders’ rhetoric, but as serious veterans of coalition government, the party is less attractive to young voters looking for a break from establishment politics. That mantle has been taken up with enthusiasm by GreenLeft, under the leadership of bright young star Jesse Klaver.

Taking a leaf out of Nicola Sturgeon’s playbook, the 30-year old part-Moroccan “Jessiah” has filled rock-concert venues to capacity for upbeat rallies celebrating the party’s vision of a socially just, pro-immigration and environmentally pioneering Netherlands. They’ve made the most of social media too, maximising their appeal to younger voters. With just four seats in parliament at the moment, some dare to whisper that GreenLeft has the momentum to catapult Klaver all the way to the Prime Minister’s office.

Meanwhile, PM Rutte has indulged in borderline-xenophobic rhetoric to try and claw voters back from Wilders, and he jumped at the perfectly-timed chance this weekend of an ill-tempered standoff with Turkish president Erdo?an. It seems to be working. Rutte’s VVD looks like they will edge it to form the biggest party after today’s vote.

Every key party has explicitly ruled out a coalition with Wilders, forming a cordon sanitaire around him to lock him out of power. That suits Wilders fine: he can inflame his base with a tweeting frenzy. The effect will be all the worse if he does win the most votes.

But whoever is crowned after tonight as the largest party will also win the dubious honour of being the smallest largest party ever. Negotiations will not be easy. With 150 seats in parliament, the magic number is 75. The arithmetic tells us that means at least four parties, maybe five, and getting them all to agree will take months.

The VVD will most probably return to government, along with their traditional sidekicks, the CDA. The next obvious partner is (pro-Scottish) D66, who have governed with both of them in numerous previous cabinets. That should deliver around 63 seats, if the polls are to be believed.

After that, it gets interesting. The PvdA would be a safe choice, but having seen their vote decimated after delivering the VVD’s austerity measures in coalition, they probably can’t deliver enough seats, unless the smaller Christian Union is brought in too. But could they justify leaving out two larger parties, the Socialists and GreenLeft? The Socialists themselves have ruled out working with the VVD, but GreenLeft is prepared to cooperate if it absolutely must.

There’s an intriguing alternative if Rutte is squeezed out: a centre-left coalition of CDA, D66, GreenLeft, the Socialists and PvdA. Real change could be achieved. Wilders would be long-forgotten. And three openly pro-Scottish parties would be in power.

The National, 15 March 2017