Hereditas Historiae

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The Economist – 23 June 2017

 



Keep them away

A split over refugees has left the Dutch with no government

Three months after an election, the populists appear not to have lost as badly as everyone thought




'LIKE most things Dutch, the asylum-seekers’ centre in Rijswijk, a suburb of The Hague, is clean, rectilinear and well-organised. The housing units’ aluminium exteriors are as shiny and elegant as a VanMoof bicycle. Pupils from Syria and Afghanistan march cheerfully down the pavement, escorted by blonde teachers. The centre has room for up to 500 residents, but the actual number is lower. Since March 2016, when an agreement between the European Union and Turkey closed off the migration route across the Aegean, the stream of asylum-seekers arriving in the Netherlands has slowed to a trickle. Some of the reception centres set up at the height of the migrant crisis have never been used.

With the number of refugees shrinking, one would think asylum might drop off the political agenda. Instead, it is the issue that will not die. In mid-June a clash over migration policy torpedoed coalition negotiations that have dragged on since an election in March. At the time, that election was hailed across Europe as a rejection of anti-immigrant populists such as Geert Wilders. Yet three months later the Netherlands still has no government, and the election’s meaning seems less clear.

The party that sank the talks, the environmentalist group GreenLeft, was the one most strengthened by the election. Its leader, 31-year-old Jesse Klaver, reinvigorated his party with a campaign that drew thousands of supporters to local “meet-ups”. (His curly locks and Justin Trudeau smile did not hurt.) GreenLeft jumped from four seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament to 14, its best showing ever. On election night Mr Klaver declared that by ensuring that “the populist breakthrough did not happen”, the Netherlands had shown the way for Europe.

The centre-right Liberals (VVD), who won the most seats with 33, entered coalition negotiations with GreenLeft and two other outfits, the Christian Democrats and the left-liberal D66 party. But the talks exposed deep divisions, first over climate policy and then over refugees. The Liberals, Christian Democrats and D66 agreed that the Netherlands should try to duplicate the Turkey deal with countries in north Africa to stem the flow of refugees in the central Mediterranean. Ultimately, asylum-seekers would need to apply from abroad rather than coming to the Netherlands and landing in centres like the one in Rijswijk. Any who found their way to the Netherlands could be sent back. Many EU countries are pursuing a similar agenda.

Rights groups think such plans would violate the international Convention on Refugees. The proposal would mean “an end to the individual right to asylum in the Netherlands”, says Eduard Nazarski, head of Amnesty International’s Dutch branch. Mr Klaver agreed, and in early May he broke off talks with Mark Rutte, the Liberal prime minister, and the other two parties. Negotiations later resumed, but broke up again on June 12th.

The three core parties now have few options for forming a majority (see chart). The Labour Party (PvdA) agrees with their migration policies. But Labour lost three-quarters of its seats in the election, after spending the past five years as the junior partner of the Liberals. The party’s leader, Lodewijk Asscher, insists it will stay in opposition while it rebuilds. Asked on June 20th what might convince him to join a government, Mr Asscher used an old Dutch expression: als de pleuris uitbreekt (“if there is an outbreak of pleurisy”). Meanwhile, the far-left Socialists have ruled out governing with the Liberals. And everyone rules out Mr Wilders.

That leaves the leftist Christian Union party. It will enter coalition negotiations this week. But it may be too environmentalist for the Liberals and too culturally conservative for D66.

The politics are complicated, but the gist is simple. Mr Wilders did worse than expected in the election, but his party is still big enough to force mainstream parties to contort themselves in order to form coalitions. More important, the other parties stopped Mr Wilders partly by moving in his direction. Most Dutch parties now agree that the chief aim of migration policy is to keep asylum-seekers out. Mr Klaver may have proclaimed victory over populism on election night, but on the issue of refugees the populists had already won.'