Dutch Discontent: Socialists Ride Wave of Anti-EU Sentiment

By Christoph Pauly in Rotterdam

The economy is in trouble and unemployment is rising -- in the Netherlands as in much of the rest of Europe. Ahead of upcoming elections, the Socialists are riding a wave of euro-skepticism and may emerge as the strongest political force in the country.

Photo Gallery: The Rise of the Tomato Photos
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Emile Roemer, 50, is standing in front of the large banner of his Socialist Party. Its logo consists of a bright red tomato with a white star at the top. For the Socialists, the tomato symbolizes a protest against the current situation in the Netherlands. The small star is a nod to the Maoist roots of this staunchly leftist party.

Roemer, an imposing man, is doing what he usually does these days, as he stands in front of the image of the tomato: He is beaming and looking sure of victory. According to the polls, the former elementary school teacher could become the next prime minister of the Netherlands.

If the election were a reflection of how much people trust public figures, the Socialist leader would already have won. His popularity ratings place him in third place, just behind Queen Beatrix and a pop singer, and ahead of all other politicians. The polls show that the Socialists will likely double their seats and defeat Prime Minister Mark Rutte's conservative-liberal People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD).

'Over My Dead Body'

Roemer owes this popularity to his skepticism about Europe. "Having even more Brussels is not the solution to Europe's crisis," he says. The Socialist rails against the European Commission's austerity targets, under which the Netherlands is supposed to reduce its budget deficit to below the Maastricht Treaty ceiling of 3 percent of GDP by next year.

"Over my dead body," says Roemer, referring to the possibility of penalties being imposed by the European Commission. It is also a jibe at the German chancellor, who used similar language to express her views on introducing euro bonds. Too much power has been placed into the hands of uncontrollable technocrats, Roemer claims. "The economic policy Brussels wants to dictate to us is downright antisocial."

If Roemer prevails in the parliamentary election on Sept. 12, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will lose one of the few supporters of her Europe-wide austerity program. The Dutch have stood with the Germans when it comes to imposing strict conditions on countries like Greece.

Now the Socialist leader wants his fellow Dutchmen to vote in a referendum on the fiscal pact, one of Merkel's pet projects, which aims to impose budgetary discipline on the 25 signatory countries. The government in The Hague, which collapsed in April over a national austerity package, has not ratified the agreement yet.

One Fewer Gold Star

Right-wing populist Geert Wilders, who is known for his anti-Islam stance, is also fighting against Europe. He opposes the euro and wants the country to withdraw from the European Union. He even says that one of the 12 gold stars should be removed from the European flag if the Netherlands were to leave the EU.

But the Socialists are benefiting the most from dissatisfaction in the country. Unemployment has risen to 6.5 percent, which is unusually high for the Netherlands. The economy is stagnating, now that a deep banking and real estate crisis has deprived the Dutch of their optimism. "Companies are going bankrupt, banks have stopped lending, and consumer confidence is lower than ever before," says Roemer. He wants to stem the tide with government investment, keep the retirement age at 65, and generally ensure that as little as possible changes in the country.

Not unlike Germany's left-wing Left Party, the former revolutionaries are behaving like the country's new conservatives. It was no accident that the Socialists launched their campaign at an open-air museum in the eastern city of Arnhem. In keeping with their campaign platform, party members did not sing the traditional left-wing song "The Internationale," but a newly composed rock anthem.

The left and the right in the Netherlands are coming at the traditionally pro-European centrist politicians from both sides. "It's like a horseshoe," says a senior EU official, talking about his home country. "The extremes are almost touching each other." The center-right Christian Democratic Appeal party (CDA) and the center-left Labor Party are being overtaken by populists on the left and the right.

In a country that, like Germany, has particularly benefited from the common currency, champions of the euro have seen their numbers decline. "Some 60 to 70 percent of our income depends on exports to other European countries," says Mona Keijzer, a top Christian Democratic politician. But she too stresses that each country should address its own problems, and she roundly rejects any additional transfer of sovereignty to Europe. "We want to be a sovereign country," says Keijzer. "We are Dutch."

No Sympathy

Such nationalistic-sounding sentiments are not to be heard on the 16th floor of the World Port Center in Rotterdam. General Director Hans Smits, recognizable as a Dutchman despite his British-style pinstriped suit, is standing in front of a world map in his office, surveying his realm. Some 34,000 ships from around the world dock at the port every year. For them, the port represents the gateway to Europe. And without excellent European contacts and connections, Rotterdam's role as the largest port in the EU and on the European continent would be in jeopardy, as would be the prosperity of this old trading nation.

People like Smits have no sympathy for politicians who don't do everything possible to save the euro and promote European stability. For him, it's all about the daily competitive struggle between Europe and Asia.

"Nowadays corporations think in global terms when they choose locations," says Smits. He regards it as a success when a new chemical factory is built in Rotterdam and not, as is usually the case, in China. He has long marketed his port internationally. Some 700 trains and more than 1,900 barges from various countries, loaded with goods coming from or destined for Asia and North America, are processed in Rotterdam every week. The city is linked to Antwerp through a number of pipelines.

The port manager is the first to notice if a euro-zone country is in a crisis. "There are fewer containers from overseas, because European consumers feel anxious and want to save their money," he says. Fortunately for his port and for Europe, the ships returning to Asia are usually relatively full, because the Chinese continue to tirelessly buy German cars and machines, among other things.

With an annual throughput of 430 million tons of cargo, the port of Rotterdam is more than three times as large as its next biggest competitor, the port of Hamburg. Their main port stands for characteristics that have made the Dutch even more prosperous than the Germans: open-mindedness, flexibility and a pioneering spirit. A land reclamation project the size of Rotterdam's old city has just been completed, to ensure that the port will have enough space for new wharfs and terminals for the next 20 years.

Tough Decisions

But a few floors are already empty in the World Port Center, partly because of poor financial decisions made when money was cheap. Many private citizens went into considerable debt, seduced by generous tax breaks in the form of mortgage interest deductions.

"A few tough decisions will have to be made after the election," says Smits. Like many employers, he is calling for more flexibility in the labor market. He repeatedly runs into problems filling the roughly 2,000 jobs that become available each year.

For the port manager, a stable government that will start work immediately is even more important. But this is wishful thinking, given that in the Netherlands it often takes months before the various parties have agreed on a coalition. About two years ago, Prime Minister Rutte, with his minority government, made himself dependent on the support of far-right politician Wilders in order to get a majority in parliament -- only for that coalition to fall in April 2012.

Smits, like many other business leaders, would not be especially alarmed by having Socialists in the government. As a pragmatist, he cannot imagine that his country's politicians would truly jeopardize the euro after the election.

After all, the Dutch still want to be able to sell as many tomatoes as possible to the rest of Europe in the future.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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