Brexit: will the Dutch be able to keep the Brits on board?

‘Brexit’ scares many people and governments in the European Union – but the Dutch government is particularly worried.

British withdrawal from the EU would mean the loss of the Netherlands’ most important ally in the debate about European integration. With the British referendum just a matter of time, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte (pictured), will want to keep his British counterpart, David Cameron, onside. And Cameron will need Rutte’s support to bring back some powers to London.

Yet diverging approaches to renegotiation could put a strain on the relationship.

The Dutch ‘No’ to the European Constitution, just over ten years ago, is still present in the minds of Dutch pro-European politicians. The prime minister at the time, Jan Peter Balkenende, referred to it as the biggest disappointment of his career.

Ten years on and the mood has changed little: if anything, the Dutch have become even more resistant to the pull of Brussels, with a difficult economic situation and the perception of taxpayers in the Netherlands bailing out profligate Greeks.

Close ties

These similarities between Dutch and British thinking are matched by historical and modern-day economic ties. Britain continues to be the second-largest buyer of Dutch goods in the world, after Germany.

The countries have also stood side-by-side in foreign relations. And if Britain – a major contributor to the EU budget – were to leave the Union, the Netherlands might be forced to further increase its own contribution to Brussels.

Their leaders are also on good terms. Rutte and Cameron were in contact during their previous political lives as opposition leaders, regularly calling each other. They appear to share the same reservations about the EU, viewing the Union as principally a marketplace (and one that should not be hindered by too many rules) and not a political union. They also agree that Europe should not cost too much, and have been fighting together for a lower European budget.

Mutual interdependency

Cameron (pictured) is personally favourable to staying in the EU on the basis of renegotiated terms. To achieve those terms, he will need allies and partners like the Dutch. During a recent visit to the Netherlands, Cameron described the two countries as “old friends and like-minded allies”.

Meanwhile, Rutte sees Britain as an insurance policy against excessive dominance of the EU by Germany and France. This same reason led the Netherlands to endorse British membership of ‘Europe’ from the very beginning. In 2013, Rutte was a prominent guest at a meeting in Brussels organised by Cameron to lead the fight for better regulation. Rutte told French newspaper Le Figaro at the time that “The role of the Netherlands is to make sure that the UK stays onboard”.

Diverging approaches?

Yet the biggest difference between the two leaders is a difficult one. Cameron wants British exemptions from EU rules and regulations. He wants Britain to receive a better membership deal and to be exempted from the EU objective of an ‘ever-closer union’.

Rutte disagrees. His opinion is that arrangements between the EU and Member States about the transfer of powers should apply equally to all members, without special exemptions for the British. This could make renegotiation sticky.

However, it is not an insurmountable problem. Rutte will do everything in his power to stop the UK from leaving the European Union: keeping Britain in is of the utmost importance to the Dutch – and Cameron knows this.

The success or failure of the renegotiation will be influenced to a large extent by how far Rutte is willing to leap to help Britain stay in.

 

Words  Annabel van der Meijden (Burson-Marsteller The Hague)
Photos  (c) European Union 2015

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