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Remarque: 'the Dutch are skeptical of Brussels'

The Dutch election campaign is dominated by the euro crisis. The people welcome Merkel’s financial strictness, but they disagree with plans for a political union, says Philippe Remarque, editor in chief of de Volkskrant.

Dutch voters go to the polls on September 12 to elect a new parliament. In April this year, the broad centrist coalition collapsed amid arguments over the EU's austerity package for the Netherlands. The package envisaged reducing public spending by some 14 billion euros ($11 billion) in an attempt to bring the budget deficit down below the three percent mark. In protest of these plans, the right-wing populist ‘Freedom Party' led by Geert Wilders withdrew its support of the government. Ever since, the country has been governed by a provisional coalition led by Mark Rutte from the right-of-center ‘Party for Freedom and Democracy' (VVD).

DW: Mr. Remarque, all of Europe has been hit by the euro crisis. How has it influenced the Dutch election campaign?

Philippe Remarque: There are two populist parties who have used the euro crisis for their own benefit. One of them is the Freedom Party, led by right-wing populist Geert Wilders. He is calling for a complete exit from the European Union and wants to reintroduce the guilder, our former currency. The second party is the Socialist Party, one you could compare to the Left Party in Germany.

What about the other parties? Are they more reserved, or are they also against the EU?

Well, in public debates of course they say that returning to the guilder would be terrible, that it would cost jobs and risk our pensions. That's also the rhetoric used by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is the head of the biggest party, the economic-liberal VVD. But he's also trying to use the euro crisis for his own purposes. In a televised debate he said that Greece "won't get any more money." Many critics say that he isn't in the position to guarantee such things, and that statements like this are very un-statesman-like and bad for Europe. But this perhaps reflects a growing trend in the population. We, the Dutch, have become a lot more skeptical than we used to be.

Does the fact that all parties are using the crisis in their campaigns suggest that euroskepticism will be around for some time to come?

Yes. We used to be what you could call the best Europeans in the class - together with Germany, of course. The euro crisis has changed that. Some people say: 'We should never have adopted the euro as a common currency in the first place, we didn't think hard enough, we were lured into it by the pro-European elite who didn't inform us enough.' It's resentments like these - that ultimately, and perhaps unfortunately, do reflect the way people feel - that lead to intense skepticism and make people more likely to cast their vote for a populist like Wilders. It's remarkable that Wilders has hardly said anything about his favorite topics - migration policy and Islam - and that his campaign has focused entirely on the euro crisis and on his call for an exit from the EU.

Could Wilders benefit from the crisis in a way that he would get an even bigger say in the new government?

Fortunately, no, that won't happen. Until April, he was part of the central-right-wing governing coalition. The experiment failed. Wilders stopped supporting the government. Not even Mark Rutte's VVD would presumably want to repeat such a risk. And all other parties are even saying that it's just not possible to rule a country together with Wilders. That's why he will remain on the outside. And yet, despite this, Wilders represents the opinion of quite a significant share of the population.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is playing an important role in the euro crisis. What do the Dutch think of her way of dealing with Europe's problems?

On the one hand, the Dutch are relieved by Merkel's presence, because she keeps insisting that the southern eurozone countries have to become a bit more "German" when it comes to their finances. We, the Dutch, share the chancellor's view in this respect, and we do feel a bit German in this debate. On the other hand, however, she leads the German political elite in their endeavor to push for more political integration of Europe. And that's something the Dutch are very skeptical of - and this includes our current prime minister, Mark Rutte. Many commentators and intellectuals say Merkel is right because a political union would be the best thing in the situation we're in. But the people simply aren't feeling it. The thought of giving up sovereignty worries them.

A lot of what has been said in the Dutch election campaign goes against what the EU and what Merkel want. The head of the Socialist Party, Emile Roemer, for instance, doesn't want to cut spending, instead he wants to step up investment. We've already talked about Wilders. In what way do statements like these harm the relationship with Germany?

At the moment, the Dutch voters are skeptical of all pro-European elites. But there is no anti-German sentiment as such. Nobody is saying the Germans want to push us into a political union that we don't want to enter. I've never heard anything like that, not even from Wilders. Brussels has of course become a term that's used for polemic purposes - but not Berlin. In general, most Dutch feel safer with Merkel, who is strict in Berlin.

Twenty-one parties are on the list for the parliamentary elections. There's speculation over all kinds of possible ruling coalitions. Which party do you think will produce the leading candidate?

I believe there could be an interesting situation. Rutte and his VVD may get the majority of votes. But in order to form a government, he will have to cooperate with a number of parties. If he doesn't succeed, the head of a smaller party could become prime minister. That will depend on the coalition talks after the election. And I assure you - they'll be very complicated!

Philippe Remarque has been chief editor of the Amsterdam-based national daily de Volkskrant (translation: 'the people's newspaper') since 2010.

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