Dutch newspaper headlines on the day after the result of the British referendum on the EU used expressions like “flabbergasted” and “earthquake”. In general, there was a sense of shock in the Netherlands.
How could this have happened in Britain? But let us apply a reality check. Did we not have the same media reaction when France and Holland rejected the EU constitution, 11 years ago, in referenda? And did we not have the same promises then that the EU had to respond by becoming more democratic and that the ‘advantages’ of the EU should be communicated in a better way by all parties? And what happened afterwards? Yes, absolutely nothing. All efforts were directed towards pushing the referendum results under the table and to have the EU constitution accepted under a different name. The only difference this time is that the British EU referendum result cannot be ignored so easily.
The debate in the Dutch media and even among the Dutch Left is that the Brexit is some sort of tragic mistake. It will give fuel to racist parties to start campaigns for the exit of other EU member nations. It is the result of anger, resentment, bitterness, xenophobia and racism. Of course, the result had a lot to do with resentment and bitterness over the destruction that 30 years of Thatcherism and Blairism wrought on working class lives, communities and living conditions. The same happened in Holland during the years of the Lubbers’ government, when jobs and working conditions were destroyed on a massive scale, when social security was drastically reduced. And during the years of Labour’s Prime Minister Kok, when steady jobs, good wages and pensions were undermined and public services were privatised, with a huge loss in quality. The trade unions were reduced to a shadow of their former strength.
In the years of Prime Minister Balkenende, at the beginning of this century, the process continued unabatedly. Using the utterly false argument that a shortage of labour would occur, the age of retirement was raised in spite of massive protests (300,000 trade unionists demonstrated in 2004). Older people were forced to work many more years, pushing young people out of the job market and into “flexible” jobs. Yes, anger, resentment and bitterness, especially among older workers, were the result of years of these policies. Health care was eroded. Retirement homes were closed; they now had to live “in the community”. All of these measures were hugely unpopular but Dutch politicians often pointed the finger of blame at the EU to quell the protests.
Do racism and anti-immigrant feelings have anything to do with the mood of anger that has existed for years? Yes, of course they have ‘something’ to do with it. It is true that anti-EU sentiments are strong among racist parties, like Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands. These populist organisations are trying to grab the lead of the anti EU-movement everywhere in Europe. In fact, Wilders popularity has been waning in the polls since the beginning of the year. He desperately needs a new approach.
It is also true to say that because of the setbacks for the left in the eighties and nineties, racist parties and movements started to rear their ugly heads at the beginning of this century. They thoroughly distorted the anger and resentment of workers left defenceless after social democracy went over to the side of neo-liberalism.
Without any doubt, racism and immigration would play a role in a referendum about Dutch membership of the EU, as in Britain. In the early years of this century, the ruling classes saw racist parties as useful auxiliary troops to make sure that anger and resentment would not go to left parties and the unions. Geert Wilders’ party started as a small split-off from the Liberal Party.
But from smaller units, the racist parties became bigger political entities that seriously started to threaten the functioning of the ruling classes by undermining their globalisation and “supra-nationalism” through xenophobia and racial hatred. In Holland, employers started to realise the risks of racism after the referendum in 2005. Politically, the risks became obvious when the Freedom Party was part of a conservative government from 2010-2013. Without any doubt, racist parties used anger and resentment among workers about austerity and turned them into racist channels. Bosses used anything to drive down wages and conditions and this has had an effect.
Some major bourgeois newspapers and media now complain that racism is everywhere in society. Racism has become the standard in Holland. Strong outbursts of rage occur whenever racism is challenged, like in the debate about the role of slavery in history and in the “debate” about “Black Pete” the little slave helper of Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa Claus. Because of so-called police profiling, successful artists from a Moroccan background (born and raised in the Netherlands) have been stopped by police regularly. Job applicants are rejected on a massive scale because they have the “wrong” (Moroccan or Turkish) name.
Resentment against Brussels’ neoliberal policies
In Dutch society, there is a high level of racism. But that is not because racism is a strong political force. Racism is strong because workers' organisations are not combative enough. There is not a strong enough working class counterweight. The workers' movement needs to respond to racism and anti-immigrant bigotry by mobilising the working class around policies like jobs for all, a living wage, proper affordable housing and decent health care and education.
Yet, it would be a mistake on the Left to put all anti-EU sentiments in the bag of racism and anti-immigrant feelings or to embrace the completely capitalist EU because resistance would only supposedly lead to racism and xenophobia. The first reason is that if anger and resentment over Brussels’ neo-liberal policies is left to racist parties to exploit, the Left will miss an opportunity to rebuild the working class movement. The second is that in any movement around a Yes/No referendum a mixture of feelings and considerations will play a role.
It is vital to stress the importance of opposing the EU as an institution for and by capitalists. Even before the Brexit referendum, a referendum on a Netherlands exit was been suggested by the Socialist Party (former Maoist party) in the Netherlands and by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV). The Socialist Party in the Netherlands wants to “reform” the EU; the EU should stick to its ‘main tasks’, the European Commission should be abolished and the result of these reforms should be put to the vote in a referendum. Unfortunately the idea of ‘reforming’ the EU is not very realistic. Socialist Alternative (CWI Netherlands) argues that if a referendum takes place, the SP should use it in order to campaign for anti-austerity and socialism. The SP has, so far, failed to profit from the large decline of the Dutch Labour Party in the polls. It has also failed to profit from Labour’s participation in the local government of several cities, like Amsterdam and Utrecht.
The PVV (Freedom Party) is copying the United Kingdom Independence Party's propaganda about “loss of control” and the need of immigration controls to win the next Dutch election, on this basis. Establishment parties are trying to avoid a referendum at all costs. They still remember the rejection of the European Constitution in the 2005 Dutch referendum.
The present coalition of the Liberal Party and the Labour Party is set to lose heavily in the upcoming elections; the Labour Party even more so than the Liberal Party, which has been in power for six years now. Even before the EU-referendum, it was clear that a more complicated combination of neoliberal parties would be needed necessary to form a government. Also, the Freedom Party came out of all polls, so far, as the biggest party. Wilders has already said: “our turn is next.” He has made it clear that a vote for him is a vote for a referendum on a Netherlands exit from the EU. A referendum before the next elections is next to impossible as under Dutch law only new treaties or government measures can be put to a referendum vote.
In the run-up to the national elections in March 2017 we will see “avoidance” politics i.e. avoid defeat and avoid a referendum on the EU. The complicated political situation in Britain and Europe will be used for scaremongering. Around 61% of Dutch exports go to Germany, Belgium, France, Britain and Italy (This is why the Netherlands will suffer a setback from Brexit). “Project Fear” is already running up steam. Like British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, has a lot of fear and austerity on offer and very little progress.
If the Socialist Party in the Netherlands would campaign against the EU, explaining how nationalisation of the railways or the steel industry are illegal under its laws, and standing in solidarity with workers in Greece, Ireland and the rest of the EU, a successful election result would be possible. If combined with a strong struggle against austerity, the SP could take the wind out of the sails of the Freedom Party.
Brexit means that the capitalist class in Europe and in the Netherlands is in crisis and on the defensive. The established political parties are also on the defensive now. The Freedom Party has only the poison of racism and division on offer. It is important that the voice of the working class is heard in the election campaign. A mass political party, fighting austerity and the capitalist EU, armed with socialist policies, would make a huge difference.