08 February, 2014


Stop me if I've told you this before, but several years ago, around the time of the EU Constitution fiasco, I was lecturing on the EU to some Erasmus students in Rome (Erasmus is the system whereby students can pursue their studies in another European country).

One of them, a young Dutchman, said there was really no need to put the matter to a referendum in his country since everyone was in favour - no opposition whatsoever. A few weeks later the Dutch voted 'No' to the constitution and it had to be foisted on them by calling it a Constitutional Treaty, which didn't require a referendum.

Nevertheless, Holland is one of the founder members of the European project and has traditionally been seen as one of the keenest. Things are changing, however. Economic growth in the Netherlands is tiny, the country has lost its AAA rating and there is concern about immigration and unemployment.

Geert Wilders's right-wing Freedom Party is likely, according to the opinion polls, to be the largest party in the European elections in May. Wilders is anti-EU as well as anti-immigrant and this time will enter the elections armed with a study by Capital Economics to the effect that if Holland left the EU (a concept known as Nexit, but of course it would be Hexit if you call the country Holland and Dexit if you are referring to the Dutch) it would by 2035 have a national income 10% higher than if it stayed in.

Whilst in the past talk has been only of the British leaving the EU (Brexit) or the Danes (another Dexit) this time there are strong anti-EU voices from Marine LePen's Front National in France (Frexit), Greece (Grexit) and for all I know one of the countries beginning with S.

Of course victory in the European elections does not mean victory in the national ones as the British UKIP can attest. But one of the interesting things is the effect this is having on the more mainstream parties. In the Netherlands Prime Minister Rutter, in order to fend Wilders off, is making noises about repatriating powers from the EU. The comical figure of Fran├žois Hollande was in England last week pleading with Mr Cameron not to go for a Treaty change since he knows he'd never get it past his own electorate. Mrs Merkel, who is on less shaky ground electorally, is inclined to bend a little with the Eurosceptic wind and not rule out repatriation of powers.

One of the winners of this new mood could be David Cameron, who is pressing, not for Brexit but for reform of the EU. Movements by governing parties to make concessions to Euroscepticism could play right into his hands.

My own guess is that Cameron won't succeed in reforming the EU, certainly by his 2017 deadline and that we are past the point of no return.

Still, everything to play for.

No comments: