Dutch reluctantly shift to EU-wide response on migrants


Picture of Louise van Schaik
Louise van Schaik

Head of the Clingendael International Sustainability Centre and Senior Research Fellow at Clingendael Institute

Four years ago, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte referred to asylum-seekers arriving in southern EU member states as a problem of ‘geographic location’, saying that countries like Italy simply had ‘bad luck’. Steeply-rising numbers of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean and rocketing asylum applications this year prompted Dutch politicians to acknowledge there is a common European dimension. Redistributing asylum-seekers to the Netherlands is now openly supported by the governing coalition of conservative-liberals (VVD) and social-democrats (PvdA).

Migration and asylum are highly-sensitive issues for the coalition. The government almost collapsed in April over the treatment of asylum-seekers awaiting deportation in the so-called “bed, bath and bread crisis”. The VVD stood firm on the principle of not offering shelter to those who were rejected asylum, but the PvdA argued for a minimum level of care. As a result of this debacle, presumably, the Netherlands kept quiet when Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s François Hollande led the way in finding a European answer to what from then onwards has been known as “the refugee crisis”.

In September, the coalition presented a plan to drastically change Europe’s asylum policy. Both parties interpreted the compromise in their own way, provoking criticism from the opposition parties. Where PvdA leader Diederik Samsom stated that the Netherlands and Europe should take in “as many refugees as possible”, VVD leader Halbe Zijlstra emphasised the need for reception centres in the region – he even suggested sending asylum-seekers back to ‘safe havens’ outside EU territory.

The tough VVD stance may have everything to do with the popularity in recent polls of Geert Wilders. His anti-immigration party, the PVV, is polling historically high and now leads in terms of potential parliamentary seats. Wilders is a strong opponent of the emergency asylum centres that the government has called for.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Netherlands is unlikely to keep the refugee crisis off the agenda of its EU Presidency in the first half of next year. Migration and asylum, including a possible revision of the Dublin Regulation, were not originally on the list of official priorities, but have since been added. That Slovakia, a fierce opponent of the migrant quota system, will take over the Presidency for the second half of 2016 places extra weight on Dutch shoulders. The Netherlands may well find itself at the forefront of the European debate on refugees and migration.

Ideological differences will make it hard for the VVD and PvdA to agree, but the coalition is unlikely to fall apart. Good economic prospects provide sufficient ground against the coalition parties’ bad polls to see the government through to the end of its term in 2017.

The national debate is shifting towards practical options for tackling the refugee crisis, including ideas for what the EU can do in Syria and its neighbours, whether the rules can be changed to make asylum a temporary status, and how the EU can promote the return of former asylum-seekers to their countries of origin. This illustrates the issue is now truly embraced as a common European matter in need of an adequate response.

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