The Dutch general election on 22 November promises to be nothing less than a political earthquake. A new political party, New Social Contract (NSC) – formed only in August this year – and its leader Pieter Omtzigt stand a fair chance of winning the election. Omtzigt has been a member of the Dutch House of Representatives for 20 years. His opposition to poor governance and gross government mishandlings, such as the child benefits scandal in 2021, has earned him an almost sacred aura in the public eye and his political opponents are finding it difficult to compete.
The advent of NSC has gone hand in hand with an exodus of the standard-bearers of the current coalition parties, including the longest serving Dutch prime minister in history, Mark Rutte, who will step down once a new government is sworn in. Of the current coalition, only the centre-right Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is still contending for the top spot under its leader Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius. In addition to Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, Omtzigt is competing against Frans Timmermans, the former European Commission vice-president, who is leading a Green-Labour alliance. None of the 17 parties in the House of Representatives is polling at over 20 per cent of the vote. A new coalition is therefore likely to consist of at least three, and more likely more, parties. If current polls are anything to go by, Omtzigt seems to carry the best hand. As a centrist, he could form a left- or right-oriented coalition and has openly entertained the option of a minority coalition. This makes a government without him almost inconceivable.
While the electoral campaign has almost exclusively focused on domestic issues, the new government will come to power at a moment of great opportunity for Dutch foreign policy. There appears to be a rare broad consensus between the main parties on many foreign policy issues, which could see the Netherlands step forward as a strong European power to help the European Union bolster its foreign policy ambitions. The NSC, VVD, and Green-Labour alliance are all resolved to support Ukraine and to boost defence spending to the NATO target of 2 per cent of GDP. According to the parties’ election manifestos, there is also a rather new support across the political spectrum for increased European geopolitical power. Amid the current geopolitical tensions, targeted industrial policy to secure vital industries, access to critical raw materials, and securing supply chains have become common goods in a country in which the fundamental foreign policy anchors not so long ago consisted of free trade and an Atlantic orientation. The majority of parties also support EU enlargement, though without much enthusiasm and only once candidate countries have met the accession criteria.
Although more contentious, there is even an emerging consensus on asylum and migration, which caused the collapse of the current caretaker coalition last June. The debate is now wider in scope and covers broader and related domestic issues such as additional pressures on scarce housing and tax breaks for expats. But the centre of gravity of the debate shows decreasing public support for absorbing sustained numbers of immigrants – hence the proposals of tougher immigration policies by parties including the VVD, Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), and NSC, such as (temporary) immigration stops, quotas, and attempts to implement forced returns of failed applicants.
A new coalition government can meet these clearly defined and broadly shared challenges with more forward-leaning European policies. But traditional Dutch frugality may thwart this effort. Omtzigt was outspoken on EU finances as a parliamentarian and with his party in a new government, the Netherlands is likely to take strict positions on EU finance and reform, putting him squarely in a longstanding Dutch tradition. Omtzigt wants Europe to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Russian aggression and Chinese assertiveness and even against “American economic patriotism”. But it is unclear how he plans to get there while simultaneously warning against the “creeping transfers of competence, tasks and budgets that undermine national sovereignty”. Similarly, on migration, NSC calls for strengthened European cooperation and burden-sharing, whilst also suggesting opt-outs of EU asylum policy. In past years, some of the internal political pressure on the migration file was eased by Rutte’s personal connections and active diplomacy. It remains to be seen how effectively a future government can operate given the legal and practical complications of more radical policy change, making a significant shift in asylum policy unlikely. On enlargement, the debate about internal EU reforms both of policies and budgets will likely be met by familiar Dutch eagerness to reduce financial transfers from northern European countries to southern and eastern ones. NSC wants to work towards creating a ring of stability around Europe and does not oppose enlargement once the candidate countries meet the accession criteria, but according to its manifesto it is unwilling to accept the budgetary consequences.
The sudden rise of a newcomer upsetting the established political parties has become a kind of tradition in Dutch politics. Previous elections have seen small parties surge to become the largest party nationally, before dropping back considerably – List Pim Fortuyn in 2002, Forum for Democracy in 2019, and the BBB in 2023. The staying power of NSC is yet to be tested. But if Omtzigt is successful, he will need to be willing to break with some traditions. Once the domestic electoral dust has settled, a new government should leverage the fairly broad national foreign policy consensus to support the EU in delivering on its shared geopolitical ambitions on enlargement, economic security, migration, and climate change. A traditional Dutch European policy dominated by budgetary concerns and competence restrictiveness would be missing a great opportunity and an urgent call.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.