Second from the left: former Nato secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.   Photo Vincent Mentzel Second from the left: former Nato secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.  Photo Vincent Mentzel

Dutch electorate seemingly apathetic to foreign affairs

Published: 8 June 2010 17:20 | Changed: 9 June 2010 12:19

The Netherlands can hardly be called isolationist, but foreign affairs play a very limited role in the current election campaign.

By Mark Kranenburg

Dutch elections generally fail to make headlines abroad. Their results are often buried deep inside foreign newspapers. To the rest of the world, the Netherlands simply isn't that important. The reverse now also seems to hold true: in the ongoing Dutch election campaign, the rest of the world is oddly absent.

This week's election is the direct result of a conflict regarding the Dutch military presence in Afghanistan, but the matter has barely been mentioned in the campaign. Labour, the party that left the coalition over the issue earlier this year, does not even mention Afghanistan in its election programme. Other parties devote only a paragraph or so to the Afghan venture, the biggest foreign military operation carried out by Dutch soldiers since the failed attempts to quell Indonesia's struggle for independence in the late 1940s.

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All politics is local

Even in a country that earns 70 percent of its gross domestic product abroad all politics is local. But in a small country like the Netherlands, this means a lot of attention for a relatively small slice of the planet. "These days, an unmistakable tendency has taken hold in the Netherlands to retreat behind our dykes, shutting out the evil outside world," former secretary general of Nato Jaap de Hoop Scheffer observed recently. "A fruitless endeavour," he added. "It might feel nice and cosy behind the dykes, but the view is very limited."

The absence of foreign affairs in the election campaign can be explained. A small country like the Netherlands can only exert limited influence on the world stage, usually through the European Union or Nato. Also, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, ideological differences regarding foreign policy have been greatly reduced in Dutch politics. Fundamental questions have made way for practical considerations. The conflict that led to the fall of the latest Dutch government was not about whether the Dutch cause in Afghanistan was a just one, the matter of contention was whether the Netherlands had done its part, leaving it time for others to bear their share of the burden.

Labour clearly felt so, as do most other political parties. Not one political programme calls for a return of Dutch forces to Afghanistan, signalling an implicit approval of the Dutch retreat. Still, last Friday, during a meeting of the Atlantic Committee, a forum where Dutch politician discuss international security issues, nobody ruled out a renewed Dutch military presence in Afghanistan.

Hans van Baalen, a member of European parliament for the right-wing liberal VVD, called it "very conceivable" that Dutch soldiers would be sent to Afghanistan again in the next two to three years. The Christian Democratic member of parliament Henk Jan Ormel agreed. Even Wassila Hachchi, a prospective parliamentarian for left-wing liberal D66, said she would not object, as long as the troops were sent on a "stabilisation mission". Simon van Driel, who sits in the Dutch senate for the Labour party, has said a return to Afghanistan is "open for discussion".

Cutbacks on foreign policy

The question remains whether the Dutch armed forces will be able to muster sufficient capacity if they are called upon in the near future. Only the VVD wants to increase defence spending, by 120 million euros, in the coming years. All other major parties want to reduce the defence budget: by amounts varying from 2 to half a billion eruos. Most money will have to come from cutbacks on the Joint Strike Fighter and further-reaching international cooperation. A new development in this campaign is that the broad consensus regarding foreign aid spending has been upended. Until recently, the populist PVV was the only party that wanted to scrap the foreign aid budget, which is now fixed at 0.8 percent of GDP. For other parties, that figure used to be sacrosanct, but now VVD is also looking to halve the amount spent on foreign aid. CDA still mentions the 0.8 percent figure in its political programme – 0.1 percent of which is devoted to international climate policy - but it has cited a lower, 0.7 figure elsewhere. The small orthodox Christian parties are the only ones left looking to increase the foreign aid budget.

It is very well possible that the first cutback measure in the foreign affairs department could be taken very close to home. The office of foreign aid minister could very well soon be abolished. CDA, VVD and GroenLinks all want to create a single ministerial post for international relations. That minister would then be responsible for all foreign affairs including development aid. This would, for one, be more in line with limited Dutch influence on the international stage.

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