The collapse of a Dutch coalition government over a proposed refugee policy has again underlined the power of immigration as an arbiter of Europe’s politics and how to prevent far-right parties from capitalizing on it is a growing problem for mainstream politicians.
The current crisis in the Netherlands was precipitated by its conservative prime minister, Mark Rutte, who resigned after his centrist coalition partners refused to back his tough new refugee policy.
Dutch media reported that Mr Rutte had proposed, among other things, a two-year waiting period before the children of recognized refugees living in the Netherlands could join their parents, a non-starter for his coalition partners.
For Mr Rutte, a deft operator known as “Teflon Mark” for his durability during 13 years in power, holding the line on an issue many of his voters care deeply about was a matter of political survival, analysts say, who went beyond . the lifetime of this particular coalition.
More broadly, his willingness to topple the government rather than compromise on the issue speaks to a new phase of European migration policy. Recently empowered far-right parties have dominated the narrative on migration, tapping into growing public fears about national identity, and Mr Rutte’s insistence on an unusual, tough policy appeared aimed at precisely preventing that, analysts said.
And that deeper issue is taking place against the backdrop of a cost of living crisis, insecurity stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, growing numbers of asylum seekers and migrant tragedies at EU borders.
Over the last decade or so, centrist parties have sought to accommodate the hard-line migration views of traditional conservative voters while banding together to keep far-right parties at bay. But as the collapse of the Dutch government seems to show, that strategy may be running its course.
Mr Rutte’s four-party coalition, which included two smaller parties to his left, was already in trouble. The way he chose to end it was akin to a controlled demolition.
“That the coalition collapsed over this issue is extremely surprising,” said Marcel Hanegraaff, associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. But that it collapsed was hardly a shock, he added. “It just wasn’t a happy marriage.”
Mr Rutte said he would not form a government with far-right parties such as Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, an anti-immigration group that entered the scene nearly two decades ago in an earlier revolt against immigrants. Mr Wilders enjoyed limited electoral success, but his ideas found wider appeal and permeated mainstream politics after the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, when more than one million refugees sought safety in Europe.
On the European stage, Mr. Rutte emerged as a staunch defender of curbing migration to the European Union, carving out a different role for himself from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, who has roots in the extreme right, or Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the conservative Greek leader who oversaw brutal border practices against migrants.
Underscoring his role in Europe, and the growing importance of migration policy at home, Mr Rutte accompanied Ms Meloni and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on a recent visit to Tunisia, where the three proposed to the government up to 1 billion dollars in financial aid and asked it to prevent migrants from coming to Europe.
Mr Rutte has also been a strong supporter of European migration management tools such as the joint European Union border agency, with an eye to keeping migrants away from Europe’s wealthy northern cores where his country is located.
In the European context, the Netherlands hardly registers as a country with a serious migration problem. It is the fourth richest nation of the EU, but ranks exactly according to the EU average in the refugee population it hosts. However, the number of people seeking asylum in the Netherlands has increased over the past year, in line with the general trend in Europe.
But Dutch analysts say a critical issue fueling anxiety over migration is an affordable housing crisis, fueled by the idea that the country, with its growing population and expanding agricultural sector, is running out of space.
Critics say the hard line advocated by Mr Rutte would have had a limited impact even if it had been implemented. The number of refugees in the Netherlands seeking family members to join them is so small, said Mark Klaassen, assistant professor of Immigration Law at Leiden University, that it would not make a significant dent in the total number of refugees.
Mr Klaassen said Mr Rutte, known as a consensus builder who had previously been reluctant to use migration policy to his own advantage, appeared to have changed his stance. “What is new is that with this development, migration law is being used to gain political advantage,” he added.
Mr Klaassen said Mr Rutte’s migration problems were part of his own government. Slow processing has exacerbated bottlenecks in the asylum process, Mr Klaassen said. And the lack of affordable housing has caused recognized refugees to overstay in processing centers as they struggle to find permanent homes, leading to overcrowding and inhumane living conditions.
Attje Kuiken, the leader of the Dutch Workers’ Party, one of the two coalition members who oppose Mr Rutte’s proposals, called the decision to let the government fall over the issue irresponsible, citing the housing crisis and inflation as more pressing problems. facing the government. Dutch government, among others.
“Rutte has chosen his own interests over those of the country, and I hope everyone will see that,” Ms Kuiken told a Dutch talk show.
“We saw a very different Mark Rutte,” said Jan Paternotte, the party president of the centrist D66, one of the coalition parties that has refused to support some of Mr Rutte’s migration policies. He added that Mr. Rutte refused to compromise on his proposals, and questioned the real motives behind the intractability.
The collapse of the government delighted Mr. Wilders, the right-wing leader who took to Twitter to say that its end would make the Netherlands “a beautiful country again, with less asylum seekers and crime, more money and housing for our own people.”
What happens next in Dutch politics is not yet clear, and Mr Rutte could still try to form a new coalition government, although he may face the same set of coalition choices. On Friday evening he submitted his resignation to the Dutch king and will remain as interim prime minister until fresh elections are held, probably in November.