Collapse of Dutch Government Highlights Europe’s New Migration Politics

The collapse of a Dutch coalition government over a proposed refugee policy has once again underscored the potency of immigration as an arbiter of Europe’s politics and how stopping 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 policy on refugees.

Dutch news outlets 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 nonstarter for his coalition partners.

For Mr. Rutte, a deft operator known as “Teflon Mark” for his resilience over 13 years in power, holding the line on an issue that many of his voters care deeply about was a matter of political survival, analysts say, that went beyond the life span of this particular coalition.

More broadly, Mr. Rutte’s willingness to bring down the government rather than compromise on the issue speaks to a new phase of European migration politics. Recently empowered far-right parties have dominated the narrative on migration, seizing on growing public fears about national identity, and Mr. Rutte’s insistence on an unusual, tough policy seemed aimed at preventing just that, analysts said.

And that deeper issue is playing out across the continent against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, insecurity stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a growing number of asylum seekers and migrant tragedies at E.U. borders.

Since the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, Italy, Germany and France, as well as smaller E.U. countries, have seen the rise of far-right political parties that have reshaped their countries’ political fortunes.

Matteo Salvini, a powerful far-right politician, for example, has been a key figure in Italian politics; Marine Le Pen of France, who uses anti-migration and anti-establishment messaging, came dangerously close last spring to beating Emmanuel Macron for the presidency of the republic.

And Viktor Orban of Hungary, the anti-European Union, illiberal leader, has weaponized anti-migration rhetoric to become a leading global voice in the identitarian movement, with a large following among the American right.

Over the past decade or so, centrist parties have sought to accommodate the tough migration views of traditional conservative voters while coming together to keep the 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 the left of his, was already in trouble. The way he chose to end it was akin to a controlled demolition.

“That the coalition collapsed over this topic is extremely surprising,” said Marcel Hanegraaff, an associate professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam. But that it collapsed was barely a shock, he added.

“It just wasn’t a happy marriage,” he said.

Mr. Rutte has said he will not form a government with far-right parties like Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom, an anti-migration group that entered the scene nearly two decades ago in an earlier revolt against immigrants. Mr. Wilders has enjoyed limited electoral success, but his ideas found broader appeal and permeated mainstream politics after the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, when more than one million refugees sought safety in Europe.

On the European stage, Mr. Rutte has emerged as a steadfast advocate for curbing migration to the European Union, carving a different role for himself from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, who has roots in the far right, or Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the conservative Greek leader who has overseen brutal border practices against migrants.

Highlighting his role in Europe, and the growing significance of migration politics 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 offered the government up to $1 billion in financial aid and asked it to stop migrants from coming to Europe, including by having Tunisian law enforcement stop migrant boats from leaving illegally. The presence of a far-right leader and a mainstream conservative one in Tunis signaled broad E.U. backing for direct partnerships with the countries of origin of would-be migrants.

Mr. Rutte has also been a strong supporter of Europe-wide migration-management tools like the joint European Union border agency, with an eye toward keeping migrants away from Europe’s wealthy northern heartlands, where his country lies.

In the European context, the Netherlands barely registers as a country with a serious migration problem. It is the bloc’s fourth-richest nation, but the refugee population that it hosts, as a percentage of its population, ranks right on the E.U. average. Still, the number of people seeking asylum in the Netherlands has grown over the past year, in step with the overall trend in Europe.

But Dutch analysts say that a critical issue that feeds the angst over migration is an affordable housing crisis, reinforced by the idea that the country, with its growing population and sprawling agricultural sector, is running out of space.

Critics say the tough line Mr. Rutte advocated would have had a limited impact even if it were enacted. The number of refugees in the Netherlands looking to have family members join them is so small, said Mark Klaassen, an assistant professor of immigration law at the Leiden University, that it would not make a meaningful dent in the total number of refugees.

Mr. Klaassen said that Mr. Rutte, known as a consensus builder who had previously been unwilling to use migration politics to his own advantage, seemed to be changing his stance. “What is new is that with this development, migration law is being used to gain political advantage,” Mr. Klaassen added.

Mr. Klaassen said that Mr. Rutte’s migration woes were partly his own government’s making. Slow processing has worsened bottlenecks in the asylum process, Mr. Klaassen said. And the lack of affordable housing has led recognized refugees to overstay in processing centers because they struggle to find permanent homes, causing overcrowding and inhumane living conditions.

Attje Kuiken, the leader of the opposition Dutch Labor Party, called the decision to let the government collapse over this issue irresponsible, citing a housing crisis and inflation as more pressing problems facing the Netherlands’ government, among other things.

“Rutte chose his own interests over those of the country, and I hope everyone sees that,” Ms. Kuiken said on a Dutch talk show.

“We saw a very different Mark Rutte,” said Jan Paternotte, the party chairman of the centrist D66, one of the coalition parties that refused to support some of Mr. Rutte’s migration policies. He added that Mr. Rutte refused to compromise on his proposals, and he questioned the real motives behind the intractability.

The government’s collapse delighted Mr. Wilders, the right-wing leader, who wrote on Twitter that its end would make the Netherlands a “beautiful country again, with fewer asylum seekers and crime, more money and housing for our own people.”

But what happens next in Dutch politics is not clear, and probably will not be until an election can be held, most likely in November. Mr. Rutte, who on Friday evening tendered his resignation to the Dutch king, will stay on as caretaker prime minister until then.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *