The “EU-lephant” In The Room

A set of flagpoles with the flag of the European Union
Photo by Guillaume Périgois on Unsplash

Earlier this year, The Netherlands saw its citizens celebrating European values as they had never done before, and I’m not talking about the Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam (though this is a fascinating subject to me). I’m referring to the Dutch legislative elections, where two pro-European parties, D66 and Volt, obtained the best results on their electoral history. Considering that EU-related issues had been so little debated during the campaign that the topic was deemed as the “elephant in the room”, and that The Netherlands had been highly critical of the Union’s coronavirus recovery plan, I wondered what these results were telling us about European citizenship and identity in the country.

What are D66 and Volt?

Before I get into any explanations, let me give you an overview of the parties we are examining. On the one hand, we find the socioliberal and pro-EU D66, who came second with 24 seats out of 150 and 15% of the vote. The party is led by Sigrid Kaag, a former UN diplomat who blamed other party leaders for treating EU-related matters as a secondary issue (Kahn, 2021).

Volt, however, is a whole different deal: arising as a reaction to the anti-EU sentiment fostered by Brexit, this is a transnational party with different branches across 28 European countries (meaning you have Volt Netherlands, Volt Germany, Volt Spain, and so on). Led by young and educated figures, Volt is the first party to openly defend the creation of a European Federation, to the point that all of its branches usually advocate for the exact same policies, which include the transfer of sovereignty over sectors like taxation or health from the member states to a “Federal Europe”. The party entered the Tweede Kamer (the Dutch House of Representatives) for the first time with 3 seats and 2.42% of the vote. Still, although to different degrees, both parties represent the values of what is understood as a European identity.

Clear favourites among the young and educated

Data from the Ipsos poll conducted by NOS (Dutch Broadcasting Foundation) revealed that about 23% of voters between the ages 18 and 24 voted for D66, making it the first party among this group, whilst an additional 5% voted for Volt (NOS, 2021-A). Volt’s situation is even more noteworthy as half of their voters are younger than 35 (NOS, 2021-B). Thus, younger citizens seem more likely to hold a European identity and so are more prone to vote for parties that reflect it, which is in line with previous surveys and literature linking younger cohorts to feelings of supranational identification.

Comparison of the percentage vote between citizens aged 18–24 and the complete electorate. D66, Volt, GL, Denk and FvD show the largest increases. CDA, PvdA, CU and SP show the largest decreases.
Comparison of the percentage vote between citizens aged 18–24 and the complete electorate. Significant increases/decreases highlighted in green/red. Data from NOS.

Furthermore, highly educated voters (e.g.: those studying or holding a university degree) made up 75% of Volt’s electorate and 60% of D66’s, and both parties performed well in student cities like Delft or Leiden, as well as bigger cities with a high concentration of educated voters like Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague (NOS, 2021-B; NOS, 2021-C). Education and urbanization are both factors linked to a stronger attachment to European institutions: unlike citizens in rural areas, voters living in big cities are more likely to be exposed to different cultures, whilst a higher education has been associated with a greater European identity (Ceka & Sojka, 2016).

What does this say about citizenship?

The majority of Volt’s electorate grew up with certain privileges associated with the EU (borderless movement, common currency) and might have normalized the existence of European institutions and the rights granted by them. Following Saskia Sassen’s theories of citizenship (understood as the bearing of rights), it would make sense for younger Dutch voters to have developed a transnational feeling of citizenship thanks to that expansion of liberties created by the Union (2006). This form of “postnational citizenship” does not imply that the Dutch are substituting their national citizenship, but rather they are complementing it with a more accurate representation of their legal status as Europeans. Overall, this makes them more likely to vote for parties who understand and defend that new dimension of citizenship.

Anticipating counterarguments

Whilst this is a fair theory, the electoral results still raise two possible problems. First, socially liberal parties are generally more likely to appeal to young and educated voters in urbanized areas, regardless of their stance on the EU so, what if these voters identified with the liberal values, but no the European? I think this point could be somehow valid for D66, but it fails to explain why 250,000 citizens voted for a brand new, openly eurofederalist party instead of giving their votes directly to D66, especially considering the sharp increase of this party’s popularity. Moreover, in light of the poor results of other socioliberal parties like GroenLinks and BIJ1, we have no reasons to believe that these voters were moved by socioliberal values alone.

Second, how can we explain the rise of eurosceptic forces like Forum for Democracy (FvD) and JA21? The thing is that few of their voters are likely to hold a European identity. Both parties were popular in rural areas, FvD winning over young, but uneducated voters, and JA21 over older, but educated voters, this is, citizens who are more likely to reject processes of globalization and transnational integration (NOS, 2021-B). At most, we could say that the rise of both eurofederalist and eurosceptic parties shows that stronger support and backlash for the EU are yet to come.

What lesson can we take from the elections?

Three things stand out from Volt’s and D66’s results. First, young and educated voters who have experienced the legal advantages from the EU are more likely to support pro-EU parties. Second, these voters might hold a European identity representing a new dimension of European citizenship arising from the new legal status granted by the Union. Third, there might be an increasing conflict between the political forces representing this postnational citizenship and those symbolizing exclusive, national identities.

I think it’s fair to say that the EU was anything but the “elephant in the room” and, judging by the behavioural processes underlying the election, it is unlikely to become that soon. Of course, we are yet to address the impact of the pandemic and it is somehow early to tell whether Volt can live up to its expectations (although they are currently polling at 6 seats). Still, I’m excited to see how this European narrative unfolds and the effects it might have on the EU.

Sources

● Ceka, B. & Sojka, A. (2016). Loving it but not feeling it yet? The state of European identity after the eastern enlargement. European Union Politics, 0(0), 1–22.

● Kahn, M. (2021, March 18th). Rutte set for historic fourth term in coalition with pro-EU party. Financial Times. Retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/eb7a4217-4f77-43bf-9cc0-85e76850bee9

● NOS. (2021-A, March 18th). Wat als alleen jonge mensen hadden gestemd? NOS. Retrieved from https://nos.nl/op3/collectie/13860/artikel/2373171-wat-als-alleen-jonge-mensen-hadden-gestemd

● NOS. (2021-B, March 18th). Verkiezingen in cijfers: hoge opkomst onder jongeren en zorg belangrijkste thema. NOS. Retrieved from https://nos.nl/collectie/13860/artikel/2373083-verkiezingen-in-cijfers-hoge-opkomst-onder-jongeren-en-zorg-belangrijkste-thema

● NOS. (2021-C, March 18th). De nieuwe politieke kaart van Nederland: ‘Kloof tussen centrum en periferie groeit’. NOS. Retrieved from https://nos.nl/collectie/13860/artikel/2373193-de-nieuwe-politieke-kaart-van-nederland-kloof-tussen-centrum-en-periferie-groeit

● Sassen, S. (2006). “Foundational Subjects for Political Membership: Today’s Changed Relation to the Nation-State,” in Territory, Authority, Rights. Princeton, Princeton University Press, pp. 277–322.

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University student. I spend time thinking about Politics, Film and Eurovision (especially the last one)

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Carlos González Soffner

Carlos González Soffner

University student. I spend time thinking about Politics, Film and Eurovision (especially the last one)

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