Twelve years ago, when I was still a young member of the European parliament, and an enthusiastic supporter of New Labour and the third way, I was invited by Roger Liddle to speak at a dinner debate in London chaired by the then British prime minister, Tony Blair. Two hundred centre-left politicians and advisers from across the world were in attendance.
The other speakers that evening were all sitting prime ministers. I was immensely proud to be part of this line-up and had been preparing my remarks for weeks. When my turn finally came, I spoke passionately about the future of the EU, which was about to undergo major transformation with the accession of the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe.
When I was done, Blair got up, shook my hand and grabbed the microphone. My speech had gone well, I felt, and secretly I was hoping that the political leader I most admired in those days would see fit to praise my contribution to the discussion. In the event I did get an endorsement, but not quite the one I was expecting. “Isn’t it great how the Dutch all speak such excellent English?” said Blair, grinning broadly. And that was it.
The British and the Dutch have a long history of mutual admiration (as well as, prior to that, mutual destruction), but as in the above example, when it comes to perceptions, the relationship can be distinctly asymmetrical. Take sports, for instance. Both countries are football-obsessed. But the Brits love the art of Dutch ‘total football’, whereas we Dutch despise the rough and tumble of the Premier League. Or consider humour. The Dutch like to laugh with the Brits (Monty Python has a large Dutch following), whereas Brits prefer to laugh at the Dutch (Harry Enfield’s Dutch policemen are a case in point).
As it is with sports and humour, so it is with politics. Over the years there has been much common ground between London and the Hague on a wide range of issues, from international security to welfare reform. In the 1980s Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers got on famously well with Margaret Thatcher. Both were strong supporters of the Atlantic alliance during the cold war. His successor, Wim Kok, and Tony Blair were brothers in arms in their pursuit of reform of the welfare state. And by all accounts current Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has struck up a good personal rapport with David Cameron.
But on the question of Europe, there is more that separates the two seafaring nations than unites them. The Netherlands was a founding member of the EU and one of the driving forces behind the introduction of the euro. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey on the issue, three out of four Dutch people think the euro is a good idea. When it comes to the finer details of decision-making in Brussels, the Hague generally takes its cue from Berlin.
To be sure, there is common ground when it comes to issues like completion of the internal market and promoting international trade. Dutch culture is heavily skewed towards the UK and the US, and our excellent command of the English language (dixit Blair) makes it easier for the Dutch to communicate with Brits than, say, the Germans or the French.
But the Dutch believe their destiny is firmly bound up with that of the rest of Europe. Our economy relies on exports, and most of our exports go to the rest of the EU. The euro has brought a headache, but not as much of a headache as operating in a single market with fluctuating currencies.
So the Dutch look at a possible Brexit with a mixture of amusement, sympathy and bewilderment. Amusement, because the fabricated tabloid scare stories and Nigel Farage’s political standup routine tickle our British sense of humour. Sympathy because, like the UK, we believe the EU’s dysfunctions need to be addressed head on. And bewilderment, because we find it hard to believe that a country with such close geographical, economic and cultural links to mainland Europe would consider going it alone in a world where having close and reliable partners is once again of paramount importance.
Britain, we do not want to lose you, and we think you ought to stay.
This article was first published on the Policy Network website on the occasion of the launch of “The Risk of Brexit: Britain and Europe in 2015” by Roger Liddle.