Johannes de Jong

For the Dutch, Brexit is a mistake – and a big opportunity

For the Dutch, Brexit is a mistake – and a big opportunity
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An advert in the Netherlands features a hairy beast warning about the looming departure of Britain from the EU. Move over Project Fear, this is Project Fur: a campaign aimed at urging businesses to brace themselves for a no-deal Brexit. So what do the Dutch make of the big blue Brexit monster? While the British media has been busy laughing at photos of the muppet-like creature straddling a desk as the Dutch foreign minister watches on, the truth is that this campaign has actually passed many people by. This is a shame: there are good reasons for Dutch folk to worry about the impact of an acrimonious Brexit. Such an outcome would be in no-one's interests. But just as British supporters of Brexit talk of it as an opportunity, so too do many people in the Netherlands – only from their point of view this will come at Britain's expense.

Still, it would be a mistake to miss the point of the Brexit monster. The purpose of the campaign is essentially mundane; the ministry of foreign affairs wanted to get entrepreneurs to run their firms through a ‘Brexit impact scan’; some did after seeing the advert. But no matter how scary the monster is, the Dutch are not afraid of Brexit. Whatever the reality, most Dutch people are convinced that the UK will be the biggest Brexit loser (with or without a deal). It's not hard to see why they might think that: while the British government seems unprepared for the scenario of no-deal (take a look at Chris Grayling's ferry fiasco), contingency plans in the Netherlands are well underway.  The country is among the best prepared in Europe for no-deal. Preparations for border and customs issues that might arise if Britain's departure is acrimonious are in place. Hundreds of additional customs officers have been hired, an outreach to Dutch citizens in the UK is taking place and the most vulnerable branches of the economy – transport, fishery and healthcare – are braced for what might come next. Parliament is also constantly being updated. And as the Brexit monster shows – as well as the £88m Brexit preparation programme – the government is determined to do its bit to keep Dutch people and companies informed.

What the Brexit monster doesn't reveal though is the more upbeat side to Britain's departure from the EU for the Netherlands: the bid to capitalise on Brexit. Politically, the Netherlands has a very simple ambition here: to take the UK's place in the EU. In the time since the 2016 referendum, Dutch PM Mark Rutte has been busy attempting to do just that. This has involved drumming up support for the so-called ‘Hanseatic League 2.0’. A host of EU leaders have been targeted as part of this Dutch charm offensive; in 2017, the Benulux countries attempted to form new alliances with a visit to the Visegrad 4 (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic). Last March, the country's finance minister, Wopke Hoekstra, hailed the result of these diplomatic efforts: he spoke warmly of the forging of 'an alliance with seven EU countries in which they jointly plead for a stronger economic Europe'.

The ultimate aim here is to bring together EU member states with a ‘Nordic mentality’. With Britain gone, the Dutch government wants to make sure that the EU works in the country's interests. Crucially this means that Brussels does not become too overbearing politically. It is also determined to prevent Germany and France from throwing their weight around. To try and stop this, the Netherlands has taken the lead in bringing Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the Baltic states together in common cause at EU level. Even in its infancy, this new alliance has been successful in thwarting overbearing French ambition. To ensure that this project works in the longer term, the Dutch government is seeking to ramp-up its diplomatic representation in the EU. This is all part of the strategy of making the Netherlands stronger in the EU, ensuring that the EU does not run astray – and picking up where Britain left off.

Yet this strategy isn't just about taking Britain's place at the table in Brussels. The Dutch are determined to go even further in actively chasing UK-based companies and trying to get them to move to the lowlands. The Netherlands has had some success here in snapping up the European Medicines Agency, which will bring its 900 staff to Amsterdam when it relocates next year. As many as 250 UK companies are also reportedly being wooed by the Dutch government; already 42 British firms – good for nearly 2,000 jobs – are set to make the move across the North Sea, according to an economic affairs ministry report. “In 2019, several companies, including Discovery and Bloomberg have already announced their intention to invest in the Netherlands because of Brexit,” the report claimed. The UK’s best and brightest are being welcomed with open arms.

So for many in the Netherlands, Brexit is seen simply as a mistake on the part of the Brits – but also an opportunity. As for no deal? Dutch people aren't blind to the problems this will cause – for Britain, and for the rest of the EU. A 'soft Brexit' could even cost the Netherlands three per cent of its GDP, according to one estimate. But it would be a mistake to think this advertising campaign shows that the Netherlands is running scared. Far from it. The Dutch are not asking their government to be lenient to the UK Brexit negotiation demands to prevent no-deal. And Brexit is nowhere near to being the most talked-about issue over here (climate change, for example, is far higher up the agenda). While many Dutch people would dearly love Britain – a like-minded ally – to stay in the EU, the Netherlands is already planning for a future without Britain in the EU. If the UK insists on leaving, the Netherlands is doing its best to make the most of the new opportunities it presents – even if this means the UK losing out.

Johannes de Jong is director of Sallux, the thinktank of the European Christian Political Movement