Looking across borders – the recent rise of the Dutch Green Party

by Bregje van Veelen

Looking across borders – the recent rise of the Dutch Green Party

Although we’re a network of mostly UK-based researchers, we like to keep an eye on what else is happening in the world. This month: a closer look at the recent rise of the Dutch Green party.

Image result for groenlinks

A week before the parliamentary elections on 15 March the Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks – GreenLeft) arranged an election hustings in a concert hall in Amsterdam – 5,000 people attended. As many followed the event online. The following week the party won 14 seats: a significant increase from the four seats it held during the previous parliamentary term. While still only the 5th largest party (out of 13) in the 150-seat Dutch parliament it was the best ever national electoral performance for the party. It also looks likely that the Greens will be part of the governing coalition. That’s right, 6 weeks after the election there is still no government – they like to take their time to form a coalition in the Netherlands.

So what  helped the Green party do so well and does this mean the Netherlands is now a country of environmentalists?

“What makes the Green party so sexy?”

It’s difficult to imagine this question being asked about the Scottish Green Party or the Green Party of England and Wales, but it does reflect the current image of the Dutch Greens: suddenly the party has moved away from its ‘geitenwollensokken’(1) image and has become trendy. This is not least because of the party’s new, popular, young, Justin Trudeau look-a-like leader Jesse Klaver. Klaver is a youthful 30 years old and it is perhaps not surprising that the party is currently polling particularly well among the 25-34 age group. The party’s message is one of sustainability, Europe and focused on the future, the antithesis of the right-wing PvV (Freedom Party) led by Geert Wilders. Some have attributed Klaver’s popularity to his hopeful message. Highly-educated young people (among whom the Green Party does particularly well) feel like they have grown up in a world of cynicism and negativity, but do not personally tend to see globalisation or migration as a threat. They are young enough to not be overly concerned about mortgages and pensions but are concerned about issues such as inequality and the environment. Plus, they’re sufficiently optimistic that a better world is possible, and want to contribute to that.

But surely, everyone in the Netherlands is an environmentalist anyway, otherwise you’d be under water?

No, not really. Perhaps influenced by images of millions of cyclists, people are sometimes quick to assume that the Netherlands is at the forefront of radical environmental policy. Whilst there are indeed more bicycles than people, the country does not perform as well in other areas. It is performing poorly on renewable energy, and currently it looks like the Government will miss the 2020 targets. The Dutch target is for 14% of all energy to be produced by renewable sources by 2020 (which in itself is already lower than the 16% European average target). Last year it managed to achieve just half of that (7%).

With the Green Party (possibly) in government, is the Netherlands is going to lead the way on climate action from now on? 

Again, probably not. Dutch political culture is known as the ‘polder model’, a consensus-based approach to decision-making. The approach partly stems from the proportional representation electoral system which favours collaboration over adversary. Coalition governments are the norm: all governments in the last 100 years have been collaborations between two to five political parties. In environmental decision-making the consensus-based model has also been extended beyond the realm of political parties, bringing other stakeholders into the decision-making process. For example, the 2013 Energy Agreement, which sets out energy policy until 2023, was developed through a collaborative process, including 47 stakeholders ranging from Shell to environmental NGOs. While this means that the Agreement has a broad support base and have therefore perhaps a higher rate of success, it also means that any decisions are supported by incumbent interests and thus are unlikely to be very radical in nature. The new government, if they manage to form a coalition, will consist of the Green Party, D66 (comparable to the British Liberal Democrats) and the centre-right VVD and CDA parties. While the VVD tried to project a ‘Green Conservatives’-like image during the election campaign, it’s policy record from the last four year shows little evidence of any transformational environmental policies. While a government including the Green Party and D66 will be somewhat more environmentally-inclined, few think it will deliver radical change.

What about local action? Are communities going to lead the way?

As in the UK, there has been a lot of talk in recent years of a move towards a more participatory society, where people are expected to take on roles and duties that may have previously been delivered by governments. One fundamental difference with the UK is the number and relative strength of local authorities. There are 388 of them, which is almost identical to the UK’s 391 local authorities, but covering a much smaller area and population. The largest local authority in the UK is Highland council, covering 25,657km2, more than 55 times the size of the largest Dutch local authority. Dutch local control and decision-making powers than their UK counterparts. And a number of them are implementing more radical environmental measures than the Dutch Government is. Some of the larger cities are taking the lead with innovative projects, trying to ‘outgreen’ each other. In smaller places there has been a real growth in collaborative projects between authorities and community groups, which does not appear to be as common in the UK. Of course not all environmental action is collaborative and cooperative in nature. In 2015 a group of Dutch citizens took the government to court for not doing enough on climate change, and won. The state has appealed the decision, but if upheld, then it will force the government to implement more radical change.

At the moment it therefore looks that despite the electoral success of the Green party, it might be citizens and lower levels of government who’ll be leading the way on climate change.



(1)  Geitenwollensokken drager. Literal translation: someone who wears socks made of goats’ wool. Meaning: a tree-hugger.

Image credentials: the local Schouwen-Duivenland GroenLinks branch, https://schouwen-duiveland.groenlinks.nl/