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 media 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 non-starter 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, his 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 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.
Over the last 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.”
Mr. Rutte has said he will not form a government with far-right parties such as Geert Wilders’ 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.
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’s the E.U.’s fourth-richest nation, but ranks right on the E.U. average in the refugee population it hosts. 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 utilize migration politics for 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,” he added.
Mr. Klaassen said that Mr. Rutte’s migration woes were in part of 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 Dutch Labor Party, one of the two coalition members to object to Mr. Rutte’s proposals, called the decision to let the government fall over this issue irresponsible, citing a housing crisis and inflation as more pressing problems facing the Dutch government, among other things.
“Rutte chose his own interests over those of the country, and I hope everyone sees that,” Ms. Kuiken told 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 questioned the real motives behind the intractability.
The government’s collapse delighted Mr. Wilders, the right-wing leader, who took to Twitter to say 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.”
What happens next in Dutch politics is not yet clear, and Mr. Rutte could still try to form a new coalition government, though he might face the same set of coalition options. On Friday evening he tendered his resignation to the Dutch king and will stay on as caretaker prime minister until fresh elections are held, likely in November.