EU Referendum: Dutch hopes and fears over Brexit

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The Erasmusbrug (Erasmus bridge) over the river Maas in RotterdamImage source, Getty Images
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The UK's referendum is fraying some Dutch nerves

The words: "Don't leave me this way," in English, and the Union Jack splashed across the front page of Wednesday's edition of the best-selling daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad reflect the general view of the Dutch establishment about a possible Brexit.

The Dutch currently hold the presidency of the EU, but it is not just the prospect of an unprecedented crisis happening on their watch that is causing jitters in the Netherlands.

Dutch politicians, especially on the right, regard Britain as a bulwark against the more protectionist tendencies of some of the bigger EU states.

Britain the ally

As one of the grand old men of Dutch politics, the former leader of the centre right VVD party and former EU Commissioner Frits Bolkestein told me: "Holland and Britain look at the seas.

"We are maritime people and believe in trade with other parts of the world.

"Continental powers, like France and Germany, very important members of the EU, think differently."

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Frits Bolkestein wants Britain to stop standing on the sidelines

So, what if Britain left the EU?

"The Dutch would feel they've lost an important ally in the balance of powers within the European Union," he said.

"Our message is, 'Hang in there, don't leave Holland, support free trade.'

"Try to be less Minnie the Minx, moaning on the sidelines, but come in there with both feet and fight."

Could the Netherlands be next?

A politician who has been less of a minx and more of a menace to the established parties for the past few years sees things very differently.

Geert Wilders is the leader of the populist, right-wing PVV, which currently tops Dutch opinion polls.

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Geert Wilders hopes Brexit could start a domino effect

Overtly anti-Islam and anti-EU, he is hoping that a British vote to leave the EU would start a domino effect; that a Brexit would lead to a similar referendum on a Nexit.

"I think it will be a good thing if people from the UK vote to leave this political project," he told me in the Dutch parliament, where he is accompanied by ever-present security guards.

"I believe it will mean that other countries, like perhaps my own, will find it an enormous incentive to regain their national sovereignty.

"I'm talking about a patriotic spring.

"If we want to survive as a nation, we have to stop immigration and stop Islamisation.

"We cannot do that inside the European Union."

Floating between cultures

Although the Netherlands is seeing increasing numbers of Central European arrivals, the immigration debate tends to focus on larger communities that originally came from outside the EU - Morocco and Turkey - and their level of integration.

It was a debate that had existed in the background for decades, but only reached the forefront of Dutch politics about 15 years ago

And now it is taking parts of Dutch society in unpredictable directions.

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Dutch-Turkish Gulsah Ercetin says young Turks born in Holland are struggling to integrate

Here is one example.

According to the Dutch-Turkish journalist Gulsah Ercetin, who covers integration issues for the state broadcaster NOS, some of the young, third-generation members of the country's large Turkish community are turning away from the Netherlands and towards the country their grandparents left.

"I find it interesting that some of them are feeling an emotional connection to Turkey," she told me.

"They follow everything there.

"When you ask them what's going on in Dutch politics, they're not well informed.

"Some of these young Turks who were born and raised in Holland don't feel Dutch.

"They feel more Turkish than Dutch.

"They say they're floating around between two cultures and two countries.

"They're constantly reminded they're from another country and they have another religion."

EU scapegoat?

Despite being one of the founding members of the EEC, it is hard to find much love for the European Union in the Netherlands.

The VVD party of Prime Minister Marc Rutte calls itself Eurosceptic.

But the world-renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who recently chaired a 12-hour debate on "what is Europe?", argues the EU has been a good thing for his country and for the UK, where he began his architecture studies in the 1960s.

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Rem Koolhaas laments the EU being made a scapegoat

Sitting in his Rotterdam office, he told me the Brexit camp was full of people who "fundamentally want to change England back to the way it was before" and lamented the way, as he sees it, the EU has been used as a scapegoat.

"It is the nations and prime ministers that take the decisions, but because of this myth of Brussels, they are also able to blame Brussels for the decisions they took themselves," he said.

But Mr Koolhaas seems to be an increasingly rare voice in a country re-examining its own relationship with the EU and where fears are rising that the club of nations opposed to a more federal, political union is about to lose a member.