May’s “Hard Brexit” causes tensions in previously strong UK-Dutch relationship

Despite all the sugar-coating in her speech, the “Hard Brexit” announced by prime minister May didn’t go down well with Dutch businesses, many of whom have done business with Britain for decades.

The combination of the threats uttered alongside the Hard Brexit option, and a series of recent stories in Dutch newspapers about extradition letters being sent to Dutch housewives by Tory immigration ministers, seriously changed the way many UK-loving Dutch think about being in Britain, and British policy attitudes.

That point was today brought home to me, when I met a friend whose family had been visiting the Lake District every summer for decades. He told me that he didn’t feel as welcome in England as he used to, seeing the way the May government is treating our mixed-married compatriots who also love Britain. He pointed out that May’s “walk away” threat puts British-Dutch couples in complete limbo. 

The treatment of British-Dutch couples is a sore point  among my friends with many asking me what Liberal Democrats are doing about it.

After  Mrs May’s tough talk, his daughter decided that instead of studying in England, she rather would apply in Paris. She too felt insecure at the end of a three-year curriculum, besides losing the ERASMUS subsidies.  The prospect of a hard Brexit won’t diminish the fears of being separated by insensitive bureaucracies already felt by Dutch citizens married to British citizens living in Britain with jobs. Don’t be self-employed, you won’t be able to apply. Don’t expect the Dutch media to stop paying attention.

In its Brexit speech analysis, the Economist states that WTO rules forbid cherrypicking sectors after a hard Brexit. Trade deals like CETA take many years, having to be ratified by national and regional parliaments. I’m certain the leftwing majority in the Walloon parliament in Belgium which held up CETA, would love to sabotage such a “Neoliberal plot” again.

Dutch business/finance circles are also worried. The Financieel Dagblad, equivalent of the Financial Times, in its analysis today  says that Dutch business is especially worried because in specific sectors, Dutch exports to the UK provide for 300.000 Dutch jobs as our government accounting chamber CPB concluded recently. This is reiterated in the liberal quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad, a must-read for everybody in Dutch politics.

Business sources of Handelsblad and FD fear Mrs. May’s “broad” trade deal won’t be all-encompassing, leaving outside sectors important to smaller countries like us and the same goes for her new-style Tariff Union.

If May walks away from a deal; the (Dutch) ING Bank  reckons that WTO rules would add a 10.7 to 17.5% tariff on Dutch meat, flowers and fruit export; and dairy exports (our national identity emblem at international fairs) being hit by a 42% tariff.

The FD quotes experts from three influential EU think tanks: Open Europe (OE) and the Center for European Reform (CER) in London, and Bruegel in Brussels. Mrs. Demertzis (Bruegel) says May’s “walk away” threat is hollow, seeing the mutual interests in the Dutch-British trade, going back to the medieval wool/cloth trade. Mr. Korteweg (CER) points to the equivalent of Irish-British trade: being very near has bred great, longstanding interdependence. If Mrs. May doesn’t put a “hard border” between Ulster and Ireland, the Dutch will feel especially aggrieved if they’re treated harsher.  Demertzis and Mr. Cleppe (OE) agree that the WTO option or selective-treaty tariff walls would hit both the EU (especially the Netherlands) and the UK.

The Dutch CBI equivalents, VNO-NCW (all business) and MKB (small & medium enterprises) have called on Dutch government to defend all Dutch interests.

The Dutch have always been very friendly with the UK as good trading partners and political soulmates. The blunt Dutch and reserved British can get along famously. For the first time in my life, I see tensions pop up in these relationships. Dutch citizens’ and business worries can harden the Dutch government stance in Brexit negotiations. Don’t let that grow.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Jan '17 - 2:46pm

    ‘The treatment of British-Dutch couples is a sore point among my friends with many asking me what Liberal Democrats are doing about it.’

    This is something that has caused me an increasing amount of amazement. Speaking to my EU-national friends (yes, hardly a representative sample) I am consistently surprised by how few seem to have made any real effort to understand the law and treaty rights as they affect them. Having a pulse and a passport is not the end of the story.

    The general refrain seems to be that they didn’t think that they needed to do anything. Suffice it to say that 10 minutes on the internet corrects that view for them. In years to come I will move to my wife’s country and I most certainly will not be cavalier about the terms of my residency.

    Indeed the undertone to some of the articles, most notably in the Guardian seems to be that well-off Europeans can’t possibly be asked to complete a form or work in the law – the non-EU people…well we can fend for ourselves.

    So Mr Aris if you think that people from the EU should have a deal beyond EU law (not UK law, EU law) could you please tell me what you think it is and whether the Netherlands should reciprocate?

    And please spare me a huffy response or faux-outrage. These are important matters and it is quite clear that some people (stress some) simply did not understand the law.

  • with many asking me what Liberal Democrats are doing about it.

    What exactly do they expect an a party with less than ten MPs to be able to do about anything?!

  • Little Jackie Paper 19th Jan '17 - 3:15pm

    Reading the article again – ‘The prospect of a hard Brexit won’t diminish the fears of being separated by insensitive bureaucracies already felt by Dutch citizens married to British citizens living in Britain with jobs. Don’t be self-employed, you won’t be able to apply.’

    Please can you tell me what difference self employed status specifically makes and give me a reference? If you can’t then that line really should be taken out of the article as wholly irresponsible.

    And the Dutch media can pay all the attention they want – this is EU law, not UK law.

  • Bernard Aris 19th Jan '17 - 4:35pm

    @ Dav @Little Jackie Paper

    Surely the party that developed “Community Politics” by delivering “Focus” handbills/papers door to door in the 1960’s and 70’s (we still sing about it at many Glee Club evenings at conference; in my 2015 Liberator Song Book I find the songs “Letterboxes” from 1994, and “Climb every staircase” from’84) and that used Focus to fold in petition papers for local grievances, can do the same now by delivering Focus-like information folders in working class- and “guest workers” (as we Dutch call them) blocks and neighourhoods? D66 delivers campaign folders at every election (local, provincial, nastional, European) in all neighborhoods where we get positive responses (voting bureau tallies), so I know that routine. Printing the information in one Focus in more languages, and pointing the way to Citizens Advice Bureaus shouldn’t be too difficult. A paper focus is ideal for enumerating useful websites…
    The core of Social Liberalism is spreading “positive freedom” (Isaiah Berlins term): giving information so people know more, can fend for themselves better, especially for the disadvantaged (but not exclusively to them).
    The Focus strategy, besides informing citizens, also helped build up the Liverpool constituencies, and those in Leeds and Birmingham/Ladywood from almost nothing (see: Arthur Cyr, “Liberal party politics in Britain”, John Calder/London, 1977, p. 252-3, and the David Penhaligon biography by his widow).
    Liberals and LibDems have never accepted being small or nonexistent locally as unavoidable fate, destiny; we’ve fought back.
    The D66 group in the European parliament is getting to work on the fate of the mixed marriages; and I know EC vicepresident Frans Timmermans (Dutch MP and minister for decades) well enough to state that he agrees with the complaint that to inform and help people is better than to surprise the unknowing and expell them on technicalities.

  • Talking about hard Brexit, will UKIP win Rotherham Dinnington tonight. They should, they have won it before and were very close in May. It is a big test and may well tell us how they are faring in a UKIP sort of citadel like Rotherham. Fall away as I suspect and their future is bleak. We shall see.

  • Bernard Aris 19th Jan '17 - 4:50pm

    @ Little Jackie Paper

    About the importance of being self-employed or having a steady job (and steady income) :
    I refer you to the article in The Guardian of the 14th of January (or the 15th, I don’t know the print edition date); see: ; the article about what immigration minister Goodwill (what’s in a name?) wrote to Jet Cooper in Devon in two letters, the second not correcting but reinforcing, adding to the first. So there was no mistake involved.
    Tory Doctrine for expats seems to be: you should be an independent home owner, but NOT an independent entrepreneur; stick to being employee or CEO of a big company.

  • Bernard Aris 19th Jan '17 - 5:04pm

    @ Little Jacky Paper about EU law being wholly, or mostly separate from UK Laws

    Leiden University Law professor Dr. Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst, a D66 founder and MP, MEP, minister and Cabinet minister, whom I’ve known since starting out in D66 in the late 1970 (as history student in Leiden), was the Leiden University specialist on EEC and EU law, teaching generations of Dutch lawyers and European functionaries (see: ).
    The first thing he taught everybody, including me, is that EU law is always converted in member countries’ laws; that is the big distentanglement problem now facing the UK. And in most cases, national goverrnment give their interpretation of the EU law or Directive in their national implementation law; think of the comcept of “gold-plating” EU rgulations.
    He says many EU laws and regulations end up having a broad scala of national versions; that started happening when the EEC had only 6 members, and proliferated since. And for the average citizen, its the comntent in articles of a law that count, not its broader outline in te “EU law” version…

  • Little Jackie Piper, my wife is from the continent and the current rules are completely unclear. Its not just a case of filling in a form. We have lived together here as a married couple for over 10 years but we are in limbo. I dont know if the years she had on maternity leave or as a housewife would disqualify her. The PR card is just a card, it may or not make any difference. If I could close my business and sell up and leave the UK tomorrow I would, but my children are in school here. Couples where one is British and one not have no idea what will come out of the negotiations and noone is defending our interests. Ideally we would both have citizenship in each others countries. The UK is becoming a different place than it was a year ago.

  • Annelies Brice 19th Jan '17 - 8:14pm

    What am I going to do?? I am married to British citizen and I have lived happily in the UK for 45 years. I am retired and have lived longer in the U.K. than I have ever lived in the Netherlands. However I still feel Dutch inside and don’t wish to change my Nationality.
    Now I am getting the jitters and wonder if I should become a British citizen?

  • Sorry folks, my very bad. Dinnington by election is 2nd February. Hope I have this right thought, strong rumours Labour probably going to hold Stoke Central and Copeland in February. If so guess Thursday 16th or 23rd. Would fit in with Copeland candidate apparently being selected tonight.

  • “Dutch exports to the UK provide for 300.000 Dutch jobs as our government accounting chamber CPB concluded recently”

    So perhaps both sides need to start realising that if there is no deal both will suffer. With the tariffs you have quoted alternative produce from other countries outside the EU will become cheaper to UK consumers than your exports.

    If the EU shut the door on our financial services (which both the French and to a lesser extent the Germans have implied, then I fail to see how May will be able to do anything other than respond by shutting the door on your exports, and German Cars, French and Italian Wine etc etc.

    CETA may have taken years, but how much of that was ensuring a level playing field. If the UK keeps our current implementation of existing EU Directives this hurdle is already cleared.

  • It’s also worth noting that, much as I despise the Tories, May offered to take the plight of UK / EU citizens currently residing in each others territory out of the negotiations. The fact that that was so swiftly rebuffed coul dbe taken to imply that the 27 see our citizens as a key negotiating plank. Perhaps some pressure on your own politicians to call her bluff would help…

  • Having followed the day by day unfolding of the Brexit disaster very closely I have concluded that if Theresa May herself is not a fool, she is under the influence of people who are. She should never have vowed to deliver Brexit. The vote was purely advisory after an appalling campaign, with a narrow majority on a relatively low turnout (contrast the 2014 Scottish referendum turnout). Mrs May, or Mayhem as I prefer to call her, has prioritised delivering her party’s ridiculous commitment to reduce annual net immigration to below 100,000 over all other objectives. She will fail. Many, many British people are aghast are what is happening. We are mobilising to stop Brexit. As the consequences get worse, that narrow majority will evaporate. Polls suggest it already has.

  • Bernard Aris 20th Jan '17 - 11:32am

    @ Steve Way

    Ou should have learned from the years-long Downing Street feud not tyyo be tak3en in by Downing street spinnning.

    The Guardian reported that the British, being in a 1-27 minority (also in the numbers of in-house trad negotiation experts in each government) uses contnentasl UK residents as bargaining chips. See .

    OK, let’s suppose both parties do. That gives the Lib Dems Commons and Lord parties the opening to attack the Downing street part of this inhumane tit-for-tat.

    @ Annelies


    erg veel sterkte toegewenst.
    D66 heeft een Londense afdeling; en we zijn bezig expats te mobiliseren. U kun t ook hen inschaskelen, naast onze Europese fractie.


    I wish you strength to survive this.
    D66 has a Londen party branch and we’re mobilizing Dutch expats, you can use them and contact our Europarliament group via the website.


  • Laurence Cox 20th Jan '17 - 11:38am

    I blame Juncker for the problem over EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in other EU countries. Here is how the BBC reported it:

    Rather than seeking an amicable divorce, his response to the British overtures was ‘see you in court’. We should not forget that Juncker only got this job through the votes of 12% of the European electorate (and none in the UK, which had no party in the EPP group), and a stitch-up between the EPP and S&D groups in the European Parliament. While I still voted ‘Remain’, I recognise the serious democratic deficit at the heart of the EU.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Jan '17 - 1:03pm


    It irritates me that we only ever , in this party now at top level, get criticism of our own side on Brexit, none of the top table of the EU! You redress the balance ! May said she would consider the permanent or secure settlement of EU citizens , straight away, the very intransigent leadership types you mention, EUrocrats make no mistake, scuppered it !I see the valid criticism of our daft foreign secretary by our leader in ALDE, but Mr. V., is himself a strong critic of the worst of the EUrocracy , and rightly !

  • Laurence and Lorenzo – while holding little brief for Mr Juncker (he was after all as former Luxembourg PM in charge of a massive tax avoidance scheme based in his country) – it is incorrect to blame the EU for the seeming current impasse over those living across EU borders that include Britain’s.

    Laurence you mention no British party in the EPP. Whose fault was that? Oh yes, David Cameron, who used this shamelessly to advance his chances to be elected Tory leader when he promised to withdraw during his campaign. Yet another Cameron error in the unfortunate build-up to where we are now.

    Lorenzo, you speak of “our own side”, meaning, apparently the Tory Government. Why do you say they are our own side? They relentlessly and effectively destroyed us over a period of years, and trashed more or less everything that Lib Dem activists and supporters hold dear, and you still regard them as “our side”. I support your comment on Guy Verhofstadt who is an effective and articulate critic of concentrations of power, very much in the best traditions of our party.

  • Peter Watson 20th Jan '17 - 2:29pm

    @Tim13 “They relentlessly and effectively destroyed us over a period of years, and trashed more or less everything that Lib Dem activists and supporters hold dear, and you still regard them as “our side”.”
    Sadly they were aided and abetted by a number of senior Lib Dems who are still regarded as “our side” by many in the party. 🙁


    “Dutch citizens’ and business worries can harden the Dutch government stance in Brexit negotiations.”

    After recent comments by the Dutch PM and other Dutch politicians I think it’s the other way round. Dutch leaders seem terrified of their up and coming elections. They appear to be feeding the Dutch public a picture of the UK they want to see – for their political benefit – rather than a truthful one. There seems to be an absolute fear that the UK may make a success of brexit.

  • Peter Watson

  • Lorenzo Cherin 20th Jan '17 - 6:35pm

    Tim, and then Peter

    A reaction from you, to something I said, you took with a different meaning, I mean only geography and actuality ,when I said , our side, meaning this side of the Channel , and that May is our country,s PM, no more or less ! Believe me, I can share in criticism too, of her government and the Tories, just being reasonable, thats as we need in divisive times !

  • @Steve Way – “So perhaps both sides need to start realising that if there is no deal both will suffer.”

    The real hurdle is going to be getting the Brexit fundamentalists to understand that there will be a price on trading with the Single Market, this price will be paid in one of: membership of the EU, membership of the EEA, WTO tariffs. Given the volume of trade, I suspect that there may be very little real difference; so if you are going to be paying out circa £13bn pa (ie. an average tariff of 6% on £220bn of exports) which of the three payment choices represents the best value? I, like Magaret Thatcher(*), prefer membership of the EU as it gives us a seat at the table, only we need to keep our representatives on message so that they don’t do stupid things that undermine Parliamentary sovereignty…

  • @Roland

    Could you explain those figures? They seem to say we export £220bn to the EU which sounds high. Won’t this £13bn mentioned be completely offset by the corresponding tariffs we will charge on imports when we operate under WTO rules?

  • Bernard Aris 21st Jan '17 - 6:10pm

    @ malc (is that shorthand for malcontent?)

    It will take years before we know wether Brexit weill be a success; much thepends on the form and rules being thrashed out in negotiations the next two yers.

    The Dutch coalition parties (VVD and PvdA) and the center parties D66, GroenLinks and CDA certainly not are scared stiff by the prospect of a succesful Brexit because it is so far off and so improbable.
    Improbable? Yes, look at recent events. With big banks anouncing in Davos they’re moving out thousands of jobs the City will be diminished (as were Dutch Banks like ABN AMRO after their near-collapse, having to hive off foreign affairs departments to for example RBS and Santander). And the British teams of expert negotiators still remains a dwarf against the wel-trained teams in Brussels, and the teams being formed in EU continental governments combined. Kicking out your Brussels ambassador with oodles of experience of how Brussels really works (and plenty of contacts) is not going to help either. And with Scotland and Ulster putting up resistance, the United-ness of the Kingdom itsel comes under strain; which never happened since 1922.

    Show me one time in British history such a combination of negatives was succesfully overcome…

  • John Peters 21st Jan '17 - 6:35pm

    Personally I think the rump EU knows that the UK will be successful after exiting the EU.

    If they were confident that the consequence for the UK would be dire there would be no reason to threaten to negotiate in bad faith pour encourager les autres.

  • @John Peters – The numbers are from ONS. This article discusses them a bit and provides more context:

    I think many are under an illusion that WTO rules set a tariff schedule, that the UK will automatically pick up and apply on exit. They don’t, they merely set a maximum tariff, each signatory is free to set their own tariffs within the agreed constraints.

    The EU, by already having a Most Favored Nation (MFN) tariff schedule, will apply tariffs to imports from the UK – many are hoping that the UK will be granted MFN status as this gives us access to the most favourable tariffs. Using this schedule Civitas has performed an interesting and useful piece of work [ ], which provides some numbers (using the EU MFN tariff schedules) which seem to back up your stance.

    The problem the UK has is that once you get beyond the luxury goods eg. German cars, you rapidly get into essential products such as food and energy, by placing an excessive tariff on these, the effect will be to increase high street prices, CPI/RPI and thus inflation. Hence I query whether the UK will impose status quo changing tariffs on EU goods.

    Also we should not forget the effects of VAT! With the UK leaving the Single Market, the UK will move from being within the customs union to outside of it and hence two things will have to happen, firstly HMRC are going to have to revise the UK VAT rules (given VAT accounts for approximately one-third of the total tax receipts, HMRC will be keen to keep this tax system…) and secondly we are going to have to take account of the changes when trading with the EEA.

    Thus I’m not going to properly answer your question, because I think more research (and thought) is needed, but note the big difference between EU/EEA membership and WTO tariffs is who pays what. With membership, it is the national government spending tax revenues, with WTO tariffs it is the customers (of the imported goods) paying taxes to their national governments and hence I can’t help but think that part of the attraction of WTO tariffs is that it permits a government to increase tax receipts without appearing to raise tax rates…

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