Public doubts about politics and governing institutions have become more prevalent across almost all advanced industrial democracies. In Europe, that mistrust is reflected in the rise of populist parties ranging from Greece’s left-wing Syriza to Sweden’s right-wing Sverigedemokraterna. Amongst many other actors, these parties are reacting to the rapid onset of widespread cultural changes which, they argue, lead to democratic deficit and the loss of national sovereignty. These perceived deficits in how countries manage transnational security threats, modernization, and globalization produce strong counter-reactions of nationalism, protectionism, and xenophobia. It is in this environment that tensions occur between citizens and governing institutions. With regards to governance, vertical tensions describe “conflicting, contradictory or competing positions that participants face” which need to be addressed if the social contract is to continue or survive. Vertical tensions put pressure on the model of the social contract between the state (both on national and EU levels) and society.
It should be stressed that vertical tensions are not inherently bad. Rather, they are the essence of democratic debate, which acts as a healthy feedback mechanism about certain negative aspects of globalization, modernization, and how governments react to transnational security threats. Some explanations of tensions in the social contract point to economic insecurity and cultural backlash, both of which can lead to resentment against progressive norms such as multiculturalism, while others blame institutions for their inability to address long-standing concerns such as societal inequality and failure in the welfare state. If marginalized groups of citizens believe that their security and livelihood are threatened, they may no longer be inclined to support their country’s institutions.
Declining faith in government can negatively affect its legitimacy, weaken its ability to carry out its functions such as maintaining order, defending national sovereignty, and managing economic conditions, and can eventually lead to the deterioration of social cohesion, justice, and solidarity. Take Greece, for example, where 87 percent of the population tended not to trust their government as of March 2018. Over the past eight years, the country underwent three extensive bailouts and implemented financial austerity measures that forced the country into high unemployment rates, increased poverty, and near-financial collapse. This distrust is not just limited to Greece, however. Elsewhere in Europe, a similar inability of governments to effectively address issues has also led to an increase in anti-establishment and anti-European parties. There is considerable regional variation across the continent. Conceptions of security and vertical tensions naturally vary based on historical and political context. A number of states deemed representative of their respective regions have been chosen because of their historic differences and the various roles they play in the EU. The threats and challenges stemming from vertical tensions vary in each country, giving a broader representation of existing vertical tensions in Europe as a whole. In western Europe, Germany was chosen, while in eastern Europe, Hungary was taken as a sample case. Anti-establishment sentiment also reaches North and South, hence the choice of Sweden and Italy.
This chapter explores the vertical tensions between citizens, national governments, and EU institutions, and analyzes two key relationships: (1) those between citizens and national governments, and (2) the citizens and the EU. Have vertical tensions increased over the past decade? What does this mean for the stability and future of governing institutions? And what does that spell for the future? These questions are particularly relevant for the Netherlands, as tensions appear to be on the rise throughout the European continent. These increased vertical tensions may weaken the social contract between the government of the Netherlands and its citizens. The data used in this study was gathered from the Eurobarometer as well as the Citizen's Perspective 2018 Second Quarterly Report.
The social contract, as theorized by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, is an agreement between citizens to form an organized society which relies on the right to secure mutual protection and security. This agreement legitimizes the authority of national governments over certain aspects of citizen’s lives, but also relates to other overarching institutions such as the European Union. A key condition of a functioning social contract is that citizens partially surrender their individual rights and adhere to said contract to maintain social order. This social order allows individuals to obtain prosperity, one that is possible with others rather than alone. Furthermore, security refers both to physical security as well as identity security. When a government can successfully provide both prosperity and security to a citizen, the social contract is fulfilled. However, if these two factors are not met, then it opens the door to potentially troubling consequences, as witnessed by the social backlash following the migrant crisis and the financial crisis.
The EU in and of itself has fundamentally rearranged the social contract between European Member States and their citizens to a large extent. The evolution “from a microeconomic and legal construct to a fully-fledged economic union” neither necessarily implies that a European social contract and the national social contract complement each other, nor does it fully explain the current level of European integration. As it stands, decisions made at the European level are having an increasing impact on the national level such as, for example, the Dublin Regulation. The reactions to this pressure on a national level tend to vary, giving rise to situations like Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán’s refusing to take immigrants despite the Dublin Regulation that Hungary and other European countries signed onto. Because of this and many other situational tensions such as the ensuing Brexit, the relationship between national governments and the European Commission as well as the initial European commitment towards an ‘ever-closer union’ are under stress, as is discussed more in depth in Vertical Tensions (International Order).
This brings up questions on how increased vertical tensions affect the interests of the Netherlands. Across Europe, several countries are facing such tensions, from East to West, from North to South. Scenarios that seemed unimaginable in the past are now unfolding in the countries around us—and they are unfolding fast, putting significant pressure on the social contract as we know it.
In 2014, the Dutch population was split down the middle between trusting and distrusting the national government. Since then, there has been a sharp divergence. In March of 2018, almost seventy percent claimed to trust the national government (see Figure 2). Another important observation, however, is that over thirty percent did not. Despite this generally positive trend, distrust is relatively higher amongst those outside the workforce and those with lower levels of educational training. In 2013, there was a significant spike in distrust, which the European Central Bank (ECB) attributes to the economic crisis. Interestingly, there appears to be a correlation between the new installments of governments and peaks in levels of trust in the Dutch population (2010, 2012, and 2017), which the Citizen's Perspective 2018 Second Quarterly Report attributes to increased political participation. Since 2014, trust has been generally on the rise, but there is still cause for concern.
In the Citizen's Perspective 2018 Second Quarterly Report, disenfranchised citizens blamed the failure to distribute wealth, continued income inequality, increased individualism, and the lack of social cohesion, health care, and integration for their distrust. The economic situation also played a role. In the wake of the global financial crisis in 2007-2008 and the Euro debt crisis which began in 2009, it took time for the financial structural reforms and economic recovery measures enacted to have a substantive effect on citizens. This is because there was less pressure on Member States to change their policy once the initial crisis had come to an end. Reflecting this slow change, in 2011, 65 percent of the population believed the economic situation in the Netherlands was getting worse (see Figure 3). By 2014, only 55 percent of the population held that same viewpoint, illustrating how the mood was shifting. In March of 2018, under ten percent of Dutch population believed the economy was getting worse. Negative economic conditions often lead to a lack of trust, because governments are more often than not output-legitimized, meaning they are measured by their ability to deliver positive economic environments. In other words, the (perceived) economic situation is a good indicator of citizen’s trust in their government. As the economic situation in the Netherlands improved, so too did voter’s trust in their government, improving from fifty in 2015 to almost seventy percent in 2018 (see Figure 2).
Source: Eurobarometer Interactiv
The economic situation was not the only reason for changes in attitudes amongst the Dutch population. In 2015, the migrant crisis brought with it changes in how the government was portrayed. Between 2015 and 2016, the percentage of Dutch citizens who were optimistic about the future economic situation in the Netherlands dramatically dropped by ten percent, while the percentage of those who viewed it negatively rose six percentage points (see Figure 3). The migrant crisis inflamed economic insecurity, with critics pointing to the economic costs of migration, security concerns, and threats to national identity.
Due to the prevalence of crises as factors, it is difficult to assess how the status of the social contract within the Netherlands will evolve in the future. On the one hand, economic recovery certainly plays a factor in increasing the strength of the social contract. On the other hand, however, the underlying reasons for increased vertical tensions, such as globalization, increased migration, and stagnation of purchasing power, still remain.
In 2013, almost sixty percent of Dutch citizens did not trust the EU. As it stands now, this percentage has dropped to forty (see Figure 4). The legitimacy of and continued trust in the EU is dependent on its good performance and visibility. The aforementioned decrease in distrust can be correlated with a higher level of positive performance and visibility.
From 2011 to 2015, Dutch optimism about the future of the EU remained stable (see Figure 5). In 2016, however, forty percent of the Dutch population tended not to be optimistic about the future of the EU. As tensions with Russia have increased, however, it provided an external enemy and fueled internal unity, producing the sentiment that Europe must remain strong. That sentiment is evident in the creation of and continued support for EU28 sanctions against Russia. That is reflected in the percentage drop of the Dutch population’s optimism about the EU to twenty percent in 2018.
Other factors to take into account are the migrant crisis and the wave of jihadist terrorist attacks in Europe. In 2015, the percentage of the Dutch population tending not to be optimistic about the EU jumped from thirty to forty percent, and trust in the EU dropped by five percent (see Figure 5). Migration has become Europeanized in the sense that any EU policy action is widely disseminated across the entire EU, highlighting the shared output-legitimacy of the EU. In other words, it may have been the perception of ineffective European action as a whole to which the Dutch population was reacting. Overall, vertical tensions between Dutch citizens and their government remain stable. While thirty percent of the population still indicates a certain level of dissatisfaction with the national government, trust and optimism are on the rise in the other seventy percent of the population. Furthermore, while forty percent of the population is discontented vis-a-vis the EU, that percentage is neither steadily rising nor is it shifting dramatically.
While the Netherlands may present a somewhat positive case for how vertical tensions are impacting the social contract between citizens and their government, it is the exception that proves the rule. The rest of Europe looks quite bleak in comparison. In 2012, 67 percent of European citizens did not trust their respective governments (see Figure 6). That number remained high throughout 2014, only dropping to 61 percent in 2018. Unsurprisingly, this number varies depending on what region of Europe is being addressed. In Germany, 42 percent of the population do not trust their national government while in Hungary, that number is fifty percent. The regional differences are all the more stark when considering Italy, where 78 percent of the population do not trust their government while in Sweden, only 36 percent do not trust their government.
As many citizens continue to experience disillusionment with their respective governance systems, they tend to turn towards anti-establishment and Euroskeptic parties, with fifty percent of all EU citizens tending not to trust the EU in 2018 (see Figure 10). Within the EU, these movements willingly exploit that disillusionment. In the East, one of the more dramatic examples of this is Hungary. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, even went so far as to say that the EU should give up "nightmares of the United States of Europe,” utilizing anti-European sentiment to gain momentum for a Euroskeptic platform. Similarly, in the south of Europe, Italy hosts the Movimento 5 Stelle, which campaigns for a non-binding referendum on the EU, again capitalizing on the distrust that many citizens have of the Europeanization process. Even in western Europe, Germany also has right-wing populist party Alternativ für Deutschland, known for its Euroskeptic stance and anti-immigrant platform. Although the party has grown weaker since the reduced influx of migrants, this party takes advantage of Euroskeptic sentiment and mobilizes it for party support. Despite comparatively low levels of distrust in government, Sweden also has its fair share of anti-establishment parties. In 2018, the right-wing Sverigedemokraterna won 62 seats in parliament with an anti-immigration platform and a promise for a referendum on Sweden’s membership to the EU. While national variation is common, what is notable is the prevalence of and increase in these Euroskeptic parties that exploit widespread European disillusionment with the system.
As the EU has grown into a closer political and economic union, higher political participation has not followed. One indicator of this was the European Parliament elections of 2014, which had a historically low turnout. However, for those that did vote, their support was pledged to an increasing number of Euroskeptic parties. These parties appealed to many in the EU due to a variety of European-focused structural drivers, such as the perceived unfairness of the integration process and the sentiment that the EU has a severe democratic deficit. What makes this perceived deficit so prevalent is the lack of transparency in the EU. Without the knowledge of how to bring about change on a European level, the perceived democratic deficit continues to widen.
As a whole, European citizens do not tend to trust the EU. In 2012, almost sixty percent of Europeans did not trust the EU, with only thirty percent indicating they trusted it (see Figure 10). Since then, that percentage of distrust has dropped to fifty percent with trust rising to forty percent. These high levels of distrust tend to vary regionally, however. As indicated previously, support for Viktor Orbán’s Euroskeptic party has increased, leading him to start his fourth term as prime minister in Hungary on a platform that is as anti-immigrant as it is anti-European. Hungary’s construction of a border fence and Italy’s refusal to become Europe’s migrant camp are two examples of how these states see migrant sharing as unfair and patently refuse to abide by EU regulation. In Hungary, fifty percent of the population distrusts the EU. Similarly, in Italy 51 percent of the population distrusts the EU. In western Europe, 42 percent of Germany’s population distrusts the EU. In northern Europe, forty percent of Swedish population distrusts the EU. Overall, the wider European perspective suggests that vertical tensions appear to be on the rise regardless of geographical variations. Over fifty percent of EU citizens trust neither their national governments nor the EU. These numbers appear to have plateaued in recent years, but they are still exceedingly high.
In order to maintain the social contract, both prosperity and security of citizens must be addressed. For most, prosperity comes down to the ability to work and to maintain their purchasing power. This ability can be impacted by globalization, modernization, and inequality. Globalization inherently produces winners and losers. Over the last three decades, growing inequality between these winners and losers has resulted in socio-spatial segregation between classes. In the Netherlands, purchasing power has decreased for 46 percent of the population over the past year, particularly for pensioners and the elderly. This is primarily due to both wage stagnation and an increase in consumer prices within the Dutch economy. However, the rate of purchasing power varied greatly for the working population, with an increase of 1.4 percent for employees. What this indicates is the possibility of an increase in vertical tensions in a certain segment of the population. When prosperity is in jeopardy as a result of economic stagnation, a decline in purchasing power or an increase in inequality, the social contract increasingly comes under strain, fueling vertical tensions.
Within Europe, income inequality is at an all-time high, now nine and a half times higher than income inequality in the 1980s, when the average income of the richest ten percent was seven times higher than the poorest ten percent. According to Thomas Piketty, wealth inequality is likely to increase due to inherited wealth as the top richest ten percent continue to get richer, leaving behind the median. This is coupled with a shrinking of the (lower) middle class in Western countries, as their jobs are generally outsourced or automated. Although the Netherlands is comparatively one of the most egalitarian countries amongst the highly developed countries, with a high GDP per capita, the Gini index in the Netherlands was 28.2 in 2017. High Gini index measures, indicating extremely unequal income distribution, can cause a “cultural backlash against tolerance, multiculturalism, international cooperation, and other progressive values, resulting in potential supporters for populist sovereignist parties.”
As socio-economic inequality has increased, it is evident that increased integration and globalization have played a role in changing attitudes towards public institutions. Not only is inequality in opposition to the democratic ideals of equality and fairness, but this growing trend also results in less participation and a corresponding decrease in trust of governments. For example, many European countries’ welfare states have been weakened, as a Euro-focused, macro-economic approach has been utilized instead of a purely national and sovereign strategy. Furthermore, many European states are also experiencing a widening gap in national income distribution, causing many to point to the EU as the driver of inequality and a source of distrust. In 2011, around one million people demonstrated across Spain against rising inequality. Inspired by the Arab Spring and Occupy movements, similar forms of unrest also spread to Greece and other countries across Europe. That same year, protests against austerity measures in the UK and Greece also took place.
While structural drivers refer to simmering tensions that continually threaten the prosperity factor of the social contract, mobilizing events also threaten the social contract in a more explosive fashion. Increased (horizontal) tensions—with Russia, China, cyber-security threats, and increased terrorist attacks—inherently threaten the security factor of the social contract. Particularly incidents that make big headlines and cause stress, such as the global economic crisis (2007), the subsequent Euro debt crisis (2009), the migrant crisis (2015), and Brexit (2016), can be hijacked by populists to mobilize the population using Euroskeptic appeals. Furthermore, increased terrorist attacks also play a role. While there were only four deaths, two attacks, and 395 arrests in the EU in 2014, those numbers rose dramatically in 2017, in which there were 62 deaths, 33 attacks, and 705 arrests. Terrorist attacks threaten the security factor of the social contract, because when citizens feel their safety is compromised, they may reconsider the usefulness of the social contract as it stands. In addition, both the global financial crisis and the Euro debt crisis in particular affected the social contract. The austerity measures that many European states were essentially forced to take to conditionally receive European-level bailouts were perceived by some citizens as mandates, remote governance, and overtly unequal in their distribution.
The lack of cooperative national government responses to the series of financial crises and slow economic recovery also negatively impacted the public’s trust in institutions, whether they be European or national. In other words, deficits in national democracy levels are blamed on the actions of external actors. The recent bridge collapse in Genoa, Italy, for example, was blamed on EU spending caps for infrastructure—despite the EU having provided Italy with 2.5 billion euros in infrastructure investment between 2014 and 2020. Still, support for institutions, whether European or national in nature, is conditional on both economic and political performance. Hence, vertical tensions are triggered by mobilizing events when there is poor economic or political performance, regardless of whether the source is European or national. However, the majority of those tensions will be aimed to the European level, as the public tends to immediately blame the EU. Moreover, as horizontal tensions between states have increased, vertical tensions are actively exacerbated by external actors (e.g. Russia and Turkey), as a fragmented Europe coupled with internal political fragmentation at the national level fits their strategic interest. In doing so, yet another stressor is added to a social contract already under significant pressure. In Germany, for example, Russian-controlled media outlets such as Russia Today portray life in Germany as dangerous and undemocratic due to the influx of migrants. This assists populist party Alternative für Deutschland by giving them media support for their anti-migrant message and exacerbating tensions within Germany.
Beyond the economic standpoint, a second mobilizing event to consider is the migrant crisis of 2015 and the increasing flows of migrants to the EU. Some citizens perceive a crisis in job and identity security due to the idea that immigrants are flooding the workforce. The hardening of the political and societal debate has polarized the views of citizens, leading to increasingly strong anti-migrant or pro-migrant views. This ongoing debate has deeply impacted to what extent citizens trust their government and how they feel the EU as a whole has responded. Considering the vertical tensions inherent within the relationship between the citizens and their respective national governments as well as the EU, this kind of crisis has exacerbated many underlying structural drivers. For example, the anti-immigrant sentiment that was stirred up by the sharp increase in migrants in 2015 is a reflection of structural tensions that come from globalization.
Within the Netherlands, vertical tensions between citizens and their national government as well as the EU remain stable. While thirty percent of the Dutch population does not trust the national government, that percentage has not risen dramatically over the past ten years. This primarily has to do with the government’s output-legitimacy, which links the legitimacy and support of government to negative and positive shifts in the economy. This same concept is also useful in analyzing the Dutch population’s relationship with the EU. While trust and optimism have increased substantially, there is still a certain level of discontent present in forty percent of the population regarding the EU. In the next five years, and unless there is a vastly unexpected mobilizing event, it is unlikely that vertical tensions will be dramatically exacerbated. Certainly, structural drivers such as increased social inequality will remain. However, purchasing power is set to increase for 95 percent of the population next year.
From a wider European perspective, vertical tensions appear to be on the rise—regardless of regional and contextual differences, with both national and European governments. In 2018, 61 percent of Europeans did not trust their respective governments, and fifty percent did not trust the EU. Despite the vast number of citizens dissatisfied with both levels of governance, in the next five years, it is unlikely that any vertical tensions will result in outright rejection of the state or a break in the social contract. Then again, vertical tensions have been expressed by recent events that were considered inconceivable in the past, such as the Dutch ‘no’ to the Ukraine–EU Association Agreement referendum and Brexit. These cases illustrate the rejection of (certain elements of) the social contract as we know it.
Within the Netherlands, the threat of vertical tensions remains relatively stable. While there a certain percentage of citizens is disgruntled with the national government and tends not to be optimistic about the future, there is no large-scale impact in the Netherlands as a whole. There seem to be some minor implications for the Netherlands with respect to the rule of law, such as the outbreak of few riots when large influxes of immigrants first began to arrive. As of yet, there does not seem to be any risk of large-scale infringement upon human rights, democracy, and economic security. In the future, economic security may be at risk if the cohesion of the EU is threatened. The existence of vertical tensions is not necessarily a direct threat, but these tensions can be exacerbated. Social media, for example, can be used to divide populations and lead to a lack of social cohesion.
Putting the Netherlands into perspective by looking at Europe as a whole reimagines the threat that vertical tensions, if exacerbated, pose. The economic security of the EU is under threat given Brexit, as well as the potential fragmentation of the Schengen Area. This lack of cohesion could begin to materialize into a threat if it were to lead to a lack of support for the EU, which is the recipient of 76 percent of Dutch exports. Within Europe, there is a high risk of infringement upon human rights and democracy, as clearly seen in Hungary and Poland. The norms and rules in these two countries do not reflect concerns for human rights as enshrined in the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. There are regional differences, through which minor physical threats to security can be seen. In Chemnitz, Germany, for example, riots erupted in 2018 against immigration that also had an anti-Semitic flavor to them. In Sweden, the prime minister is set to resign after being faced with a no-confidence vote, after a surge in support for a radical nationalist party in September of 2018. Further exacerbation of this threat may evolve if governments take up powers that choose to ignore the rule of law both nationally and on a European level. This would threaten not only a country’s internal social cohesion, but also the EU’s existence as a whole.
The trends exacerbated by globalization and other structural drivers do not necessarily imply that vertical tensions are a genie out of the bottle. Rather, they indicate inherent societal changes that have arisen from existing structural drivers. These changes, such as the increase of migration and inequality, need to be addressed, or governments will risk tensions continuing to escalate. While the threat probability according to HCSS’s scoring framework for the Netherlands remains stable and it is very unlikely that vertical tensions would result in significant infringement against democratic institutions in the Netherlands, it is still important to address the rising trend of these underlying sentiments before they get out of control.
While there is regional variation across the European continent, in countries such as Germany and Hungary vertical tensions have already surfaced and are wreaking havoc on the social relationship that citizens have with their respective governments. Whether countries are in Europe’s core or periphery states, however, all are experiencing a steady rise of vertical tensions. In countries like Poland and Hungary, there already seems to be some infringement upon the rule of law. This indicates that the drivers are changing and that governments must adapt to them or, at the very least, come up with an adequate response that addresses the grievances of their respective populations.
For the Netherlands, the security implications of this continent-wide increase in vertical tensions are to remain vigilant and keep a close watch on the structural drivers. Even though the majority of Dutch citizens appear to be content with the status quo for now, both structural drivers and mobilizing events—such as inequality rising from globalization, social modernization, and crises originating from the economy, transnational security threats, and migration—still exist within Dutch society, and a minority of the population are dissatisfied with that situation. While the threat of vertical tensions may be small for now, it is important to ensure that it remains small so that citizens do not further lose trust in their government, and subsequently lose interest in maintaining the social contract. When citizens overwhelmingly choose to vote for anti-establishment parties and lose their belief in the legitimacy and efficiency of government, it can lead to a lack of social cohesion and, ultimately, a break in the social contract that cannot be so easily placated by a new election.