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February 19, 2017

ROTTERDAM, Netherlands (AP) — For a small nation that has grown hugely wealthy thanks to centuries of doing business far and wide, the political mood in the Netherlands has turned surprisingly inward.

As a March 15 parliamentary election looms in the Netherlands — one of the founding members of the European Union — popular lawmaker Geert Wilders is dominating polls with an isolationist manifesto that calls for the Netherlands “to be independent again. So out of the EU.”

After Britons voted last year to divorce from the EU, could a Dutch departure — known here as “Nexit,” after “Brexit” — be close behind? “I see the European Union as an old Roman Empire that is ceasing to exist. It will happen,” Wilders said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Wilders’ Party for Freedom is a serious contender to win the popular vote, with most polls a month out from the election showing it ahead of all other parties. Over the past dozen years, the Dutch have already voted in referenda against EU proposals twice.

Few analysts think “Nexit” would materialize: Despite his popularity, Wilders will struggle to find coalition partners among mainstream parties, which shun him and his strident anti-Islam, anti-EU rhetoric.

Then again, few observers predicted last year that Britain would vote to become the first country to leave the EU, so the worries are real about the possible effects of a Nexit — or a further disintegration of European unity driven by the rise of nationalist populism throughout the continent.

An exit from the EU would likely deal a huge blow to Rotterdam, a cosmopolitan city known for its port, one of the world’s busiest. The city employs 90,000 people, and a further 90,000 are directly linked to its activities elsewhere in the country.

Port of Rotterdam corporate strategist Michiel Nijdam believed a Dutch exit from the EU seemed unlikely, though not impossible. “Because we are so dependent on our trade with other countries that it would clearly hurt us so much that I don’t think it’s likely,” he said. “But you never know what happens if a lot of people think it’s a good idea and you vote on a party that is pro-Nexit.”

Nijdam was speaking in the port’s imposing Norman Foster-designed headquarters, which commands views over the port and the Nieuw Maas river that bisects the city. Cranes at container terminals can be seen to the west, while low-slung barges glide past, heading eastward along rivers and canals into the heart of Europe.

The port made a profit of 222 million euros last year as it dealt with 461 million metric tons of freight. Some 28,000 sea-going vessels and 100,000 inland waterway barges used the port in 2016. “The effects will be the opposite of the effects we had from the opening of Europe,” Nijdam said. “That means that it’s more difficult to organize your logistics through the Netherlands, so it will clearly have an impact on supply chains that will shift their routes from Rotterdam to other ports.

“The Netherlands will be less attractive that’s for sure. For logistics it’s not a good decision to leave the EU.” Wilders disagrees, pointing to a report his party commissioned that showed the Dutch economy would benefit from an exit. The Netherlands would remain a strong trading nation while saving billions in funding to the trade bloc, it claimed.

“The position of Rotterdam will really be the same after we would leave the European Union,” he said. “It will not be that Rotterdam all of a sudden will have moved to Sweden.” Dutch bank Rabobank published four scenarios this month for the future of Europe and its effects. A scenario in which the bloc disintegrates amid a messy divorce from Britain and growing skepticism about Europe among remaining member states doesn’t look pretty for the Netherlands or Rotterdam. The bank even suggested that a huge new extension to Rotterdam’s port could turn into a “nature reserve.”

One Rabobank economist, Elwin de Groot, said Rotterdam’s port underscores how deeply embedded the Netherlands is in the EU and its single market. “We are the spider in the logistic web of Europe,” he said. “So if that is affected by, for example, a Nexit … that could have significant consequences for our economy.”

A new economic hit is the last thing this nation of 17 million needs. After being pummeled by the global economic crisis in 2007 and 2008, it was struck again around 2012 but is now bouncing back strongly. Figures released this month showed that the Netherlands’ economy grew a robust 2.1 percent in 2016.

Rabobank researcher De Groot says a Nexit could slam the brakes on that growth. If the Netherlands were to leave the EU, he said, “suddenly we are confronted with all kinds of trade restrictions. That could have, you know, a very negative impact on the Dutch economy.”

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