BOXMEER, Netherlands – The Netherlands has long been a source of inspiration for closer European integration — and a bellwether of European discontent.
It was one of six nations that forged fledgling European unity from the ashes of World War II, and a force behind the treaty that created the euro currency. Yet, along with France, it also put itself at the vanguard of the euro-skeptic tide by rejecting a proposed European constitution in a referendum.
As the nation heads into elections on Wednesday, observers are wondering which of the two Netherlands will emerge: the EU guiding light or the harbinger of European disarray.
The answer could be an indication of the very direction of Europe.
"Every Dutch election has been at the forefront of what is the mood everywhere in Europe," says political analyst Piotr Maciej Kaczynski of the Center for European Policy studies.
In 2005, Dutch voters deepened a major continental crisis by rejecting a historic EU constitution just three days after the French gave their historic "Non" — effectively killing the charter. In the upcoming elections, the Dutch are pondering even greater existential questions for Europe — whether to stick with the union and its currency or try to fix both from the inside.
Not surprisingly, the most extreme view — ditch the European Union — comes from firebrand populist Geert Wilders, who first rose to prominence with strident anti-Islam rhetoric that resonated across Europe. At the other end of the spectrum is outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte, a staunch believer in EU integration who also hews closely to the hardline budgetary conservatism of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In between are a slew of euro-skeptic parties that are also nonetheless conscious of the bloc's importance to the Netherlands, a nation whose economy is built on exports.
The leader of one such party is Emile Roemer, who heads the left-wing Socialists. His campaign symbol is the tomato, after the rotten fruit his supporters feel to be the just desserts of the EU-loving political establishment.
Roemer gained fame during the campaign by saying that, if he joins the next Dutch ruling coalition, the Netherland would pay fines to Brussels for missing budget targets "over my dead body." At a recent campaign stop in his home town of Boxmeer, a verdant town in eastern Netherlands close to the German border, Roemer handed out tomato-flavored ice cream and said he wants "a more social Europe."
His Socialists polled strongly throughout summer campaigning, before falling back to third place in a complicated race that will likely lead to long negotiations to form the next ruling coalition.
Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom, whose criticism of the EU is more moderate, has now taken over from Roemer as the torch bearer for the left going into Wednesday's vote.
There is nothing moderate about Wilders, who argues that Europe has turned into a costly charity project for his country. He says that wealthy northern European nations like the Netherlands and Germany have spent billions bailing out debt-ridden governments in Greece and Portugal, which he casts as profligate beyond reform.
"The best days of the Netherlands are ahead of us if we no longer pay southern Europe, if we become a master of our own house, and are able to take our own decisions again," he said during a high-profile televised debate at Amsterdam's Carre theater.
Polls have been fluctuating over the past months, and the latest indicate that Wilders could lose up to a fourth of the 24 seats he won at the last Dutch election in 2010. Rutte's party tops polls, with Samsom's Labor trailing close behind.
The Netherlands and an expanding EU were long a perfect match for this centuries-old trading nation.
In the wake of World War II and ensuing hunger, Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch farmer who became the fourth president of the European commission, formed a vision of a united Europe in which nations would work together to stave off famine. He was the architect of a common European farm policy that eventually evolved into deeper economic union.
The Dutch government also was one of the driving forces behind the 1993 treaty that ushered in monetary union and, eventually, the euro currency. The treaty was signed in the picturesque southern Dutch city of Maastricht and still bears its name.
But the 2005 "No" vote on the EU constitution and anti-EU resentments that have deepened ever since show the Netherlands now to be possibly at the forefront of a continental tipping point.
Certainly, the generosity that once accompanied the EU's expansion into poorer nations has largely evaporated.
And the way the Dutch vote on Wednesday will be parsed for potential insights into the outcome of elections next year in a much more important rich northern European country: Germany.
"This is the prelude before the huge elections we will have next year in Germany," Kaczynski said.