The Netherlands has often been something of a bellwether for the political mood in North-Western Europe. Observers have watched with concern as the anti-EU and anti-immigrant populist Geert Wilders has soared in the polls and are today holding their breath as 13 million Dutch nationals cast their votes in legislative elections.
With French and German elections soon to come, regardless of the outcome, the Dutch vote has plenty to tell us about the future of Europe. Here are three key takeaways:
- Populists may not be in a position to govern but do not necessarily aim to. They can do more – or at least plenty of – damage in opposition.
If Wilders’ PVV were to win the largest (or even second largest) share of the votes, it would be a blow to Dutch liberalism, to the international reputation of the Netherlands and by extension to that of the EU. This is not because Wilders is likely to form a government: the most generous polls give him no more than 20% of the vote and all other parties have ruled out forming a coalition with him. He will however be in prime position to harass a government doing its best to manage an increasingly fractured political spectrum (the number of parties represented in parliament could increase from 12 to 14). Freed from the shackles of accountability, expect the PVV to use its enhanced platform to systematically attack and undermine the legitimacy of the government and system – including the EU. The 2016 referendum was not likely to be the last populist challenge to EU law in the country.
- Co-opting the language of populists only legitimises it and enhances their position.
The Dutch election campaign reflected a growing trend of pandering to populist sentiment in an effort to woo their voters. PM Rutte’s “act normal or leave” open letter showed a willingness to risk the support of liberal and minority voters in favour of winning over the right-wing. Over the last week, Rutte has engaged in a stand-off with the Turkish President to demonstrate that under his leadership, the Netherlands, a frontrunner of multicultural integration, can also be tough on outsiders. The upshot is that the right-wing populist narrative has been normalised and the centre has shifted to the right. And for what? Between the original and the copy, albeit improved, consumers go for the original.
- Challenging populists requires offering a different, better, vision.
Faced with the fallout from the financial crisis and a refugee influx, Dutch voters are demanding a change of course from their political leaders. Answers are needed, but they do not only need to come from the right. The rapid rise of Jesse Klaver, a young pro-EU Green leader of Moroccan origin, is a sign that alternative progressive visions can work too. If polls are right, most Dutch voters intend to vote strategically, to keep Wilders out. Liberal Europhile centrist parties will be given a second chance, albeit reluctantly. If they squander it, it may well be their last. The incoming coalition will need to offer a clear vision of the Netherlands’ place in Europe and in the world and a strategy of how to achieve it.
It seems unlikely that a government will be in place in The Hague in time for the Rome Summit on the future of Europe, but how the incoming leadership will position itself in this debate will be an early test of its willingness to challenge the vision put forward by Mr. Wilders. The election campaign was not promising, but with lessons learned there is hope yet that the outcome will put the Netherlands, and Europe, on a new and better course.
Written in collaboration with Leanda Barrington-Leach