The Netherlands’ March 15 national elections have drawn international attention due to Geert Wilders’s populist, antiestablishment bid. His Party for Freedom (PVV) has risen to become one of the country’s most popular by pushing a strongly anti-immigration and anti-Islam platform, while also criticizing the Netherlands’ membership in the European Union. Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of European think tank Open Europe, says that while Wilders may not win enough support to form his own government, his popularity sends a signal that the EU needs to do some soul searching. In the Netherlands, as elsewhere in Europe, anti-EU sentiment is on the rise, and “the longer the EU waits to reform, the riskier it gets,” Cleppe says.
The Netherlands has a reputation for openness. What has driven the recent rise of Wilders and his Freedom Party?
After the 9/11 attacks, a politician named Pim Fortuyn went against the consensus and began criticizing immigration. He was shot and killed in the run up to elections in 2002. It was the first political murder in the Netherlands in some three hundred years.
At that time, Geert Wilders was with the center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), and he criticized Fortuyn for going too far. But after Fortuyn’s death, Wilders radicalized to the point that he left the VVD and created his own party, the anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV).
In the past five years, he has become increasingly radical. This is in contrast to France’s Marine Le Pen, who has been desperately trying to moderate her party [the National Front], both in style and in content. Wilders has been saying very nasty things about the Moroccan minority, and was convicted for it [under the Netherlands’ hate speech laws] last November, although he faced no punishment. This January he repeated the statements, so it is clear he’s not trying at all to be agreeable. And he has said that he will refuse to join a government with the current prime minister, Mark Rutte. Wilders has been dropping a bit in the polls in recent weeks—but antiestablishment parties tend to be underrated in the polls.
Fundamentally the Netherlands is still a progressive country, in the sense that it’s very important to defend things like freedom of speech and social liberties. Many people are still in favor of immigration but criticize the way migration has happened and the lack of integration of immigrants into society. And while, luckily, there have been no large-scale terrorist attacks in the Netherlands, there are, as in Belgium and France, similar problems with Islamic radicals. This has all caused public opinion to harden.
How has the political establishment reacted to his rise, and what is the likely outcome for a new government?
Wilders is making sure he remains “dirty” enough not to go into the government, but the three mainstream parties are picking up some elements of this program. Prime Minister Rutte’s center-right VVD has always been relatively eurosceptic, wary of transferring ever more power to the European Union. Rutte has also picked up some anti-immigration rhetoric, saying that people should “behave normally” or should leave the Netherlands. The Social Democrats and Christian Democrats have also been critical of the EU, particularly some elements of the single market and the EU’s trade agenda.
The government is most likely to be everyone but Wilders, a coalition of up to five parties. There will probably be a government of two center-right parties and two left-wing parties. The left-wing parties, including the Greens, are quite strongly pro-EU, and therefore the next Dutch government might not be very eurosceptic.
How has the Brexit vote and the migration crisis affected anti-EU sentiment in the Netherlands?
Brexit has impacted it. The migration crisis has impacted it a lot more, but it was already present.
First of all, you had the euro crisis. The European Central Bank (ECB) artificially keeping interest rates down is damaging pension funds in the Netherlands, which are required to hold a certain amount in reserve. And that reserve is harder to achieve if the interest rates are so low. As a result, some of these pension funds have had to cut payouts, and will have to continue to do so.
“There’s not going to be a referendum on EU membership. There’s not going to be a referendum on the euro. None of that is in the cards if the mainstream parties create a government without Wilders.”
Earlier, in 2005, there was a Dutch referendum on the EU constitution. This was yet another round of transfers of powers from the national level to the EU level, largely happening through the scrapping of national veto powers and the creation of new institutions like the European Council presidency and the creation of an EU foreign minister. Two-thirds of Dutch citizens voted against it, taking the establishment by surprise. At that point, the Dutch government proceeded to pretend as if nothing had happened and agreed to the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which effectively had the same content as the European constitution.
These events increased the critical stance that many had toward the EU and the Dutch establishment. The Dutch establishment is now being presented with the bill for that.
You mentioned that other Dutch parties are adopting some of Wilders’s positions. What are the risks that the Netherlands could leave the eurozone or have a referendum on leaving the EU, like the UK did?
Mainstream parties have adopted some euroscepticism, but not to a great extent. They might block any more transfers of powers to the EU level, but there’s not going to be a referendum on EU membership. There’s not going to be a referendum on the euro. None of that is in the cards if the mainstream parties create a government without Wilders.
What may happen, however, is that four or five years down the line, Wilders could be strengthened because he’s been the only opposition. But the Dutch establishment feels that Wilders is tapping into the percentage of the country that is always discontented, and they feel that there is a ceiling to that. They’re managing to keep Wilders stable, more or less, by taking over some elements of the discontent that he has been exploiting. So they’re not too worried, and they think he will just fade away over time. At least, that’s what they hope.
In the Netherlands, like in France, the far right has disproportionate support among the young, whereas the victories of both Brexit and U.S. President Donald J. Trump were driven by older voters. What does that mean for the future of this populist surge?
It’s striking. On the other hand, we should not overplay the importance of the youth vote. Young people tend to go to extremes. Perhaps it didn’t show up in the Trump movement or the Brexit movement, but it did show up in the Bernie Sanders movement. It seems that young people, having less responsibility, have always been more keen on shaking up the system.
That demographic is also likely to change its mind more quickly than older people. Someone who is, say, thirty-five won’t change his mind as quickly as someone who is, say, twenty-one. In that sense, they may abandon a Wilders or a Le Pen more easily than the older demographics would.
Will the Netherlands vote affect the upcoming elections in France or Germany, where far-right parties are polling well?
I don’t think they will have a big effect, unless, of course, Wilders was able to rise to power. That would certainly embolden the populist parties the same way that Trump’s victory has. On the other hand, [the center-left candidate] Martin Schulz is now gaining popularity in Germany, which is really surprising. One argument is that it’s because Germans are becoming a little afraid by what they see out of Trump. Wilders could make a similar impression.
How can the EU respond to the rise in anti-EU populism?
The EU will have to reform. The longer it waits, the riskier it gets, with more exits from the union. If only the EU had taken British criticism over the last twenty or thirty years more seriously, then the euroscepticism in Britain wouldn’t have increased the way it did.
The EU must do some soul searching and try to figure out why people are angry. The EU will find that very few people are actually angry due to the scrapping of trade barriers. There is some anger, however, that Eastern European workers are entering the markets of Western Europe.
“The EU will have to reform. The longer it waits, the riskier it gets, with more exits from the union.”
When people criticize the EU, it’s always for interfering with business, redistributing funds, or attaching conditions to these funds. That’s a typical complaint from southern Europe, which has had to endure the interference by the so-called troika [of the European Commission, European Central Bank, and the International Monetary fund]. In Eastern Europe, especially, people were very angry that the EU imposed mandatory migrant quotas. Migration is a very sensitive issue in every country in the world. If a supranational bureaucracy tries to impose quotas of migrants, even a small number, it is a recipe for euroscepticism. The Hungarian government exploited that by organizing a referendum on the issue.
These are policies that I think the European Union just has to give up. We can have all the good things of the EU, which is making sure there are as few barriers to trade as possible, without organizing transfers or trying to become some embryonic government or touching upon very sensitive asylum and migration policy decisions.
What is the likelihood of that?
Of course, it’s not in the nature of a bureaucracy to reduce its own power. But Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has proposed five options for the future of the EU. And two of the five actually are about less European integration, without giving up the whole thing. One option is to turn the EU into a mere free-trade project, and the other is to scale down the activities of the EU and make sure that whatever the EU does happens more efficiently.
“The core of the EU project is open trade. The EU idea is that reducing trade barriers is going to make it less likely that countries go to war against each other.”
For the first time ever, the commission invoked the prospect that the EU could actually reduce its powers. But it seems that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and the French president, Francois Hollande, are still stuck in the logic of increasing EU powers. They’ve understood that it’s not going to work to increase the EU’s powers at the level of the twenty-seven [members of the bloc]. Instead, they propose allowing smaller groups of countries to decide to shift powers to the European level.
Is that kind of “multi-speed” European Union possible?
I think it is. But the core of the EU project is open trade. The EU idea is that reducing trade barriers is going to make it less likely that countries go to war against each other. That has been a massive success, first of all, in peace terms, but also in economic terms. And the EU is good at that. It has the capacity, the experience.
On the trade side, there is still lots of work to be done. It would not be a lack of ambition if the EU were to focus on that instead of trying to use every crisis to create more transfers between countries, or budget oversight, or a common European finance ministry, or a common European migration policy. Otherwise, the whole thing could come crashing down, including all the good elements.
This interview has been edited and condensed.