Yesterday, European leaders breathed a collective sigh of relief when the Dutch elections delivered a decisive defeat to the far right candidate, Geert Wilders, and his Dutch Freedom Party (PVV). The victory of Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, with the majority of seats in the Dutch Parliament, drew accolades and congratulations and has been hailed as an emerging bulwark against the right wing populism that seemed inexorable after the UK referendum in June and the US elections in November.
The Dutch results are encouraging not only as a repudiation of the incendiary language of Wilders, but as a proactive move towards the Green Left party, a pro-Europe and pro-environment party headed by 30-year-old Jesse Klaver. Indeed by all indications the Dutch results are a promising sign that one of the oldest and most integrated members of the EU is firmly committed to maintaining the system and its role therein.
However, the Dutch election results come with some important lessons that the rest of Europe would do well to consider as it enters the most challenging cycle since that steel and coal union was developed in the early 1950’s. Dutch voters may have rejected Geert Wilders and his explicitly xenophobic rhetoric, but they did so in favor of a center-right party that courted them heavily, and borrowed generously from their more extreme cousins. The center-right government of Mark Rutte moved further to the right rather than bringing Wilders and his PVV toward the center, and his VVD party plays its own brand of identity politics.
Indeed Rutte himself penned an open letter to the country wherein he stated that those who did not agree with the values of the country and ‘refuse to adapt’ should leave. Rutte has positioned himself as the candidate of ‘common sense,' and against Wilders’s vitriolic messages to ban the Koran, shut down mosques and close the Dutch borders to any Muslims or refugees, he certainly seems that way. So while it will undeniably comfort leaders and Europhiles around the continent that Geert Wilders has been neutralized in these elections and that his particular brand of identity politics has been marginalized, it would be a mistake to think that inclusion has triumphed and diversity reigned supreme. While the VVD will form a coalition government with leftist parties (notably the GreenLeft, the D66 and other parties that defend animal rights, elderly citizens, and immigrants), they will do so in a climate where tensions still run high.Because while we on the outside have the image of the Netherlands as the seat of tolerance, bike riding, and space cake, reality is a bit more complicated than that. Discrimination and anti-immigrant sentiment are neither new nor necessarily foreign to the country, in contrast to what each of us thinks as we prepare for our spring breaks to Amsterdam. The country has a colonial history that is largely forgotten in the more popular discourse, overshadowed by the British, French and Belgian exploits. Indeed it was through the Dutch, first with the East India Company and later the West India Company, that the world first learned about the benefits of both a multinational organization as well as the slave labor that could be used to sustain it. The result of centuries of colonial occupation of Indonesia and South America are ethnic enclaves within the country that have never been integrated into the larger narrative, merely subsumed into the “repressive tolerance” that gave rise first to the extreme rhetoric of Pim Fortuyn and later Wilders himself. Make no mistake, they are extreme: they are not, however, unique.
Moreover, Euroscepticism remains a significant issue in the Netherlands as in the rest of Europe, though support for pro-Europe parties was up from 2012. The recent confrontation with Turkish political representatives in Rotterdam, where the Turkish president courted his own voting public with a strong (perhaps too strong) accusation of Dutch discrimination, have created their own tensions with the rest of the EU. The ‘multi-speed’ approach gaining favor in Brussels as an antidote to the recent populist surges is still tenuous, and Wilders’s rhetoric, shunned for the moment, is only ever an attack or incident away from becoming popular sentiment.
Indeed, the Dutch elections may be heartening but they are the first in a difficult year, and the upcoming elections in France promise to be a much more contentious race with admittedly much higher stakes. A loss in the Netherlands does not mean a loss in France, by any means. The French elections (beset by their own legal woes and other absurdities) are still a long way from decided, and the popular forces propelling Marine le Pen’s Front National forward are vastly different from those behind Wilders. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go before anything is clear in the direction that the EU takes, and it will be a long time before the outlook is anywhere near rosy. Moreover, as the Dutch center’s swing to the right has shown, victory over extremism may involve some problematic compromises.