Trans-Europe Express: Going Dutch – The Geert Wilders conundrum

Sent out every Friday at noon, Trans-Europe Express gives you an insider's view of the most important coverage from across the EURACTIV media network, its media partners and much more.

Don’t let the numbers fool you. Following several months of predictions that the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) would win the 15 March elections, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s conservative VVD party this week pulled ahead, by less than 1% of the vote.

On a downward trend since the end of January, analysts contend the sheen is off Wilders’ far-right party due to disappointment with the first weeks of the Trump administration and its parallel politics of isolationism and xenophobia.

Never mind that aside from the dye jobs and the ethnic incitement, the distinctions between Trump and Wilders are in fact vast. The real issue is the distinction between European populism and Trump’s brand of conservatism, which tend to depart radically from one another on social issues.

In terms of media treatment of the populist explosion, such over-simplification, particularly in reference to the US elections and the UK’s Brexit vote, are more the rule than the exception.

This makes it especially difficult to understand why a country such as the Netherlands, renowned for its kid-friendly liberalism and fondness for hippies, would embrace a racist demagogue like Geert Wilders.

Unlike France, for example, whose National Front party, currently leading the polls, depends on the country’s ongoing economic crisis, the indicators fuelling Wilders popularity are entirely different. With only 5% unemployment, as opposed to France’s 10%, his appeal appears more ideologically than economically driven.

Indeed, to many pundits, this is what sets Dutch populism apart from its American and French counterparts. The grievances underlying it are said to be more cultural and religious than anything else, implying that they are in some ways more serious than if they were just economically derived.

The implication is that in matters concerning diversity, differences must be taken more seriously, and that if the affluent, pot-smoking Dutch can’t make it work, multiculturalism might be more of a pipe dream than previously thought. No doubt, a Wilders electoral win will force many to reach such conclusions.

However, if you dig deeper and look at the kinds of changes Dutch society has undergone since World War II, the picture starts to look more familiar. Primarily demarcated along parochial lines, the Netherlands’ Catholic-Protestant divide fell apart during the 1950s and 1960s, but no similarly binding identities replaced them.

As the Netherlands followed the rest of Europe on the neoliberal path in the 1980s, the decline of its welfare state and a new emphasis on merit introduced parallel forms of insecurity typical of Western countries undergoing more serious crises. Look at any studies of this period, and the sources of its rightward drift are largely the same.

Hence the copycat ethnic and anti-EU politics of Wilders. This is why a PVV electoral loss is not of any consequence. With its recently announced proposal for a headscarf ban and declarations of intolerance for those who do not assimilate, the Rutte government has shown, albeit with certain exceptions, it is willing to pursue an uncomfortably similar programme.

THE INSIDE TRACK

They have a position. Well, several. Ahead of the Rome Declaration, the Visegrád Group plug Schengen and the four freedoms, their preference for the Council over the Commission, stronger borders etc., but object to a multi-speed Europe. They still want German money, too, but won’t guarantee similar social standards.

Invoicing pays. The Portuguese government is set to introduce new legislation that foresees fines for acts of racism, it announced on Wednesday. Individuals found guilty of racist practices will face a fine of just over €4,200, while groups, companies or organisations will be liable to pay damages twice as high.

Some people still believe this stuff. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claims that “ethnic homogeneity” is vital to the country’s economic success, in a fresh tirade against importing workers to solve labour shortages.

Think different: Bart Somers is a well-liked Belgian mayor of international standing, who built his reputation on promoting diversity. Somers told EURACTIV Slovakia the secrets of his success and why tolerance is a positive social value.

She was better in 2015. Angela Merkel has called the arrest of German-Turkish Die Welt journalist Deniz Yücel “disappointing” but will still proceed cautiously in order not to jeopardise the EU-Turkey refugee deal.

The silent treatment. Lakhdar Brahimi criticised EU politicians and think-tank reps for wrongly dispensing with the use of keywords such as “Iraq” or “Islam” while discussing the Union’s relations with its neighbours, and the refugee crisis, at a lengthy meeting in Malta.

ISIS is coming. Even if Daesh suffers military defeat this year, Islamist terrorism remains a major threat to Italy, Premier Paolo Gentiloni warned on Monday.

A call to arms. A constitutional amendment would enable Czechs to acquire and possess a gun for security purposes. This is a partial response to the proposed EU Firearms Directive, says EURACTIV Czech Republic’s Aneta Zachová.

Doing it for the kids. A right-wing Polish priest has complained he was “banned from defending Christian children” after being turned away from the UK. According to Matt Tempest, the 28-year old Jacek Miedlar was stopped after landing at Stansted, intending to speak at a meeting of the far-right Britain First organisation.

They want their money. Greece must not be granted a “bail in” that would involve creditors taking a loss on their loans, Germany’s deputy finance minister said on Sunday, as Athens announced how much gold it has in reserve.

So what else is new? In the current negotiations over a new loan package for Athens, collective bargaining and labour rights have been in the spotlight. However, expert opinion in favour of these tools is being ignored by Greece’s lenders, warn Jan Willem Goudriaan and Richard Pond.

Couldn’t happen to nicer people. Marine Le Pen’s National Front and Frauke Petry’s Alternative für Deutschland are suddenly losing votes. But, according to Treffpunkteuropa, it remains to be seen how long the strong socialist rise, led by Martin Schulz and Benoît Hamon, will last.

Repetition compulsion. One French senator thinks the conditions are ripe for another financial crash.

Views are the author’s.

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