The defeat of the populist candidate at the Mar. 15 Dutch election doesn’t necessarily mean that the rise of populism is over in Europe. With the immigration crisis in full swing, the trend will persist and the Kremlin might benefit from it. Yet this won’t bring Moscow and Brussels closer.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (pictured) warded off a challenge from islamophobic Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV). Rutte at the opening of of an Islamic manuscript exhibition in December 2016. Photo: Mark Rutte's official facebook page
The Mar.15 parliamentary elections in the Netherlands seem to have allayed the fears of the West that another populist candidate would come to power in one of the most liberal countries of the European Union. The current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, warded off a challenge from Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV).
“The Netherlands said ‘Stop’ to the wrong sort of populism,” said Rutte shortly after his victory.
Likewise, other European leaders welcomed the results of the Dutch election. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said it was victory of “free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel saw it as a “very pro-European result” and a “good day for democracy.” Rutte’s victory brought a great deal of relief in France, where xenophobic and anti-EU candidate Marine Le Pen from the National Front might win, according to the pre-election presidential polls. French President François Hollande said the Dutch election was a “clear victory against extremism”.
The very fact the European political elites responded to Rutte’s reelection emotionally indicates that they were unconfident and discouraged by a series of the events that manifested the resurgence of nationalism and populism. The UK exit from the European Union and the victory of flamboyant Republican Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election sent a warning signal to them.
In fact, Wilders was seen as the Dutch incarnation of Trump, with his Euroscepticism, Islamophobia and anti-immigration rhetoric. He promised to “de-Islamize” the Netherlands and exit from the European Union during the pre-election campaign, so that many European experts and politicians saw him as a threat to the EU core values and, most importantly, its unity.
According to the preliminary results of the elections, Rutte’s center-right and liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) is expected to take 33 seats in the 150-seat Dutch parliament, with Wilders’ PVV finishing second and taking about 20 seats. However, Rutte’s party will have to earn the support of at least three more parties to get 76 seats to rule the country, which, according to some expert, won’t be an easy task because of the lack of unanimity with his potential coalition partners — Christian Democrats and Democrats 66, each with 19 seats in the parliament.
All this indicates that populism is still a common trend for the Netherland despite the defeat of Wilders. Unlike the representatives of the European establishment, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Council, doesn’t seem to have been excited by Rutte’s victory. He argues that the Dutch election proves that the political situation in Europe is still unstable.
“Prosperous and stable Holland that, nevertheless, frightened the entire Europe with a possible success of the Freedom Party is a symbol of an intellectual crisis and the persisting divide in the European politics,” Kosachev wrote on his facebook page. “Europe is still in the thick of the storm.”
Likewise, some Russian and Dutch experts argue that the victory of the liberal party in the Dutch elections doesn’t necessarily mean that the rise of populism is over. This trend is likely to persist, unless the West is able to cope with the refugee crisis, terrorism threat and other challenges.
For example, Tony van der Togt, a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, argues that the EU should prove its economic and political viability to keep populists at bay.
“Wilders has not been defeated,” he told Russia Direct. “He failed to become the biggest party in parliament and will play no role in the next government. But some of the reasons for populism, like weak integration of migrants and the migration crisis as a whole are not solved. They will remain a big challenge both for national governments and for the EU as a whole.”
The phenomenon of Wilders is a vidid manifestation of the identity crisis in the Netherland and the EU, in general. It is a challenge for the European Union to be a more effective external player, to quote some pundits, who participated in the Mar. 16 discussion at the Valdai Club.
At the same time, they admit that the rise of populism in the Netherlands might be a temporary phenomenon, because the country's political elites might use some populist mottos to maintain its popularity among undecided voters, who balance between radicals and the establishment.
For example, Steven Derix, a Moscow correspondent for NRC Handelsblad, a Dutch newspaper, and Fyodor Lykyanov, the head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, agree that Wilders is just a political phenomenon. They don’t think that he and his party have enough political heft and power to rule the country and create a viable coalition.
The popularity of Wilders is just a response of the society to the increasing problem of immigration in the Netherland and this challenge will persist, Lykyanov and Derix concluded during the discussion at the Valdai Club. That’s why the Dutch establishment will have to "borrow" some populist slogans to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people, tired of those immigrants who failed to assimilate into the Dutch culture.
As long as the trend persists, there will be the divide in the European politics. And Russia is likely to benefit from it.
“In a way Russia could benefit from divisions inside the EU on European integration and how to handle the migration crisis,” said van der Togt. “This could mean a weakening of EU as an international player.”
On the other hand, the most important factor will be Russia's future relations with Germany, because it is Berlin (not Brussels) that takes the lead and keeps the EU united.
“If populists would win in Germany, that would be serious, but Alternative for Germany (AfD), the extreme right-wing party in Germany, will not receive a boost from the results of Geert Wilders' party in yesterday's Dutch elections,” added van der Togt.
By the same token, the Dutch election won’t be a game-changer for the Russian-Dutch relations. But what does matter for their cooperation is the Kremlin’s capability to restore ties with the entire European Union, contribute to resolving the Ukrainian standoff in accordance with the Minsk Agreements and cooperate on bringing those responsible for downing the MH17 Malaysia Boeing to justice, according to van der Togt.
“Any new Dutch government is not expected to be 'softer on Russia'. After MH17 there is a widespread consensus here that there will be no early return to business as usual,” the experts added.