Vidya Ram

The Dutch far-right’s packing a punch

Vidya Ram | Updated on January 13, 2018

Rutte’s not calling for change Everyone’s playing by the same rules

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It doesn’t have to win the elections to make its presence felt; it is already influencing the agenda of mainstream parties

Last month RTL, one of the Netherland’s largest broadcasters, abandoned plans for a televised debate after Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders, leader of the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), dropped out. First, Wilders tweeted that he was pulling out because the broadcaster had invited too many political parties to the event; Rutte soon followed suit, purportedly for the same reason, though few were convinced, seeing it more as a sign of his eagerness to adopt the anti-media/establishment stance that has proved so successful for the right in the West.

“He said he wanted a stand-off between him and Wilders but it is quite obvious that what you are seeing is the centre right adapt to the tone of the challengers of the far-right,” says Carsten Nickel of Teneo Intelligence. The incident highlights how deeply Europe’s far-right is influencing the politics of even mainstream parties, who are adapting to its policies, tone, and strategies, giving it influence well beyond its electoral abilities.

A patriotic spring

Parliamentary elections are due to take place in the Netherlands on March 15, kicking off a year in which major European nations will see far-right parties contest, buoyed by Britain’s Brexit referendum last year and the election of President Donald Trump in the US. Wilders, who founded the PVV in 2006 and provided support to a minority government in 2010-2012, is a controversial figure, who has pegged his political career on an anti-Islam, immigrant ideology, aligning himself with other populist, nationalist leaders across Europe, including the German Alternativ Fur Deutschland’s Fruake Petry, and the French Front National’s Marine Le Pen, as well as movements in Austria and Belgium. “We are at the beginning of a Patriotic Spring across Europe,” he said in a speech at a gathering of far-right parties in the German city of Koblez earlier this year.

While anti-Muslim rhetoric is at the heart of his agenda he has adopted a wider anti-immigrant stance too, warning that European governments had pursued a “dangerous open borders policy”. Like many of Europe’s populist parties (though not all, because of the strong dependence their nations have on intra-European trade) he is also strongly Euro-sceptic, calling for a public vote, like the one held in Britain last year. In December, Wilders was convicted of inciting discrimination after chanting slogans specifically against Moroccan immigrants at a rally. However, the conviction has done little to dent his popularity: using the language deployed by others on the right globally, to denounce the judges during the course of the trial, and afterwards accusing them of bias against his party.

Deploying strategies similar to those of Trump, Wilders has shunned the mainstream media, using social media with zeal to communicate his message, portraying himself like others on the right as the one standing against the establishment.

Aside from plans to “de-Islamise the Netherlands” and leave the EU, his website includes a scattered range of policies including introducing direct democracy via binding referendums, ending all public money for development, windmills, art, innovation and broadcasting, lowering taxes and pumping more money into defence and the police.

Growing influence

For the first time in its history the PVV is expected to become the strongest party, according to the latest polling. However, because of the fragmented nature of Dutch politics, governments are formed out of coalitions. The country’s major political parties have committed to not allying with Wilders, meaning that any coalition government would exclude the PVV. Teneo Intelligence’s current predictions are that the government is likely to remain led by Rutte’s VVD (The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy), and up to a further five partners.

Still, the right’s influence on the direction of politics is indisputable as can be seen on Rutte’s stance on the EU and immigration. While Rutte does not endorse a referendum on EU membership he has adopted a more distant and sceptical stance towards it. This was in evidence last year when he chose to listen to the results of a non-binding domestic referendum on a treaty with the Ukraine to enable visa-free travel within the union for Ukrainian citizens, threatening to hold up the agreement until assurances were given that EU membership was not on the cards for Ukraine. “They have become more and more sceptical and critical when it comes to supranational solutions, and giving more power to Brussels,” says Nickel. “They want EU membership to be based on pragmatic cooperation between national governments.”

The same is true of the government’s rhetoric on the European refugee crisis: “Ten or 15 years ago you may have seen the Netherlands playing a more constructive role but they have been pretty silent on the refugee crisis.” The government has also been taking an increasingly aggressive stance on immigration: earlier this year the Rutte government took out full-page ads in several Dutch newspapers, calling on immigrants who didn’t like the country’s values to leave.

Not alone

The Netherlands is far from alone in seeing the right’s influence on mainstream politics: the influence of the leave campaign, which has attempted to portray itself as an anti-establishment, people’s movement, protecting people against the forces of globalisation, has clearly influenced the Conservative party in the UK where last year Prime Minister Theresa May criticised the metropolitan elite. “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” It’s equally the case in Germany where Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the CSU, has been adopting tough rhetoric on immigration, making a future coalition contingent on Merkel’s CDU agreeing to an immigration cap. Merkel herself has toughened her stance on a number of issues, saying earlier this year her party would consider a burkha ban.

The developments will matter to India — while Britain has typically been the home of investment in Europe, it is up for grabs as it prepares to leave the EU, potentially ending its role as a gateway to Europe for Indian companies, and making European nations potentially more attractive prospects. There are currently over 170 Indian companies in the Netherlands, from the services sector to steel, and there is a sizeable Indian diaspora.

Beyond the direct impact on businesses and individuals based in Europe, the tone of the debate matters to India: as more nations in Europe potentially follow the US administration down the anti-globalisation path, the harder the battle will be for nations such as India seeking to promote a multilateral trading order.

Published on March 03, 2017

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