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#TheReply: Europe breathes a sigh of relief after passing an important test in the Netherlands’ elections

After a particular campaign often distinguished by anti-Islam, anti-Turkey, and anti-immigration rhetoric, the Dutch vote on the general elections held on Wednesday 15 March proved populists wrong giving another mandate to the Prime Minister Mark Rutte. His People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) managed to see off the anti-immigration Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders. Albeit the PVV gained votes, it wasn’t enough to make the impact Wilders had fought for. A coalition between at least four pro-European parties is expected to form the new Dutch government.

“The Netherlands, oh the Netherlands you are a champion!…Congratulations on this great result!”

Dutch election result has repercussions on the rest of the EU. It soothes European nerves after fearing a herald of populist spring in the Union. Rutte’s centre-right PVV lost seats, but even so managed to be the largest party in parliament. The Prime Minister victory, though pondering to the far Right, brought unspeakable relief for the pro-European neighbours. Several EU leaders congratulated Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and voters for striking a blow against nationalism and populism. Italian premier Paolo Gentiloni wrote on Twitter: « No #Nexit. The anti-EU right wing has lost an election in the Netherlands. Let’s commit together to change and revive the Union!” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel also said on Twitter that « populism didn’t pay off”. And Peter Altmaier, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief of staff tweeted suddenly after first preliminary results: “The Netherlands, oh the Netherlands you are a champion!…Congratulations on this great result!

Did populism really fail to reach its goal?

Discordant interpretations are given to the Dutch election result. On one hand most media depicted it as the big defeat of nationalism in Europe after Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as US President. Whereas others are looking at the issue from a completely different point of view, stressing a certain consolidation of conservative and right-wing liberal parties in the Netherlands and the further fragmentation of the political landscape, as the main takeaway from this election.

“An evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said ‘stop’ to the wrong kind of populism”

Had the Netherlands swung decisively behind Wilders, it would have given a huge boost to other populist parties across Europe. Nevertheless, Europeans need to be honest with themselves. It’s not yet the time to raise the glass to the victory. Rutte himself, after the election results were evident, said: “an evening in which the Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said ‘stop’ to the wrong kind of populism.” Far from reassuring Rutte’s statement leads to perplexity. He didn’t provide further explanation on what the right kind of populism might be.

Indeed, Rutte took an increasingly tough line on immigration in his campaign playing the populist card twice. First time when he told immigrants to “be normal”, and second when his government banned Turkish ministers from campaigning in the Netherlands ahead of Turkey’s constitutional referendum. These political manoeuvres have probably helped Rutte in beating Wilders’ far-right party.

How is that far-right wing forces have gained so much popularity?

Let’s take a step back. What did Wilders propose to the Dutch? Which was his political program? His 11-point “manifesto” released about a year ago is discriminatory, racist, inadmissible. Eleven short and clear-cut solutions to very complex problems EU is facing nowadays.

“Populists give easy questions to very complex questions”

Despite the Dutch case, there is no doubt at all that populism is rising everywhere in Europe and not only. This simply truth should lead us in engaging ourselves more actively in addressing the why, the how and the what as far as populism is concerned. Before complaining and asking what we should do to tackle the issue, it would be more effective to reflect on the reasons behind this rise of populism, why is it gaining so much space. Everything we take for granted in Europe is under attack recently by anti-establishment forces, anti- European parties, authoritarian populism.

Why are we letting some anti-European undermining what we have cherished all these decades in the EU?

Demanding back their sovereignty, separating the “real people” from “them” (politicians who don’t represent real people’s interests), asking to build walls instead of bridges; – these xenophobic forces are canalising the anger of some disillusioned people to reach their political goals. Among other capabilities, populists have shown to be able in addressing the right questions on the right moment but even so, providing some superficial answers. Although tempted to receive some immediate remedies for our “illnesses”, we should take caution when it comes to populism. There could be no easy answers to very complex questions.

Europe needs a positive political alternative fostering the gathering people under a new vision. We all know what kind of situations member states are facing today. But what populists promise lead to a mismatch between our intentionality and the way we engage to achieve our intentions. We live in a globalised world and shutting down all doors doesn’t offer the magic solution.

We have cherished our values and what we believe in step by step, slowly but progressively. Switching to a vision of world which is completely different from the one we use to know is not the remedy. If you want to shape your body or lose weight you have to exercise, to work out, eat healthy. Those who promise you 100% results just ingesting any substance or cutting off carbs and proteins are leading you to the wrong way.

Some final remarks

As far as Dutch election is concerned, some final comments have to be done.

Firstly, the so-called “great defeat” of populism was a weird victory “loose but win” for Rutte that although losing many seats comparing to last elections, managed to see his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy on pole position.

Secondly, it is crystal clear that Dutch elections result shows a collapse of left-wing parties ( real losers) and a supremacy of right-wing ones ( winners).

Thirdly, the Netherlands test demonstrates that the biggest risk to Europe today is not the possibility for far-right parties to come in power, but their influence on policymakers. Instead of confronting the radical arguments of rising populist parties and defending policies based on rights, mainstream parties have altered their political agenda for fear of losing votes. Dutch elections give a clear illustration of this danger (as above mentioned Rutte himself used the populist card twice). This attitude legitimises and normalises the hateful agenda of the xenophobic, anti-Islam, anti-refugee populists, with none of the costs that go along with being in power and held to account.

Zana Çanaku

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Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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