THE HAGUE – One line from Geert Wilders’ inflammatory speech to Dutch voters will haunt Brussels more than any other: the referendum on leaving the European Union.
Seven years after Britons voted to leave the European Union, the so-called NEXT vote was a key building block in the far-right leader’s ultimately successful bid in the Netherlands.
While Wilders has toned down his anti-Islamic tone in recent weeks, there are no signs that he wants to ease his Euroscepticism after his surprise election victory.
Even if Dutch voters are not persuaded to follow the British to Brexit – opinion polls suggest that is unlikely – there is every indication that a Wilders-led government in The Hague will remain a nightmare for Brussels.
Wilders getting a seat at the EU summit table would change this dynamic, alongside other far-right and nationalist leaders already in office. Suddenly, policies ranging from climate action, to EU reform, to arms for Ukraine, were up for discussion, and even reversal.
Since the poll results were announced, potential centre-right partners have not ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders, who has emerged as the clear winner. This is despite the fact that for the past ten years, he has been pushed away by centrists.
For his part, the 60-year-old veteran seems very serious about taking power himself this time.
Since Dylan Yeşilgoz, who replaced Mark Rutte as party leader, indicated early in the election campaign that she would likely enter into coalition talks with Wilders, the far-right leader has done her best to appear more rational. He has softened some of his harsher positions, especially on Islam — such as the mosque ban — saying there are larger priorities to fix.
On Wednesday night, as the results came in, Wilders was more clear: “I understand very well that the parties do not want to be in government with a party that wants unconstitutional measures.” We will not talk about mosques, Qur’ans, and Islamic schools.”
Even if Wilders were willing to give up his demand for an EU referendum in exchange for power, his victory would still send shivers down the EU institutions.
If the centrist parties cooperate to oust Wilders – again – there may be a price to pay from angry Dutch voters later.
Brexiteer Nigel Farage has shown in the UK that you don’t need to be in power to be powerfully influential.
Winds of Change
Immigration was the dominant issue in the Dutch elections. For EU politicians, this remains a pressing concern. As immigrant numbers continue to rise, so has support for far-right parties in many countries in Europe. In Italy last year, Giorgia Meloni won power on behalf of her brothers in Italy. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally remains a powerful force, ranking second in opinion polls. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany party has also risen to second place in recent months.
In his victory speech, Wilders pledged to address what he called the “asylum tsunami” hitting the Netherlands.
“The main reasons why voters supported Wilders in this election are his anti-immigration agenda, followed by his positions on the cost of living crisis and his stance on health care,” said Sarah de Lange, a professor of politics at the University of Amsterdam. She said the mainstream parties had “legitimized Wilders” by making immigration a major issue. Voters may have thought that if that was the issue at stake, why not vote for the original rather than the copy?
For the left, the bright spot in the Netherlands has been the strong display of the well-organized alliance between the Labor Party and the Green Party. Frans Timmermans, former vice-president of the European Commission, rallied support behind him. But even that combined ticket could not surpass Wilders’ tally.
Next June, the twenty-seven countries of the European Union will hold elections for the European Parliament.
On the same day that voters choose members of the European Parliament, Belgium holds general elections. Tom van Grieken, the far-right Flemish independence leader, who is also eyeing a major breakthrough, offered his congratulations to Wilders, saying: “Parties like ours are on their way to the whole of Europe.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was also celebrating, saying: “The winds of change have blown!”
Peter Haek reported from Amsterdam and Tim Ross reported from London.
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