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Dutch dent populist surge

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, of the Liberal Party (VVD), and far-right politician Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV), take part in a meeting at the Dutch Parliament after the general election in The Hague. Photo: Reuters

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, right, of the Liberal Party (VVD), and far-right politician Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV), take part in a meeting at the Dutch Parliament after the general election in The Hague. Photo: Reuters

The result of the Dutch election is very good news for Europe, and of course for The Netherlands. As Prime Minister Mark Rutte very correctly said: “After Brexit and after the American elections the Dutch people rejected the wrong type of populism”. The Prime Minister’s centre-right Liberal Party (VVD) easily beat the popu­list, anti-EU and anti-immigrant Freedom Party (PVV) led by Geert Wilders, leading to a sigh of relief among everyone who be­lieves in the European project.

Mr Rutte’s victory could not be more welcome news for Europe as it celebrates its 60th anniversary in Rome next weekend. It is also very encouraging to note that a huge majority of Dutch voters remain steadfastly in favour of the EU. In fact, in terms of the popular vote, 85 per cent of the electorate voted for pro-EU parties, amid a very high turnout of 82 per cent.

The result augurs well for the French and German elections that are being held later this year where right-wing populist parties are challenging the mainstream parties, but of course there is no room for complacency.

The breakdown of the election results is as follows: Mr Rutte’s Liberals won 33 out of 150 seats, a loss of eight seats; the right-wing Freedom Party won 20 seats, a gain of five; the Christian Democrats won 19 seats, a gain of six; the Social Liberals (D66) won 19 seats, a gain of seven; the Green Left party won 14 seats, a gain of 10; the Socialist Party won 14 seats, a loss of one; the Labour Party won nine seats, a huge loss of 29 seats; the Christian Union kept their five seats; and the remaining 17 seats went to other small parties.

The major loser in this election was the Labour Party, the junior party in the governing coalition, which suffered a historic defeat. The once powerful centre-left party lost over three-quarters of its seats. This should serve as a wake-up call for other social democratic parties in Europe. However, the Socialist Party, which is to the left of Labour, held on to most of its seats, and the Green Left party was the big winner of the night, making huge gains.

The Christian Democrats and Social Liberals also made substantial gains, and are both likely to be included in a coalition with Mr Rutte’s Liberals. However, these three parties together do not have enough seats to form a parliamentary majority, so other parties will have to be included in the coalition, possibly the Greens or the Christian Union.

Mr Rutte’s victory could not be more welcome news for Europe as it celebrates its 60th anniversary in Rome

Although Mr Wilders’ Freedom Party, which will definitely not be included in a coalition, did not win the most seats in the election, as some people had feared, it did gain five seats, and this should not be overlooked. The Freedom Party won 13.1 per cent of the popular vote – much less than earlier opinion polls had predicted – mainly due to voters’ insecurity and worries over im­migration and the influence of Islam in Dutch society. These concerns will have to be ad­dressed, in a calm and rational way, by the new government.

Voters seemed to prefer the stability and level-headedness associated with Mr Rutte rather than Mr Wilders’ habit of shooting from the hip and tweeting angrily. Furthermore, during the campaign, the Freedom Party leader made little effect to mode­rate his anti-globalisation, anti-EU and ferociously anti-immigrant message in which he  openly insulted people of Moroccan origin and pledged to close down all mosques.

Mr Rutte, on the other hand, came across as a sensible, calm and experienced statesman. The way he dealt with the crisis with Turkey, for example, definitely won him a lot of votes. He replied to the many outrageous statements made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who even compared the Dutch to the Nazis – in a dignified but firm manner.

It is also true that both Mr Rutte and some of the other centrist parties, such as the Christian Democrats, did move marginally to right on immigration – without turning their back on the country’s European values of solidarity and tolerance – and this no doubt lost Mr Wilders some votes.

While the mainstream parties are right to insist that there is no place in The Netherlands for immigrants who do not integrate into society and who do not adhere to Dutch values, it is now equally right for the new government to address the problem of integration (or lack of it) in Dutch society, and thus erode further the basis of support for Mr Wilders.

The setback Mr Wilders suffered in The Netherlands is encouraging and gives hope to all pro-European parties in Europe, especially as we celebrate the EU’s 60th anniversary. The huge test will now come in France’s presidential election in a few weeks’ time. Hopefully, a newly-elected pro-EU French President, together with a re-elected Angela Merkel in Germany (or a new Social Democratic Chancellor, it makes little difference) will be the catalyst for Europe’s renewal and the defeat of populism.

As EU leaders meet in Rome next weekend they will no doubt take heart as a result of the Dutch election. They must not, however, be complacent in the face of the populist challenge and must continue to be relentless in their defence of European values and the EU’s success story.

At the same time they must concentrate on addressing citizens’ major concerns, push forward further European integration only where it makes sense to do so and continue to show the world that Europe is still very much a Union of values.

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