Thursday 19 October 2017

Analysis: Despite Netherlands result, the populist tide sweeping Europe is not slowing down

Marine Le Pen delivers a speech on citizenship in Paris earlier this week. Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau
Marine Le Pen delivers a speech on citizenship in Paris earlier this week. Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau

Peter Foster

The outpouring of relief from the European political establishment that Geert Wilders did not come first in the Dutch general election is a clear measure of current anxiety-levels among the continent's ruling elite.

The leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the European Union institutions all rushed onto their secure lines (and then Twitter) to congratulate Mark Rutte and the Dutch people for holding back the populist tide.

They declared a victory for tolerance and optimism, but the reality for the European project is far messier, and the 'victory' far more pyrrhic, than those celebrations would have you believe.

To be sure Mr Wilders, an unabashed xenophobe who used the phrase "Moroccan scum" at one point in the campaign, had a disappointing night, but he still managed to secure 13pc of the vote. His Party for Freedom will now become the second-largest in the 150-seat Dutch parliament.

Mr Rutte, bolstered by his recent handling of the diplomatic spat with Turkey, managed to win just over 21pc of the vote, giving him 13 more seats than Mr Wilders. That is a clear win, yes, but by no means a rout - and certainly not the end of populist anger being directed towards governing elites.

This is particularly so when you consider that Mr Wilders does not represent the entirety of anti-immigration sentiment in the Netherlands. Smaller parties like the Forum for Democracy and as well as the mainstream centre-right parties all played the identity card to some degree.

That includes Mr Rutte, who at one point ran a series of campaign advertisements demanding that migrants "be normal, or be gone", a position which was only a half shade away from Mr Wilders's far cruder pronouncements on the need for integration.

The tone and content of this grubby Dutch election campaign showed just how seriously the vision of a tolerant, multi-cultural Europe is now openly under questioned.

It is true that the two pro-EU progressive parties, D66 and GreenLeft, made significant gains, but their combined vote of just over 21pc was dwarfed by the anti-immigrant consensus on the right of Dutch politics represented by the three largest parties commanding 45pc.

None of this should provide too much comfort in Brussels and Berlin as the first round of the French presidential election approaches next month, with more than a quarter of French voters poised to vote for Marine Le Pen and her far-right Front National party.

Ms Le Pen is a much smarter political operator than Mr Wilders - who at times made a fool of himself during the Dutch campaign - and she carries a far more existential threat to the future of the European Union.

The polls show that Ms Le Pen is still very likely to be defeated in the second round run-off - at this point most likely by Emmanuel Macron - but he is a highly inexperienced candidate, and that cannot be taken absolutely for granted.

Which brings us to the wider point about these elections - populism is not going away in Europe, even if its talismans do not win the highest offices as Donald Trump did last November in the United States.

The major factors that drive populism - weak wage growth, high youth unemployment, growing immigration pressures, technological disruption - are here to stay and they are driving a destablising fragmentation of politics all across the continent.

The Dutch election was yet another example of how establishment parties are losing their grip on power amid a growing cacophony of sectional interest parties.

As recently as 2012 the top three Dutch political parties commanded nearly 65pc of the vote, five years on that figure fell to 47pc - its was consistently above 80pc during the 1980s, and 70pc in the 1990s.

The result is a growing knocking in the pipes of European governance at both national and EU level where the big splits - on values, migration, austerity - are creating a cowed, lowest-common denominator politics that makes Europe less able to compete with the rest of the world.

When the leaders of the 27 remaining European member states meet in Rome on March 25 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of their founding treaty, there will be much talk of "rebirth", but amid such fractious politics the substance will show that the price of unity is the avoidance of the really big decisions.

The Dutch election results do not buck that trend, they confirm it. (© Daily Telegraph London)

Irish Independent

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