EU leaders claim major win in Dutch vote
EUROPEAN leaders claimed a major victory for the European project following a worse-than-expected showing in Wednesday's Dutch general election by the anti-immigrant firebrand Geert Wilders - but were quickly challenged by populist leaders.
Mr Wilders and his Party for Freedom became the second largest party in the Dutch parliament, winning 20 seats, but were still soundly beaten by Mark Rutte, the incumbent centre-right prime minister with 33 seats, to the evident relief of the European political establishment.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, hailed the result as "a good day for democracy" in a speech in Berlin, describing the failure of Mr Wilders to come first and seek to form a new government as a "very pro-European result".
She was echoed by the leaders of France, Spain and Italy as well as Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the European Commission, who said the result showed the Netherlands had "voted overwhelmingly" for "free and tolerant societies in a prosperous Europe".
But populist leaders across Europe pushed back on that assessment, noting that many of Mr Wilders's ideas on immigration had featured prominently in the campaign - including from Mr Rutte, who ran a series of adverts telling immigrants to "be normal, or be gone".
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigrant Northern League in Italy, welcomed the outcome of the election which he said had demonstrated "good ideas were growing" around "changing Europe, saving jobs and blocking the invasion" - a reference to the ongoing influx of migrants from Africa to Italy.
The secretary-general of the French National Front, whose candidate Marine Le Pen is currently leading polls for the first round of next month's presidential election, described Mr Wilders's performance as a "real success", noting that he had increased his 2012 seat tally from 15 to 20.
Still, Mr Wilders, who managed to win 24 seats in 2010 and was comfortably leading the polls for much of the past 18 months, conceded that his party had not lived up to some of the higher expectations placed upon it.
"I would rather have been the largest party... but we are not a party that has lost," he said after a glass of champagne to celebrate his second place. "We gained seats," he added. "That's a result to be proud of."
Support for the two most pro-EU parties, the progressive D66 and GreenLeft, went up sharply, while the Dutch Labour party was hammered, falling from 38 to just nine seats as Dutch politics moved to the right.
The result received mixed analysis in the Dutch media. The left-leaning 'Volkskrant' said Europe would breathe a sigh of relief but noted the clear "step to the right", while 'NRC Handelsblad', the liberal daily, said the result showed the "right won't break through" despite angry voices on the street.
Mr Rutte and his ruling VVD party will now almost certainly form a government, but the process is expected to take several months as up to four parties seek to reconcile policy differences and form a governing platform.
Meanwhile, Dutch political leaders took the first steps toward forming a new multi-party coalition government yesterday.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Khadija Arib, met with the leaders of all the 13 parties in the newly elected legislature and announced that Mr Rutte's Liberals would take the lead in the process.
Ms Arib named Liberal Health Minister Edith Schippers as a so-called scout - verkenner in Dutch - to hold initial informal consultations. It's the start of a highly choreographed process of forming a new government that will last for weeks if not months. At least four parties will be needed for a parliamentary majority, and all the other leaders have ruled out any co-operation with Mr Wilders.
"We are at the beginning of one of the most important processes in our parliamentary democracy," Ms Arib told reporters in The Hague.
"It is customary for the biggest party to take the lead and nominate a scout who enjoys broad support."
With key elections in France in April and May, then in Germany in September, Wednesday's vote in one of the EU's founding members was in the international spotlight like never before. (© Daily Telegraph, London)