Can Europe Make It?

The fragility of the European project

One Dutch voter fears Holland's rejection of populism might be short-lived.

Chris van Dijk
20 March 2017

Election winner Mark Rutte and Geert Wilders (from behind) during the first talks inside the parliament in The Hague, Netherlands, 16 March 2017.Daniel Reinhardt/Press Association. All rights reserved.Even if you paid particularly close attention to the polls of Holland's 2017 elections, there was a sense that anything was possible. The morning news reported a high turn-out, long lines of eager voters waiting for the voting booths to open. Volunteers handed out their particular flyers at train stations, hoping to sway the few doubters still out there. Meanwhile, this election received unprecedented media attention from all over the world. All of them wondering the same thing: will the rise of populism infect the Dutch electorate too?

The conventional wisdom was that centre-right candidate Mark Rutte would serve a consecutive third-term. But right behind him stood Geert Wilders, the figurehead of the nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV) and the real star of the election. His position in the polls in the weeks before the event shifted from lagging behind to dangerously close and everyone knew better than to underestimate his appeal.

Then came the recent diplomatic skirmish between Holland and Turkey, and the question was whether this incident would convince enough voters of Wilders' thesis on the existential threat of Islam, or had Rutte's commanding response to the incident sealed his victory? Anxiety among europhiles and far-right excitement was palpable. A Wilders win meant another blow to the suffering European globalisation project. The most powerful nations of the world were waiting to see if the liberal bastion of the Netherlands could fall prey to the kind of nationalism that had seduced England, America and was on its way to enrapture France and Italy.

Exit polls

The exit poll quickly came to the relief of europhiles within and outside Europe. Rutte would serve another term, even if his party (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, VVD) had lost eight seats. The PVV would move from third biggest party to second biggest party, gaining four seats, nine behind the VVD. Rutte swiftly announced that ''Holland had said no to populism!'', receiving congratulations from Angela Merkel, Donald Tusk and every available liberal pundit.

This was a victory, a sigh of relief for Holland and the European Union. But isn’t optimism premature? The fight between centre-right and far-right is far from over, a battle that goes to the core of Dutch national identity. Moroever, far-right forces are gradually winning this existential battle, while Holland’s pro-European forces have the difficult task of entrenching European values in Dutch national identity. This counterattack requires a superior moral stance, one that vehemently opposes anti-democratic forces at home and abroad, brooking little compromise.

But the fragility of the European project cannot be underestimated. Mark Rutte and his pro-European coalition have great challenges ahead, as the forces that are working against them have become increasing convincing to the general public. If the following four years is fraught with economic uncertainty, increasing revelations of elitist gluttony and clashes with Islamic culture, there's a very good chance that Wilders or his Europeskeptic kin will one day govern the Dutch state.

Who the hell believes Mark Rutte any more?

Before Brexit, the idea that serious opposition to European hegemony could emerge from Europe itself, seemed implausible, if not downright laughable to the political elite. Here we see the blind faith in globalisation as a natural order of progression, and that despite its setbacks, the promise of economic stability would remain a high priority for voters and all serious politicians alike. Based on this arrogant assumption that everyone would automatically see the light and follow it, nationalists were considered fringe forces able to sway the majority, but never in one’s own country. People couldn't be so foolish. Things would stay the same. Things will never get out of hand. Chaos belongs to the past. The future is solid.

But the future is not solid, and never has been. Loss of trust in the established order is a huge challenge throughout the western world. This credibility gap, left dormant, will be filled by populists presenting themselves as outsiders who have peeked into the corrupt and morally corrosive dominant ideology, and are alone able to stop the machine from swallowing us whole. The shock-wave that Brexit inflicted on the established order was nothing compared to the electoral victory of Donald Trump. This was proof to the world that the geopolitical order, once regarded as the end of history, was under existential threat.

According to Wilders this is all part of the 'patriotic spring' sweeping the western world led by himself and his nationalist counterparts. This revolutionary phenomenon involves regular people taking back their sovereignty from the elites and cultural relativists. A warped version of patriotism entails reconquering the country from backwards people who want to alter the culture. In order to combat this cultural invasion, Holland must sever itself from the European Union, so that it can decide its own fate.

Meanwhile, the villainy of the European Union extends far further than the imposition of an unwelcome immigration policy. Wilders and his fellow anti-European talking heads blame EU monetary and fiscal policies for economic inequality. Irresponsible spending on the Greek economy and the enormous bailouts that followed is repeatedly cited as a prime example of this economic coalition giving money to a failing system while the people of their own country are starving.

This notion of establishment betrayal has gone mainstream. During Mark Rutte's bid for a second term in 2012, he promised to get a grip on financial support for Greece, stating ''enough is enough”. Yet in 2015, Rutte broke this promise and supported further financial aid for Greece for the third time. Rutte apologized for breaking this promise but said that he believed it was for the common good, as the European Union must honor its members.

Rutte in his second term broke several more promises (including one about giving one thousand euros to every working person) greatly reinforcing this perception of the untrustworthy elite that needs to be toppled so that the regular man can rule again. Notice the similar narrative in Trump's inauguration speech when he vowed to give the country back to the people. This is why Wilders asks rhetorically in debate after debate, ''who believes in Mark Rutte any more?'' It is a cry which encompasses not just the faith lost in Rutte's candidacy, but in the steer of the European project in general.

Rutte is no spring chicken

Yet nobody should underestimate Rutte either. Wilders might know how to energize his base, but Rutte grasps like almost no current Dutch politician how to play this game. Noticing where Wilders’ rhetoric makes its impact, Rutte starts to emulate this in a manner that is deemed more socially acceptable. His rhetoric will be tough, plainspoken without the usual buzzwords of politicians, but it will never cross a certain line. Probably the most recent example of this is Mark Rutte's open letter to the Dutch people, in which he states his worry about the rise of ''loutish'' behavior in the country. In this letter, he castigates the immigrant who enters the country and then refuses to assimilate to its values: ''if you reject our country on such fundamental grounds, I prefer it if you leave. Act normal or get out.''

This blatant campaign ploy, however criticized by many on the left for focusing on the immigrant and by some on the right for Rutte's attempt to coat-tail on Wilders' shtick, was nevertheless a smart move. Rutte knows that most people find Wilders too extreme. But he also knows that people want to hear a fighting voice speak up for Dutch national identity. Rutte smartly insinuates himself in between; not as soft as liberals who refuse to see the dangers coming from Islam, but not reverting to bigotry either. Rutte's campaign might not have such a spirited following, but those who worry about immigration but don't want to bear the stain of having voted for Wilders, find in Rutte a relatively safe compromise.

This is also why the Christian-Democratic fusion party CDA garnered more votes, with its leader Sybrand Buma increasingly vocal in his criticism of Islam and any immigrant who refuses to assimilate to Holland's core values. CDA became the third largest party – together with Democratic 66 (D66) which describes itself as center-right/center-left.

So it is becoming obvious that the Dutch majority (the turn out was about 80 percent) wants a right-wing leader. But knowing Wilders’ history of provocative and outlandish statements, regardless of how popular it has made him in certain circles, many in this conservative base still don't feel safe in voting for him.

Rutte consistently presents himself as the rational pragmatist who doesn't shy away from making harsh economic reforms, all in the name of the common good. This narrative is strengthened by an improving economy. So despite his failed promises, this small surge of optimism made the case for Wilders weaker. Populism tends to thrive in burgeoning cynicism with regard to the established order, combined with economic turmoil.

For populists, however, facts matter less. Feelings are what matter. So, in a debate with Mark Rutte two days before the election, Wilders made the case that Rutte's so called fiscal responsibility, might ''look good on paper but there's also a reality inside people's houses.'' It's easy to laugh at the notion that feelings have much to do with the state of the economy. Yet, people forget that most people, even intellectuals, have little knowledge about how the economy works. When there's a sense of desperation as their own health-care premiums and rent goes up, combined with the constant drip feed of headlines regarding the ultra-wealthy receiving extravagant bonuses, numbers and the science behind it will be treated skeptically. You can haul in an economic professor, but he doesn't speak their language. And why would you listen to someone who doesn't speak your language? Wouldn't you rather want to listen to a politician who speaks like a normal human being? Who just states the obvious that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting screwed over? And indeed, you aren’t stupid: there are no easy solutions to stabilizing an economy in crisis. The lesson here is not just a question of voters' education, but how little trust establishment politicians have earned from these voters.

This was Rutte's greatest obstacle; salvaging some kind of credibility and curtailing the cynicism regarding his administration and the European project. And he did an adequate job at this, the stats helping to prop him up. His political persona, despite being seen by many as conniving, works well among the more moderate voters. Meanwhile Wilders did not have a great campaign. He did too little to spread his message beyond the media venues that already support him. This is why Rutte took up the mantra that Wilders was a 'wegloper' – someone who walks away from a fight. And then there is always the possibility that the  'patriotic spring' took a knock from Trump's poor performance. Wilders had spoken gleefully about Trump's victory, stating that ''what can happen in America, can happen here too.'' But despite the anti-Islamic sentiment shared by many in Holland, Trump's travel ban may have been a step too far.

All the same, don’t forget Rutte’s loss of seats. Damage has been done: distrust has grown. It seems within the bounds of reason that it might grow even more. If circumstances change a little, if there is an economic downward turn, if Rutte breaks too many promises, then all bets are off. Rutte and every pro-Europe politician must do whatever it takes to sell the European project. For Holland has not rejected populism, it has merely put it on the back-burner, for a rainy day, in case things won't work out.

The search for Holland's national identity goes on

The diplomatic skirmish with Turkey came at the best time possible. Had Rutte backed down to Erdogan, he knew very well that he would make himself vulnerable to Wilders' attacks. So his obdurate stance in not countenancing Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu's campaign in Holland, and the hysterics that followed, was a great campaign boost. While Wilders obviously took advantage of this too, it did grant the doubting voter a little nationalist pride without the traces of xenophobia that seem permanently lashed to Wilders' persona. Rutte would have probably won without it, but the incident proved that people are hungry for a politician with traces of nationalism, of the respectable kind.

Here we see a sort of truth in Wilders’ insistence that Holland is undergoing an existential crisis; large groups of citizens are seeking their Dutch national identity. But what does this really mean? Despite regional traditions, Holland has always been a global melting pot. There is the regional pride of Friesland, which often jokes (and sometimes not) about their wish to secede from Holland and become their own sovereign state. The Netherlands itself seems to have little to hold onto, compared to other European countries inflicted with globalism. Countries like Poland and Germany for example, are still steeped in their idiosyncratic cultures. Holland appears to me and many other Dutch people to have become a country for everyone, where everyone can be whoever they want. And maybe that’s where the paradox begins.

Most Dutch do not know their national anthem and neither do they have an overbearing romanticized version of the past. Compare that to America, whose politicians boast a country appointed by God itself to step up to the cause of absolute liberty. If Holland has any defining traits of national pride, it has to be for its own brand of tolerance. Could it be this, and the frustration with a less tolerant culture than its own that now prompts the Dutch to venture into a new kind of nationalism, one that requires less tolerance and more fury?

For a large proportion of Turkish immigrants, even those raised in Holland, can muster more passion about the Turkish state than any regard they will ever have for the Dutch. Liberal and centre-right opponents must admit some truth to the far-right claim that integration hasn’t worked in this instance. The massive protest in defence of the Turkish minister who wasn't allowed to campaign in Holland, was accompanied by swathes of miniature Turkish flags and Islamic creeds. Seeing this footage makes the call for a tougher process of integration rather unanswerable, doesn’t it? However liberals want to spin this, it's simply not normal that a Turkish referendum provokes such strong reactions from Turkish-immigrants against the Dutch state. With Wilders loudly reminding us about how these people were given every resource for a neat standard of living, and this is how they thank them! –  isn’t it inevitable that this incident will be interpreted in the context of the European Union's questionable immigration policy, where the engineers of a globalized Europe allow hostile foreign forces to enter our countries who in turn, are determined to alter our culture.

As I have written previously, the sudden rise of a new party sadly reinforces this point. Tunahan Kuzu, the leader of Think (Denk), the immigrant-based party, has refused to condemn Erdogan’s allegation that Holland contains remnants of "a Nazi empire". Throughout their campaign Think has been mired in controversy; Kuzu’s personal attacks on immigrant politicians for “betraying their religion and people”; usage of Internet-trolls to combat critical press coverage; refusal to acknowledge the Armenian genocide and a host of allegations including one about how doctors leave immigrants to die quicker than others. Think gained three seats, and that means that nearly 200,000 members of the electorate voted for a party that actively stands behind foreign, anti-democratic politicians who vilify the Dutch state.

Of course, the distrust of the traditional establishment among a large portion of Turkish immigrants is a longstanding problem. Of course dissent is a natural reaction to the ever more hostile rhetoric against immigrants in general in political discourse. But it also convinces more and more people that a strong national identity must be promoted by the pro-Europeans themselves, if they want to win this political war.

Bridging the differences as an alternative?

A strong liberal voice could perhaps bridge these differences and we have just witnessed the considerable rise of young Jesse Klaver of the Green Left party (Groenlinks), a party that has gained ten more seats. Klaver's campaign appealed to a lot of young voters. His rhetoric, including his focus on wealth inequality, is humane and hopeful. Together with his youthful vigor and showmanship, this marks him out and sets him apart from the older traditionalists. And Klaver's rise spelt the dramatic downfall of the Party of Labor (PVDA), the once mighty social-democratic party who lost a historic 29 seats, leaving them with only 9 seats.

At least half of their normal immigrant voters went to Think this time, while others either didn't show up or voted for other liberal parties. Previously PVDA had been able to rely as well on strategic votes to counter right-wing parties, but this year they lost a large proportion of strategic voters who opted for the more exciting voice of either Klaver, Alexander Pechtold (D66) or even Marianne Thieme's Party of Animals (which gained 3 more seats this year). Such a massive loss of seats has never occurred to any Dutch party in history.

But Klaver and his liberal kin will have a tough time ahead if they want to gain the trust of Europeskeptic voters. This polemical gap might just be too hard to fill. Only if they manage to create a strong nationalist persona which appeals to the disenfranchised while convincing them of the need for a robust European coalition, one that will enforce universal moral standards – might they do it. They must find a way to counter the effective propaganda machine of populists and autocrats who keep people distrustful of anyone connected to the establishment. They must protect the underdog and voice their opposition against the elites and the banks. They must expose the true enemies of democracies; the autocrats and kleptocrats, the dividers, the Trumps, Erdogans and Putins of this world, all those who seek to undermine our unity in order to gain more power.

Most of all, they must give the Dutch the sense that its culture is a thing to take pride in and that it can withstand any force that dares to undermine it. Yet this form of nationalism must be guarded from the populists who so far know like no other, how to wield its great power. Anything is still possible. 

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