The Dutch Drama That Wasn’t: What Europe Should Expect Now
After a turbulent election campaign in the Netherlands in which all eyes were on the performance of Geert Wilders and his radical-right populist PVV party, most in Europe have breathed a sigh of relief at the result. Voters turned out in record numbers to back the mainstream and continuity. Parties that ran openly pro-EU campaigns made significant gains. However, the country also shifted clearly to the right and has come out extremely politically divided while social dissatisfaction is still alive.
After Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the U.S. presidential election last year, a victory for the anti-Islam, anti-EU PVV would have sent shockwaves across the continent about a rising tide of populism. Instead, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right VVD remains the largest party in parliament despite losses, while mainstream pro-EU parties including the liberal democratic D66 and the Christian democratic CDA made gains. The green-left GroenLinks was the biggest winner, quadrupling its seats, though this was not enough to prevent a historic low for the left-wing bloc as a result of the dramatic loss of 30 seats by the social democratic PvdA.
All this will undoubtedly boost the morale of pro-EU parties in France, where the National Front’s Marine Le Pen is expected to make the runoff round in presidential elections in May, and in Germany, where the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland is on track to win seats in the federal parliament for the first time later this year. However, to see the Dutch elections as the beginning of an anti-populist, pro-EU trend would be too simplistic, just as a Wilders victory would not necessarily have set in motion a chain of events that threatened the union’s survival. The outcome was what it was always going to be: despite a strong showing by the PVV, a coalition of four or five parties that have vowed not to work with it, governing by compromise and consensus.
There will be a long process to form the next government, probably based around the VVD, CDA and D66. It will be complicated by the fact that a highly divisive campaign widened the gap between likely coalition parties. The CDA moved sharply to the right, adopting slightly softer versions of Wilders’s positions. So did the VVD, which may also have gotten a boost after Rutte took a tough stance in the spat between the Netherlands and Turkey in the last days of the campaign. Meanwhile, GroenLinks and D66 positioned themselves as clear opposites to Wilders and the PVV, putting forward strong defenses of EU integration and multiculturalism. The most natural option would be for VVD, CDA and D66 to form a coalition with the Christian conservative ChristenUnie in order to secure a majority, although that would mean the VVD and D66 sacrificing their liberal agenda when it comes to issues such as abortion and euthanasia.
Continuity with Caution
Whichever coalition is formed, that so many parties will need to cooperate in government means that policy will not shift radically. While a center-left coalition is not likely, the fact that the option exists will give parties like GroenLinks and D66 more ammunition in negotiations with the VVD on the shape of a potential coalition agreement. Regarding the major EU policy debates, Dutch government positions are likely to stay the same. The future coalition will favor a strong, efficient EU that focuses on core issues such as economic stability and security. But continuity should not be mistaken for comfort. Although the PVV did not win, the fact that it has become the second-largest in parliament should not be overlooked.
The mainstream parties in the Netherlands have showed they are still alive, but so too are popular concerns and discontent about uncontrolled immigration, failed integration and – to a lesser degree – the EU. For this reason, Wilders will still be able to influence the debate, as will two other new populist parties, Denk and the Forum for Democracy, which will enter parliament. For Europe, this will mean that the Netherlands will remain cautious of further integration and enlargement. Immigration and the fight against terrorism will continue to be Dutch priority issues. Although the populists did not win this round, they are here to stay, and the next government will have to find a way to deal with that. Fighting them on their terms may have produced an electoral victory for the center-right establishment, but ultimately it will have to come up with a positive political vision so the radical right’s issues no longer dominate the national debate.
Photo credit: Pieter / Shutterstock.com
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.