Beneath his populist rhetoric neither Geert Wilders, nor most supporters of his far-right Freedom Party, nor the vast majority of Dutch voters seriously entertain the notion that the Netherlands will leave the European Union. But in election campaigns it is the rhetoric that counts.
The election in question is the May 22-25 vote, in the Netherlands and the European Union’s other 27 member-states, for the European Parliament. Like other anti-EU, anti-euro, anti-establishment parties in countries such as France and the UK, the Dutch Freedom Party is riding the tide of popular disenchantment with mainstream politics and EU institutions.
Wilders is after the protest vote, and he will get it – just like Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage. All three movements have an excellent chance of topping the polls or at least upsetting the political apple cart in their respective countries.
Here lies the significance of Wilders’s call for “Nexit” – or Dutch exit from the EU. As an economic argument, it does not stand up at all: the Netherlands is so deeply integrated into the eurozone and the EU single market that Nexit makes no more sense than “Brexit” for the UK or “Grexit” for Greece.
As Wilders well knows, however, economics is not the point. Sensitive matters of national identity and a loss of faith in the traditional political classes are the point.
The Netherlands was one of the EU’s six founder-members in the 1950s, and one of the eurozone’s founder-members in 1999, but Dutch society’s support for ever-deepening European unity started to fracture 15 to 20 years ago. One reason was the feeling that this most prosperous of European nations was paying too much into the EU and not getting enough back – a sentiment intensified by the accession of less well-off former communist countries in central and Eastern Europe from 2004 on.
But the deeper cause of Dutch disillusion is bound up with the transformation of society that came with mass immigration from Morocco, Turkey and other countries with no connection to the era of Dutch imperialism. Small, flat and ultra-urban, the Netherlands is one of the world’s most densely populated nations. So many native Dutch people started to feel “strangers in their homeland” that mainstream politicians felt compelled, despite the grand traditions of Dutch tolerance and liberalism, to declare in 2004 that “multi-culturalism” had been a failure.
The murder in that year of Theo van Gogh, a controversial film-maker, by a Dutch-Moroccan immigrant paved the way for Wilders to capitalise on anti-Islamic attitudes already encouraged by Pim Fortuyn – a populist politician assassinated in 2002.
However, there will always be limits to the electoral appeal of Wilders. The Freedom Party brought down Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right government in 2012, but it lost the subsequent election.
At bottom, most Dutch voters – like voters in France, the UK and other countries with burgeoning populist movements – do not want to put in power, at national level, a party that mixes nativist prejudice with incoherent economics.
But the European Parliament elections are a different matter. A negative protest vote will be a comfortable option. Wilders will never be prime minister of the Netherlands, but as a destabilising force in Europe he is on a roll.