Europe to the Test in Dutch Populism

Paul Blokker

The European Union survived the Dutch vote of 15 March. The general elections in the Netherlands, which was to designate the Freedom Party (PVV) of the right-wing populist Geert Wilders as the leading party, confirmed the incumbent, centre-right party of the liberal conservatives of the VVD instead. The Dutch elections are widely depicted as the first test of the EU in 2017, with the presidential elections in France and general elections in Germany to follow (with the possible addition of elections in Italy). Wilders was widely feared by pro-Europeanists, given his endorsement of an unambiguous ‘Nexit’, a departure of the Netherlands from the EU. Wilders’ one-page political programme explicitly stated: ‘Nederland weer onafhankelijk. Dus uit de EU’ (The Netherlands independent again. Leave the EU).

Much of the international press has reacted therefore with relief to the outcome of the Dutch elections. But this is not the end of populism, or so the argument now goes. Both in international and domestic debates, the populist threat in the Netherlands is seen as still very much alive. Populism is like a spreading mold in Dutch society. Many of the mainstream parties allegedly adopted populist themes and arguments, and hence keep Wilders’ ideas alive, even if he is (merely) in the opposition.

But let us see what this argument adds up to. The ‘there is a Wilders in all of us’ argument is not always very clear in terms of what is actually meant by populism. Most of the times, some mix of Euroscepticism, xenophobia, and nationalism is referred to. Even in analyses that are presented as ‘razor-sharp’, it does not become clear why an invocation of a core Dutch identity is not more accurately labelled ‘nationalist’, or the reference to the loss of traditional values as ‘conservative’, rather than populist.

A definition of populism would, first, need to depart from the idea of a collectivist, majoritarian understanding of the People (in contrast to an individualistic understanding in representative, liberal democracy). Populism understands the People as a unity and perceives representative democracy and its pluralistic approach (regarding minorities, both in an ideational and cultural sense) as undermining the unity of the People (Urbinati 2014: 133). Second, then, populism is aimed against the idea of liberal democracy and its (political) classes, and often portrays explicit skepticism towards the instruments of liberal democracy that ultimately lead to the division of the People: the rule of law, constitutionalism (division of powers), and individual human rights. Third, in the European context, populism understands the EU as a menace for the unity and equality of the People, and its homogeneous culture and traditions, and as a vehicle of private elite interests.

If the diffusion of populism thesis is to be convincing, one would expect to find (at least some of) these components – the People, illiberalism, and anti-Europeanism – in the statements and party programmes of the mainstream Dutch parties.

Wilders political programme is clearly populist, in that it explicitly constructs an Us and Them: Us the ‘ordinary people’, Them the elites (who deceive the People), and with a nationalist flavor, Us the ‘real Dutch people’, Them the Muslims. In Wilders’ view, People’s rule is to be safeguarded by making sure the Netherlands is governed by ordinary Dutch People again, while political elites (in particular PM Rutte and his ‘elite party’), but equally various minorities (the Muslim community in particular) pose a threat to the ordinary Dutch citizen. Wilders’ message is heavily anti-Islamist, and in his view (Muslim) migrants ought either to fully assimilate (while their religious symbols and artefacts – the Koran, mosques – ought to be forbidden) or to leave the country. Persons suspected of association with radicalism and jihadism ought to be ‘denaturalized’ and expelled. Representative, liberal institutions are distrusted, not least as these promote multi-culturalism and minority rights, while direct democracy is the main means to achieve the rule of the Dutch People. Dutch self-rule is to be crowned by returning to an independent, sovereign Dutch state, outside of the ‘imperialist’ EU.

But are the mainstream parties echoing Wilders’ populism ? I will briefly look at the programmes and statements of the VVD and the CDA, two of the traditional parties that retained some of their prominence in the fragmented Dutch political landscape.

The political programmedoor en door Nederlands (‘deeply Dutch’) – of the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) – the largest party in parliament –  puts the theme of security and the idea of an imminent threat to Dutch society upfront. Dutch society needs to be protected, as its historical values are under threat. And because ‘we want to remain ourselves’ and ‘we want the Netherlands to remain the Netherlands’ (Omdat wij onszelf willen blijven. Omdat we willen dat Nederland Nederland blijft). Prime minister Mark Rutte foute populisten(VVD) labelled Wilders’ populism ‘bad populism’ (‘which makes me puke’, see photo), apparently
indicating that his party stands for the right type of populism. In a much contested open letter to the Dutch citizens, Rutte divided Dutch society in those that ‘act normally’ and those that do not (leaving unarticulated, but strongly suggesting the idea that the Muslim community would be the second group), and concluded ‘act normal or go away’ (Doe normaal of ga weg).

There is some resemblance with Wilders’ more rudimentary, radical anti-Islamic view, even if articulated in more cautious terms. Much of it is closer to a more conservative-nationalist view, rather than populism. But there is also a dimension of prioritizing security to human rights and the rule of law. In terms of citizenship, people who are suspected (not necessarily convicted) of being associated with radical or jihadist organizations ought to be stripped of their citizenship. Foreign fighters returning to the Netherlands ought to be imprisoned immediately, while an exception should be made to international treaties regarding stateless persons (p. 13). These proposals are seen as in violation of international human rights treaties in a report on party programmes and the rule of law, issued by a commission of 5 legal experts. The VVD claims to ‘always protect the rule of law state’, but at the same time appears to be willing to override fundamental individual rights in a ‘zero tolerance’ approach.

In contrast to Wilders’ unambiguous Nexit, the European vision of the VVD is timidly pro-European, at least on paper. Its appreciation of the EU lies not surprisingly in its economic character and the Single European Market, and emphasizes international collaboration in the areas of terrorism and migration, in order to safeguard security and trade.

The programme of the CDA (Christian-Democratic Appeal) – a traditional, christian-democratic party now third in parliament – starts with a conservative appeal to Dutch values and tradition, which are supposedly under threat. The CDA wants to reconstruct these values and (re-)build a strong Dutch society. The populism in the CDA’s message is much less clear, also because it does not blame the incumbent political elite nor does it clearly define a Dutch People against an Other. Nevertheless, as Andre Krouwel has argued, there may be an affinity between the CDA message of traditional values and populism. In its 2017 programme, the CDA suggests a strong defense of Dutch culture, against external and internal threats. This – culturally conservative –  defense includes the idea of strengthening citizenship, based on ‘historical knowledge, the living of our Dutch traditions and respect for what our ancestors built together, increasing solidarity and the Dutch identity. Symbols such as the Monarchy, the Dutch flag, and the anthem bind us together (Historisch besef, de beleving van onze Nederlandse tradities en het respect voor hetgeen onze voorouders met elkaar hebben opgebouwd, bevorderen saamhorigheid en Nationale identiteit. Symbolen als het Koninklijk Huis, de Nederlandse vlag en het volkslied verbinden).

For the CDA, a strong society ‘cannot do without a well-functioning democracy and a stable rule of law state’. It is against direct democracy in the form of consultative referenda, but rather seeks ways to strengthen representative institutions in an inclusionary and participatory manner. But also the CDA seems willing to put security before human rights, in that it seems equally willing to apply citizens’ rights unevenly in Dutch society. The CDA suggests, for instance, to prohibit the foreign funding of mosques or Islamic organizations. This proposal is seen as discriminatory and in strong tension with the rule of law in the earlier mentioned rule of law report.

It is particularly in the CDA’s political campaign, that polarizing, populist (or rather nationalist) messages came to the fore, in contrast to a more classical Christian-Democratic approach of mediation and solidarity. Party leader Buma, for instance, stated that he wanted to abolish the double nationality of immigrants,  to oblige school children to learn the Dutch anthem, and deplored that the integration of the Turkish-Dutch minority failed.

Also the CDA’s European vision is in contrast with Wilders’ Nexit, again, at least on paper. The CDA’s vision of the EU is one of a ‘resolute Europe’, which is able to deal with economic and migration crises. The EU is to focus on its core tasks, and the CDA aims to critically review the current functioning of the EU.

In sum, if we understand populism as largely consonant with conservative and nationalist themes, it seems more than fair to argue that the Netherlands has made a significant shift to the right (or, in reality, has been experiencing such a shift since the early 2000s). Whether it is helpful to equate the term populism with (ethno-)nationalism and conservatism is a different matter. If the implied argument is that Dutch politics is on a slippery slope towards a radical national-populist platform similar to, let us say, the Hungarian Fidesz party, with its aggressive political project of dismantling liberal democracy and defiance of the European Union based on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, than indeed it may have been much too early to say that the populist revolution in Europe has been halted in the Netherlands.


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