Did the Dutch save Europe?

Posted on March 17th, 2017 by Hendrik Wagenaar

Crick Centre Associate Director Hendrik Wagenaar reflects on the outcome of the Dutch Parliamentary elections

For about a week the Dutch found themselves in an unusual situation. They were the subjects of intense international media attention. Reporters from the New York Times, the Guardian or CNN shoved microphones in the faces of unsuspecting people doing their weekly shopping, asking for comment on Geert Wilders, on the EU, on the influx of refugees, how it is to be an ethnic minority in the Netherlands, on almost everything actually.  In the process the world learned about the political mechanics of this “most proportional” political system in the world. Usually the Netherlands is a quiet, overlooked corner in North-Western Europe, at best noticed for the decline of its once proud football culture and for some of its more exotic habits, such as its liberal approach to cannabis, prostitution and end-of-life issues. But this time nothing less than the survival of a united Europe was at stake. The upcoming parliamentary elections were framed by the international media as at ‘domino’ in a longer series. After the frightful eruptions of populist, nativist sentiment in the UK and the USA, would the Netherlands be the next victim of the populist uprising, and drag France and Germany with it?

File:Geert Wilders op Prinsjesdag 2014 (cropped).jpg

Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV

Image courtesy of Rijksoverheid/Phil Nijhuis via Wikimedia Commons

For a while it looked like it. Until January the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV), the political vehicle of Geert Wilders, scored highest in the polls, surpassing the Partij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD), the Centre-Right party of the popular Prime Minister Mark Rutte. But starting in January, the PVV began to slide in the polls and, helped by a number of tactical blunders by Wilders (his refusal to participate in the televised debates and his inexplicable refusal to campaign until the last week before the elections, both of which decreased his media-exposure) this decline never stopped. Rutte benefitted from the Turkey crisis last weekend in which the Turkish Minster for Family Affairs was escorted out of the country after a tense stand-off in Rotterdam. He was widely seen as acting decisively and state-man like; something he exploited fully in the widely broadcast mano a mano with Wilders last Monday. But apart from these local and extraneous factors, what does the outcome of the Dutch parliamentary elections tell us, and was it ever an epic battle for the soul and survival of the EU?

To began with the PVV: it ended up with 20 seats in parliament. That means that almost a million voters opted for Wilders, and makes the PVV the second largest party in parliament. Wilders tries to frame the outcome as a victory but compared with the 33 seats of the VVD the result is widely seen as disappointing. Although no one regarded the PVV as a partner in a coalition government, it expected to score a large symbolic victory that would bolster the far-right in other countries. Some commentators think that after 11 years in the political limelight, Wilders begins to suffer from establishment fatigue. His message shows little variation, his rhetoric is familiar and predictable (“Prisoners live in better circumstances than our elderly who built this nation.”) and his positions are so extreme (Close all mosques. Forbid the Qur’an.) that many Dutch shrug their shoulders. Moreover, most Dutch citizens do not want to leave the EU (although they are critical), have learned to live with ethnic minorities and refugees (See Simon Kuper’s excellent article on Oude Pekela in the FT magazine), and the economy is doing very well indeed. Poll after poll showed that the Dutch worry most about the availability and affordability of health and social care, about access to the inflationary housing market, and about unemployment, more than the three I’s of Islam, immigration, integration. Barring a major incident in the Netherlands, Wilders will have more and more trouble to get his nativist and anti-establishment message across.

The Centre did hold, although it is smaller and more fragmented. The three centrist parties (Centre-Right VVD, Centre-Right Christian-Democrats, and the Centre-Left Liberals of D’66) captured a combined 71 seats. That’s not enough for a majority in the 150 seat parliament, but it shows that the Dutch voter values stability. The Left was more of a mixed bag.  The two standouts are the Social Democrats (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA) and the Greens (Groen Links). (The Socialist Party – think Corbyn’s Labour – was more or less stable at 14 seats.) The PvdA however scored an historically unprecedented loss of 29 seats (from 38 to 9). This once proud “Volkspartij” is now reduced to being the 7th largest party in the Dutch political landscape. I am not too sure what this loss signifies. Partly it reflects the general decline of Social Democracy in Europe, with many continental Labour parties unable to connect with the young, the middle class, and ethnic minorities. Given the traditionally chaotic organization of the party, I don’t expect a quick return to political health. So far the party has consistently failed to adapt to the changing circumstances of 21st century capitalism, labour relations, Internet and social media connectivity, the problem of corporate greed and power, and climate change. It has squandered it principles in going the whole hog in the Third Way.


Jesse Klaver, leader of the Groen Links party.

Image courtesy of Christiaan Krouwels via Wikimedia Commons

The Greens on the other hand, under the charismatic young leader Jesse Klaver (the “Dutch Trudeau”), might very well augur that new Left that some of us are hoping for. Klaver consistently emphasized both the urgency of transitioning to a more ecologically sustainable, economy, and the imperative that the costs of this transition should not fall predominantly on the shoulders of lower income groups. For the first time a major party in the Netherlands has put climate change in the centre of its platform. Klaver has a Moroccan background and proved to be very eloquent and upfront about the Netherlands as a multi-ethnic society that should welcome refugees (in the debates he repeatedly chided Rutte for the rightist rhetorical trick of deliberately confusing refugees with immigrants.) In his town hall meetings he uses a vocabulary of “hope”, “optimism” and “change”. I wonder – or perhaps hope – that Groen Links might overcome the perennial affliction of Green parties to remain stuck in their origins as social movements. Klaver is an astute campaigner and he is ambitious, seeing himself as a future Prime Minister of a progressive coalition. But he must also prove himself to be a strong manager of the party organization, and widen the party’s appeal beyond the young, highly educated, urban electorate.

So, perhaps the Dutch parliamentary elections will be bellwether for the future of European coalition politics. A sustainable conservatism will have to hover near the middle of the political spectrum and move away from the aggressive neoliberalism of Anglo-Saxon conservatism, with its orchestrated destruction of the public sector, its war on the poor, and its facilitation of extreme inequality. The populist right will have more and more trouble to keep their message fresh and appealing. Social Democracy as we know it is most likely moribund. And the Greens might morph into a new 21st century leftist mass party.

Perhaps … Perhaps … Perhaps the only constant in the political landscape these past two roller-coaster years is that the polls and the pundits were consistently wrong. But, the Dutch elections opened up a few interesting perspectives for the future of European politics.


Hendrik Wagenaar is a Professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Associate Director of the Crick Centre, both at the University of Sheffield. Follow him on Twitter: @SpiritofWilson and on academia.edu

Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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