Thursday, March 16, 2017

The EU could learn from Dutch PM Mark Rutte on how to stop the populist tide

Published on CNN, Czech newssite and Open Europe's blog
Just because Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom failed to win as many votes as predicted in the Dutch elections, it doesn’t mean wider discontent in both the Netherlands and across Europe has disappeared.
We shouldn’t forget that during his campaign, Wilders didn’t even try to moderate himself – unlike Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, for example. In February, Wilders called Moroccan immigrants “scum,” despite only two months earlier having been convicted of inciting discrimination against the very same group. His style may have lost him the votes of people who thought he was too extreme. But it is possible that this was part of a deliberate strategy by Wilders to influence the policy discourse of the opposition. To a certain extent, he’s been successful at that.
Not only was there Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s firm stance on immigration during the campaign – in January he wrote an open letter to immigrants, saying those who did not “behave normally should go away” – but also Rutte’s confrontation with NATO ally Turkey in the days before the vote. The Turkish Foreign Minister was banned from entering the country and Turkey’s family affairs minister deported, according to Turkish media, after being told she was not welcome to give a talk at the Turkish Consulate-General in Rotterdam. His use of the term “normal” is questionable from a civil liberties perspective, but Rutte’s Turkey-stance was broadly supported across the political spectrum. International law also allows host nations to declare a particular member of the diplomatic staff to be persona non grata at any time, without providing a reason. However, without Wilders, the Dutch government may not have gone so far.
The other two traditional mainstream parties in the Netherlands – the Christian Democrats and Labour – have also adopted a more critical stance towards the EU. As a result of this, it will be hard to get the Dutch government to agree to shift more powers to the European Union. This could create fresh tensions, as the new coalition is unlikely to become more Eurosceptic: The centrist D66 and maybe even the Green Left, who’re both in favor of more transfers of powers to the EU, stand a good chance of entering government together with the Christian Democrats and Rutte’s more Eurosceptic, center-right VVD.
The popularity of the anti-establishment forces in the Netherlands can be explained by more than just excessive intervention in domestic affairs by the European Union and the opposition to political globalization – which should be firmly distinguished from economic globalization. Also crucial were uncontrolled mass immigration, lack of integration of existing minorities and Islamist terrorism, while the Dutch welfare state is struggling to cope with an aging population. Technological disruption has also gotten people used to the idea of the status quo being upset in many ways, so even in a country with pretty decent economic performance – achieved after the implementation of austerity measures – many are keen to challenge the system.
The European Union could take a lesson from Rutte about how to stop the populist tide and take the concerns of the disgruntled more seriously. It could become more modest and focus on what it’s good at: scrapping trade barriers. As long as it thinks it will win the hearts and minds of people by concentrating ever more power and money at the central level or micromanaging national and local issues, it’s bound to fuel the anti-establishment brigade.

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