Europe and the EU


Geert Wilders won’t be Dutch PM, but he can still harm Europe. He must be challenged

25 Mar 2024 - 14:44
Source: Geert Wilders / Reuters

This opinion piece by Ties Dams was published in The Guardian on 25 March 2024.

The far-right leader will cheerlead for Putin and relaunch his culture war with the EU. But his incendiary narrative about it is also his weakness.

Despite winning the Dutch elections last year, the far-right leader Geert Wilders has reluctantly given up the prospect of becoming prime minister after his prospective coalition partners blocked his path. This may seem like a victory against the far right, but think again: as leader of the biggest party in the upcoming coalition, Wilders will be conducting from the wings. And free of day to day prime-ministerial responsibilities, he is likely to ramp up his decades-long culture war against the European Union.

Forming a coalition government in the Netherlands has always been a rocky road, but this time it has taken an unexpected turn. Since Wilders’ PVV won a shocking quarter of the popular vote in November he had looked set to become prime minister. The populist Farmer-Citizen Movement and centre-right New Social Contract – as well as the downsized ruling liberal-conservative VVD – could have gone into a government with Wilders as its head.

But it was not to be. Who will take his place is not yet known. But to celebrate this as a defeat for the far right would be naive. Wilders is still the leader of the biggest party in parliament, and in government. He can still determine the government’s agenda and will probably choose the next prime minister. He just cannot be it. Whoever is, will represent the Netherlands in Europe, but they will have little room for manoeuvre without Wilders’ say-so.

Wilders may be out of the limelight – but make no mistake, he will have power. 

Wilders may be out of the limelight – but make no mistake, he will have power. Moreover, he will be able to convince his voters that the prime minister’s chair has been stolen from them. He will blame “European elites” for causing all their problems – from housing to inflation and immigration – problems that the upcoming government will be unable to fix. Wilders won’t even have to explain why he, robbed of the chance to run the country, has not fixed them.

Wilders’ electoral win is consistent with the rise of the far right in Germany, France and elsewhere in Europe. And on a fundamental level, Wilders’ politics have always been about European, rather than national, identity.

He first gained notoriety in the 1990s by writing a report for the VVD on Hungary: a work that appeared to be influenced by the Hungarian extreme-nationalist right. As a member of parliament initially for the VVD, he attacked EU policies on Israel, a country he held up as a beacon for Europe in a supposed clash of civilisations with Islam. In 2004, Wilders broke with the VVD on the issue of Turkey potentially joining the EU. While Brussels argued that Europe’s fundamental values – human rights, rule of law, peace through pluralism – are universal, for Wilders any country with a Muslim majority could never be European. 

Wilders founded the PVV to campaign against the adoption of a constitution for Europe. And he won: in 2005 the Dutch electorate voted “no” in a groundbreaking referendum, which was echoed by a similar defeat in France.

In 2008, he made his most high-profile attack on Islam with the film Fitna, which he described as a “push for a kind of Leitkultur, a guiding culture … patriotism, not nationalism, this is pride in our own culture”. He even proposed replacing article 1 of the Dutch constitution to ensure “the dominance of Judeo-Christian and humanist culture”. This was never just about protecting Dutch identity; it was really an attack on the notion of European identity as enshrined in the treaties of the EU.

The EU’s vision of Europe – of peace through pluralism – is Wilders’ target. 

The EU’s vision of Europe – of peace through pluralism – is Wilders’ target. The treaty on European Union, the legal foundation of the EU, states that it draws “inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe”. It commits member states to the process of “creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”, founded on “the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”.

His counter-narrative shows in his hatred of Islam and also his love for Vladimir Putin, which has persisted throughout Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine. He seems willing to put the security of Europe in the hands of its most dangerous aggressor – just to wage his culture war against the EU. Cheering on Putin, like his anti-Islamic rhetoric, is all about undermining the EU’s motto that Europe can be “united in diversity”.

Wilders cannot be managed like Giorgia Meloni and cannot be bribed like Viktor Orbán. And so he needs to be challenged. Rhetoric has always been his real source of power. Wilders is a storyteller; his incendiary tales are designed to incite a battle between one vision of Europe and another.

In the run-up to the European parliament elections in June, the European electorate demands that our leaders tell a different story too. We can no longer take the EU’s pluralist and democratic narrative for granted. Now is the time for its proponents to confront Wilders’ myths with their own story. And this narrative must be about how to protect Europe against internal division and external threat. Wilders’ counter-narrative cannot be the only one on offer.