The Wilders effect on European mainstream policies

28 Mar 2017 - 12:04
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Rather fuelling the anti-establishment trend than an EU domino effect.

The extent to which Wilders’ ‘success’ (i.e. not winning the Dutch elections but emerging as the largest opposition party in a politically fragmented Netherlands) has an impact on European mainstream policies depends on a variety of factors, i.e. the existing Dutch discourse, the transferability of ‘the Wilders’ effect’ to the unique contexts of other member states, and the interactions between them.

First of all, the explicit anti-EU campaign Wilders launched from 2011 onwards should be seen in the context of an already existing Dutch dynamic since ‘Maastricht’, when the traditional goals of the instrumentally pro-EU Dutch governments were achieved with the completion of the single market. Dutch interests no longer necessarily aligned with European interests; in 1999 the Dutch campaigned for a rebate, in 2002 the government firmly expressed allegiance to the subsidiarity principle, and after the failed constitutional treaty of 2004 mainstream parties’ language gradually shifted from ‘EU integration’ to ‘European cooperation’. Wilders’ role was thus raising the stake, particularly during the economic crisis, which severely tested the traditional Dutch stance of an EU based on rules to prevent deeper integration. Prime minister Rutte for instance made the (broken) promise during the 2012 elections to send no more money to Greece.

While Dutch rhetoric partly changed, the Dutch stance generally did not. Successive governments have – reluctant or not – remained loyal to the European mainstream while trying to maintain the traditional Dutch line in a EU of 27/28 where compromise is unavoidable. In addition, Wilders is (now) excluded from government, the EU is hardly (and intentionally not) a voting issue and support for EU membership remains high in the Netherlands. Nevertheless, Wilders’ relatively large party will stand ready to criticise the EU whenever, due to new events, it becomes controversial for direct national interests. Moreover, whereas the attitude towards the EU of the next government is supposed not to differ substantially from that of its predecessors, the image of an increasing gap between rhetoric and reality with future EU compromises could linger. This will fuel anti-establishment sentiments and political fragmentation that may damage EU policies in the long run.

On a side note, the rise in the last elections of the progressive parties D66 and the Dutch Greens who are pro-federal EU (but the major defeat of the traditional left) is not necessarily positive. As it is currently unclear whether their new voters actually did, or the broader electorate will, support them for their EU positions.

With regard to the impact Wilders potentially has in the rest of Europe; he might be a specific inspiration for the AfD (Germans in particular share the same EU sensitivities with the Dutch) who will pull some of the rhetoric in Germany, in particular that of the CSU. Overall, however, Wilders primarily fuels the general shift in political contestation from a ‘left’ versus ‘right’ to a new ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ society political paradigm (e.g. the liberal party of Germany criticises the ECB and calls for a Grexit, but is not necessarily popular). How this precisely impacts European policies in each member state could differ, taking into account individual country factors, sensitivities and histories.

In countries like the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary strong EU friction already emerged earlier on with Vaclav Klaus (2003-2013), PiS (2005-2007) and Viktor Orban (since 2010). Wilders’ showing might add to (renewed) feelings that the (current) EU is not a solution but a problem. Yet, in Spain prime-minister Rajoy, who was responsible for the painful ‘EU reforms’ during the crisis, recently got re-elected, and in Austria, pro-European candidate Van der Bellen won the presidential elections while his opponent Hofer had already disavowed the idea of leaving the EU. After everything, the Euro also still remains popular in Greece, with a pro-European reformer, Kyriakos Mitostakis, as would-be replacement of Tsipras. Germany, like the Netherlands, is predicted to more or less maintain the status quo on EU policies with a new grand coalition after the elections. France, with the two ‘outsiders’ Le Pen and Macron currently competing, is a clear case of the newly emerged political paradigm. It could revolutionise the French political system while at the same time a status quo/pro-EU stance is a likely outcome. Italy is a case of more severe political instability, but in practice not necessarily one of radical EU change (the Five Star movement is unlikely to govern while it does not even endorse a EU or Euro exit and even flirted with the ALDE group).  Nevertheless, with an increasing blurry line between national and European politics, the EU can definitely suffer collateral damage through the spread of anti-establishment sentiments such as those advocated by Wilders.

Lastly, (other) unique interactions between member states are equally important. Ironically, ‘pro-EU’ sentiments in one member state might hypothetically spur ‘anti-EU’ sentiments in another, and vice versa. For example, if France and Germany would agree to take major steps forward in European integration concerning economic governance, Dutch governments might have a hard time trying to sell Europe at home. On the other hand, EU frustration with ‘weak’ and ‘untrustworthy’ member states, for example in Germany and the Netherlands, that forcefully encourages a multi-speed Europe could turn the Visegrad states – already weary that the concept might de facto undo enlargement – surprisingly more ‘pro-EU’ (despite anti-EU rhetoric in the region, no serious party advocates leaving the EU and the extreme right in Hungary even proposes a ‘wage union’).

In sum, Wilders’ ‘success’ primarily fuels the anti-establishment trend, while a direct EU domino effect, if there ever was one, has been halted with the last Dutch elections. Nevertheless, in the absence of a clear European narrative that mainstream parties can (or will) sell to their voters (while simultaneously sustaining their mainstream EU positions which includes compromises that go against direct national interests), they will remain vulnerable to anti-establishment politicians who, any moment the EU becomes a topical issue, will exploit it in a newly emerged political contestation of ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ societies.