First Brexit, then Trump… and now Wilders? Could the Netherlands be poised to deliver the next populist shock to the mainstream political system? And could a win by a nationalist, populist party in the Netherlands herald an even bigger upset in the upcoming French Presidential elections later this year?
On 15 March 2017, Dutch voters go to ballot box for an election that could see the far-right blond firebrand Geert Wilders upset his country’s established political order. Polling suggests that public support for mainstream parties is slumping; it’s predicted that eight parties will gain 10 or more seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives, meaning less seats for the big traditional parties.
So, could Wilders really win? It depends what you mean by “win”. He’s been topping the opinion polls with roughly 30% of the vote, and it’s entirely possible that his Party For Freedom (PVV) will hold the most seats in parliament after the election. However, analysts believe he will struggle to actually enter government because so many other parties have ruled out joining him in coalition.
On the other hand, many analysts also said Brexit would never happen, and that Trump would never make it to the White House. We had a comment from Peter, wondering whether the European political establishment has completely understood the “wake-up calls” of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Have Dutch political parties “woken up” yet?
To get a reaction, we spoke to Professor Sarah de Lange from the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Political Science. What would she say?
Despite the developments in the Netherlands itself (e.g. the Dutch No in the referendum on the Ukraine Association Treaty and the success of Wilders), many politicians were surprised by the Brexit vote and the election of Trump. Like in the other EU countries, the establishment has been critical of Brexit and it has firmly rejected the possibility of a Nexit. Initial responses to the success of Trump varied, with some parties opposing his ideas in strong terms and other declaring that he should be evaluated on his actions once in office. However, since the Muslim ban all established parties and the government have clearly spoken out against Trump’s policies. In the Netherlands, only radical right-wing populist parties such as Wilders’ PVV are at the moment in favour of Trump.
For another perspective, we put the same question to Stijn van Kessel, a lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University in the UK and an expert on populism in the Netherlands. What would he say to Peter?
Dutch mainstream parties have, to varying degrees, shown concern regarding Brexit as well as the election of Trump. Only Geert Wilders of the populist radical right Freedom Party (PVV) welcomed both events, expressing his hope that the Dutch electorate would similarly vote to ‘take back their country’ in the upcoming national election in March. Regarding the election of Trump, Prime Minister Rutte of the Liberal Party (VVD) remained neutral and simply congratulated Trump, although he did later criticise Trump’s executive order to (temporarily) halt refugees from Islamic countries, as did various other party leaders. Most mainstream politicians still recognised the importance of maintaining good relationships with the US, and many claimed to see Brexit as a signal that the EU needed to be reformed.
We also had a comment from Imanuel, who believes that the Dutch constitution prohibits an EU referendum. So, does that mean “Nexit” can never happen? We asked Dr. Stijn van Kessel to respond (he asked us to mention that he received input on his response from his colleague, Dr. Saskia Hollander).
The Dutch constitution prohibits binding referendums. It is possible, however, for parliament to organise an advisory referendum, similar to the one on the EU-Ukraine association treaty in April 2016 or the one on the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005. The Brexit referendum in the UK was advisory as well, i.e. government and parliament did not strictly have to act on the referendum result. Ignoring referendum results can however be electorally costly, as politicians risk being accused of ignoring the ‘will of the people’. A similar hypothetical referendum outcome in the Netherland could thus lead to a ‘Nexit’. But this scenario is not very likely. Besides the PVV, there is no support for a Nexit among Dutch parties represented in parliament. The British electorate is also considerably more hostile towards the EU than the Dutch electorate, which still favours European Union membership by a considerable majority.
Finally, we took Imanuel’s comment to Dr. Gijs Schumacher, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. What did he have to say?
Well, of course, we could change the constitution. The constitution is not set in stone. Also, there are referendums in the Netherlands, but they are consultative. The government is in fact obliged to offer such a referendum if enough signatures are collected, as they did with the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement referendum.
However, I find it highly unlikely that there will be a Dutch referendum on EU membership. In Britain, there’s always been a strong anti-European sentiment, particularly at the elite level. Britain has always been the most eurosceptic of the EU Member States… In the Netherlands, there is growing anti-EU sentiment, but we’re coming from a level where everybody was in favour of the EU. What is becoming part of the debate is whether EU integration should go further or stop. But I think that’s a different discussion from the British debate (“Should we be in the EU or not?”). For a small country like the Netherlands, it would be suicide to leave. I think there’s still a very large consensus on that in the Netherlands…
Will the Netherlands follow the UK and the US down the populist path? Could Geert Wilders confound the commentators and actually get into power? Or will he be blocked from government because no other party will go into coalition with the PVV? Could “Nexit” follow “Brexit”? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!