Halting The Right-Wing Surge In Europe: The Netherlands Offers No Clarity On The Path Ahead

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Brexit, Trump and now Rutte (the Netherlands) in progression do not clearly indicate what is in store ideologically in Europe.

Perhaps France and Germany, and the referendum in Turkey, may give clearer answers to what lies ahead for the European project.

The Netherlands is such a beautiful country that it is difficult to associate anything negative with it. To even transit through Europe and across the Atlantic, I would always prefer to have a few hours at the Amsterdam airport for a change-over halt. That positive image of the country, however, was under apparent threat as it went to the polls on Wednesday (15 March). What was expected was a potential demonstration of what may happen to Europe in the coming year or the near future – the feasibility of political parties adhering to the far-right ideology, across nations, coming to power riding on the back of perceptibly increasing sentiment against immigrants, particularly Muslims. In addition, an apparent emerging consensus against the concept of the European Union on the basis of the rising nationalist ideology seemed to be on the cards.

The results have surprised many as Prime Minister Mark Rutte romped home successfully, but his centre-right VVD party lost eight seats in the bargain. The far-right leader, Geert Wilders, and his PVV party, mostly expected to garner a better standing, came out second, but did gain marginally from the third place that his party earlier occupied.

For the well-informed, it is premature to surmise anything from the election. The real measure of the move of far-right ideology into European politics will come once we have the results of the French and German elections later this year. The United Kingdom (UK) was the trendsetter, but that was more specifically about the European Union and Britain’s exit (Brexit), not necessarily a referendum on immigration and Islam. The arrival of United States President Donald Trump, seen as an ideological turnaround, is also still not making enough sense to political pundits the world over.

For the slightly less-informed, there may be a need to delve a little deeper into the background, which needn't go as far back as 1789, when France, Europe and the world received the first great ideological message of the proletariat, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Politics and ideology of the right and left wings have never been fully identified and canned into compartments. The interplay has seen attempted demarcation, but progressively this has changed on the basis of the order of international politics. In Europe’s current context, it is more a competition between centre-right and far-right than anything to do with the left. It is safer to assume that the centre-right constitutes less isolationism, more liberalism and greater tolerance towards religious radicalism, though not necessarily linked to violent extremism and appeasement of immigrants. The far-right, which has a more populist approach today, generally focuses against immigration and Islam while also harping on narrow nationalism and the need to dismantle the European Union, anti-globalisation being the natural fallout.

In this election in the Netherlands, there were as many as 28 political parties in the fray, leaving much to the post-election coalition politics, but the significance does not lie in the details of Dutch politics but more in the agenda. Geert Wilders' one-page election manifesto included pledges to close borders to immigrants from Muslim-majority nations, shutter mosques and ban the Quran, as well as take the Netherlands out of the European Union. Where did this agenda come from?

It is important to know that the post-Second-World-War liberal ideology proliferated as a result of the backlash against radical right-wing ideas associated with the Axis powers. A country such as Turkey – the core centre of the Ottoman Empire, Islam’s longest-standing Caliphate – had in 1923 already been converted to the liberal, secular model after the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, decided to shun Islamism and take the country closer to Europe.

Western Europe’s progress after 1945 was also based on immigration, especially from former colonies of the colonial powers to make up for the huge need for labour and many other lower-end jobs. Germany got much of its immigrants from Turkey. The secular and integrating model was much in evidence by one look at the various football teams of European nations participating in the World Cup football tournament. The secular and liberal model worked well, although racism never ended and a demarcation of the types of jobs in the job market ensured it remained alive. Signs of things to come and a strain in relationships within nations began to emerge once demographics started to be perceived as a threat to the security of the original inhabitants, the sons of the soil. Thus we had an Enoch Powell in Britain fuming against immigrants as early as the 1970s. In France, in particular, immigration from the Francophonic parts of the Maghreb continued through the 1980s.

After 1989, things began to change, even as liberalism took greater hold, globalisation became the buzzword, the European Union emerged strongly and the focus on human rights became a political compulsion. However, the growth of Islamism and anti-West (read anti-developed world) increased progressively almost in tandem. Violent extremism which accompanied it had an unnerving effect in the West. Post-9/11 and the series of violent incidents in Europe, the seeds of cultural- and faith-based antipathy were sown and the effect was immediately felt by immigrants. Issues such as over the hijab, minarets and other cultural symbols enhanced the standoff. Disdain for immigrants took greater shape even as the need for labour increased. The intent of the Islamists was always to cause mayhem, disruption and turbulence in Western societies and economies. The immediate effect was the rising struggle between the liberals and the creeping ideologues of the far-right. That is how the politics of Europe and, to a great extent, the US changed.

Year 2014 is recent and perhaps not far back as to be termed “history”. Yet, it was a defining year. The emergence of Islamic State, or ISIS (Daesh), the slick social-media-based propaganda, the attraction of western fighters to the battle arena, the employment of “lone wolves” in Europe and the US and larger terror attacks changed the attitude of the “sons of the soil”. Anti-Islamism came to the fore, as also nationalism, as a throwback from the events of 2014-16. It all happened at breakneck speed. It was evident that the far-right ideology was taking shape faster than imagined and its grain was finding favour most in the US, France and the UK with some strains of it visible in Germany too. It was the surge of human migration from the battle zones of West Asia and some of the failing states of North Africa which proved to be last straw. Much of 2016 witnessed barbed-wire fences across national boundaries in Europe, the same set of nations which first believed in open borders. It strengthened the hands of the far-right even further as nations squabbled on the quotas of immigrants to be admitted and the general treatment to be meted out to them. That is where the current status is.

The emergence of Trumpism and Brexit have both been viewed as symbols of success of the far-right, although they are not necessarily in congruence in ideological terms. Year 2017 has democratic electoral processes lined up in France and Germany among other countries. All eyes were on the Netherlands for its election, which has somehow proven that the far-right may have gained but not as substantially as was expected. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the champion of the centre-right and rights of immigrants is possibly seeking re-election in a personal vindication of her open-door policy on immigrants. The far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), has made gains in the wake of the migrant crisis and Brexit victory in the UK. However, events through to September this year, when the German federal election takes place, will decide her future and perhaps that of Europe. Prior to that, France’s presidential election in April will attract much attention and is being viewed as one of the major political risks in Europe this year. Marine Le Pen of the anti-European-Union National Front leader is the far-right populist leader on the lines of Geert Wilders.

So Brexit, Trump and now Rutte (the Netherlands) in progression do not clearly indicate what is in store ideologically in Europe. Perhaps France and Germany may give clearer indications. An event which cannot be forgotten in the rush of looking at the US and West Europe is the fact that Turkey too has a referendum lined up in April. It is a referendum for enhanced powers to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan through conversion to a presidential system and would be counted as a vote for his vision of taking Turkey on the opposite path from liberal secularism. Whether that too will have an impact on the coming elections in Europe is something that analysts will watch with much interest.