Europe’s extreme right is losing elections but still reshaping politics

Experts say Geert Wilders’ ideas are now mainstream in the Netherlands.

France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, left, and fellow Euroskeptic Dutch Geert Wilders, right, answer questions during a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday Nov. 13, 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/Peter Dejong
France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, left, and fellow Euroskeptic Dutch Geert Wilders, right, answer questions during a press conference in The Hague, Netherlands, Wednesday Nov. 13, 2013. CREDIT: AP Photo/Peter Dejong

European politicians emitted a collective sigh of relief Wednesday, as nativist right-winger Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party succumbed in the polls to center-right incumbent Mark Rutte in Dutch elections.

With two more crucial European elections later this year in France and Germany, Wilders’ loss has placated fears of a right-wing populist surge.

Wilders’ electoral loss will be cited as a crucial victory (much like the defeat of his party’s namesake in Austria) against a strain of right-wing and nativist populism that gifted the world a Donald Trump presidency and the UK’s decision to depart from the European Union.

But proclamations of greater trends are typically flawed. While populists may not have won top seats in the Netherlands, they’ve still had a considerable impact on mainstream politics in Europe.

Politicians like Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy [VVD] recently began adopting nationalist rhetoric while campaigning for reelection. Rutte’s feud with Turkey is thought to have bolstered his support and his recent statements telling immigrants to “act normal or leave” show how effective Wilders’ anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim ideology has been at seeping into the country’s political discussions.

“The mainstream right-wing parties VVD and CDA [Christian Democratic Appeal] have increasingly appealed to PVV [Wilders’ Freedom Party] voters by highlighting that immigrants and refugees should adapt to Dutch culture and values or otherwise go,” Tjitske Akkerman, an assistant professor in the department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, told ThinkProgress.

“The VVD currently is much more critical towards citizens with a migrant background than they were before the 2010-election,” Barbara Vis, professor in Political Decision-Making at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, told ThinkProgress. “In that election, the PVV gained many seats and ended up with 24 seats in parliament. This presence in parliament, plus the party serving as gedoogpartner to a minority government, pushed many of the mainstream parties towards a harsher stance on citizens with a migrant background.”

Parties in the Netherlands have not only shifted to the right, but as Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, and author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction, wrote in the New York Times, they also now define themselves on terms set by Wilders.

“The highly divisive election campaign, in which virtually all parties defined themselves vis-à-vis Geert Wilders, has only widened the gap between the future coalition parties,” Mudde wrote. The Christian Democrats moved sharply to the right, adopting slightly softer versions of Mr. Wilders’s positions, including Euroskepticism and thinly-veiled Islamophobia. So did Prime Minister Rutte’s V.V.D. In fact, he may have gotten a boost in the polls after taking a tough stance in a spat between the Netherlands and Turkey.”

This phenomenon has not been limited to the Netherlands. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is scheduled to visit President Trump on Friday, has shifted some of her policies rightward after coming under heat for her openness to immigration. The most high profile incident was her call for a full burka ban.

Still, the loss of a rampant bigot like Wilders has left many European politicians pleased with the results.

“Netherlands, oh Netherlands, you are a champion,” Merkel’s chief of staff Peter Altmaier wrote on Twitter.

Martin Schulz, a politician with the pro-Europe German Social Democratic and Merkel’s leading opponent in the upcoming German elections, said he was “relieved” Wilders lost, according to USA Today. “But we must continue to fight for an open and free Europe!”

French President Francois Hollande defined Wilders’ capitulation as a “clear victory against extremism” while French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault praised the Dutch people for “stemming the rise of the far-right.”

It’s true that Wednesday’s outcome is a victory for the European Union and a blow to the right wing populism that has risen in the last year or so. But Wilders’ and his cohorts are still politically relevant and will continue to be, if experts are to be believed.

“In short, although I think that we are seeing something of a pushback against populism in Europe today and that we should feel some relief at the Dutch outcome, populism is far from dead, including in the Netherlands, and we should treat the French election on its own merits,” Alastair Newton, a British political analyst, told CNBC.