If the Dutch lived in Ireland, the saying goes, they could feed the world. And if the Irish lived in Holland, they’d drown in a week.
It’s a funny quip that speaks to common perceptions — perceptions that after the events in both places this past week might need to be reviewed.
Geert Wilders is already known to many Europeans for his two decades of radical anti-refugee rhetoric. Add in a deep-rooted anti-European Union outlook and street credentials burnished by arrests and lawsuits, then he and his Dutch Party for Freedom (DVV) make for an attractive vehicle for those whose political thoughts are so inclined and, more importantly, for a segment of the Dutch electorate fed up with the political status quo, worried about making ends meet, rising inflation and the uncertainty brought about by the conflict in Europe’s eastern border with Russia.
While on the surface it would be easy to declare Wilders as the winner in Wednesday’s Dutch general election, that’s far from the case. The DVV did win the largest number of seats — 37 — but it remains a long way off coming to power or indeed being part of any government that is likely to be hammered out in the months ahead. To govern, a coalition needs to find a winning formula and build consensus to get to 76 seats in the 150-sea parliament that sits in The Hague.
Sure, headline writers will point to his ‘win’. But that’s not accurate. Certainly not yet, and likely not at all.
Forming a government in the Netherlands is an exceedingly complex and tortuous affair. Mark Rutte, who has been Prime Minister for the past four administrations, knows the process inside out.
Winning seats is one thing, trying to form a coalition government another, then getting it to last a full term of four years is another gargantuan task in itself. It took Rutte and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) more than a year to form his fourth administration following elections in March 2021.
Why? Well, there are almost 40 political parties in the nation of almost 18 million, each representing a variety of diverse views across the political spectrum and also reflecting the varying regional and urban-rural elements that make the low-lying country’s political landscape so splintered.
The Netherlands is always governed by multiparty coalitions. A centre-left alliance came second with 25 seats, followed by the centre-right VVD party of k Rutte with 24, and then the newcomer centrist New Social Contract (NSC) party with 20.
Path to power
For Wilders, the path to power is far from evident — and even then only if parties in the centre are willing to make a right turn. Shifting right is one thing. Embracing Wilders’ politically toxic outlook is another. In it most concentrated form, Wilders advocates a “Nexit” referendum on the Netherlands’ EU membership, a complete end to asylum for refugees, an end to blanket freedom of movement for EU workers, a ban on Islamic schools, and on headscarves in government buildings, an end to military support for Ukraine — and kicking Turkey out of Nato
He’s been at the megaphone since the turn of the millennium. In reality, any combination of his policies are too much for the majority of voters and Dutch parties to embrace. Stepping into his tent would be damaging.
While he did tone down those elements during the election campaign, the leopard that is Wilders has hardly changed his spots.
There is, however, the reality too that those on the right often town down their policies once in power. You need look no further than Giorgia Melona of Italy. She was rapidly anti-Brussels on the campaign trail. In power, there’s the realisation that a lot of money flows from the EU, and toeing the line pays dividends.
Ideologically European in outlook
In terms of dividends. The Republic of Ireland has benefited greatly from its five-decade membership of the EU and its precursors. Social programmes, regional funds, grants and a myriad series of EU funding groups, has brought prosperity and new status to the nation. While it may physically be on the periphery of the 27-nation bloc, it is firmly and ideologically European in outlook.
As the EU was coming to terms with Wilders’ result, it then had to face a night of rioting in Dublin city centre from far-right hooligans who set fire to public transport and looted shops.
In Ireland too there is unease over the economy, immigration, the cost of living and declining public services. The incident was sparked by false rumours on social media after a stabbing at a school.
With an election due over the next 18 months or so, mainstream parties have struggled to form policies to counter the problems facing Ireland. Then again, those are problems faced by political parties all across Europe. And failing to do so results in protest votes such as is the case in the Netherlands.
The Dublin rioting should be seen as a warning shot that there is discontent.