European Elections

Netherlands’ quiet eurosceptic revolution: Wilders vanquished, but EU not out of the woods

THE sighs of relief reverberated around the cavernous Berlaymont building like the wind whistling down Brussels’ historic cobbled streets.

Inside the EU’s towering seat of power, eurocrats heartily slapped each other’s backs.
Commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas beamed proudly at the lectern as he hailed an “inspiration for all”.The battle was over. Wilders was vanquished. Europe had won.But not so fast. For from amongst the wreckage of the populist leader’s botched campaign emerged a picture of a much quieter revolution.

Geert WildersGETTY•REUTERS•EPA      Geert Wilders’ party underperformed compared to its poll ratings

When the dust settles and the painstaking coalition talks are concluded, it will be the europragmatists who rule the roost in the Netherlands.None of the major winners of last night’s historic vote want to pull the country out of the EU. On that, Geert Wilders stands starkly in isolation.But the centre-right dominated coalition which is set to emerge will be no friend of the euro federalists either, despite the absence of the coiffured populist who others have refused to work with.The europhile Labour Party (PvdA) was all but wiped out, and is set to be replaced as junior partner in government by the eurosceptic Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA).

Sybrand BumaGETTY    But it was a good night for the Christian Democrats and leader Sybrand Buma

Geert Wilders and Mark RutteGETTY    The party of Dutch PM Mark Rutte, right, will hold on to power via a coalition

The CDA, which advocates repatriation of powers to the Netherlands from Brussels, surged to become the joint third biggest party on the back of an openly eurosceptic platform.Along with the pro-EU Democrats 66 and the Greens, it was the biggest winner on a night packed with surprises when Mr Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) failed to live up to the hype.Elsewhere the anti-Brussels Forum for Democracy, which lists its priorities as “power back from the EU to the Netherlands, strict immigration controls, and more binding referendums”, made history by entering parliament with two seats.And the eurosceptic Christian Union, part of the same EU parliament grouping as the British Conservatives, maintained its support at five seats and is likely to form part of the next ruling coalition.Reacting to the result, Ukip leader Paul Nuttall told “This was a great leap forward for national democrats in the Netherlands who reject the job-killing Euro currency and political union.”Congratulations to the Eurosceptic parties who won an additional 7 seats and commiserations to the Government bloc which lost 36 seats.”People all across Europe are seeing the benefit of making their own laws and having the economy run for their national benefit. The cultural and security issues were high in this election and that is why Eurosceptics did so well.”The CDA party, once a friend of Brussels, took on an increasingly eurosceptic tone in the final weeks of the campaign in an ultimately successful attempt to woo voters away from the PVV.Its leader, the charismatic Sybrand Buma, soared in the polls after admitting the EU was “worse than I thought” and saying he wanted to put an end to the open borders Schengen zone.

 People say Wilders lost, but if you look where he was two days ago to where he is now, he got lots more seats. He got an endorsement.

Hugo van Radwyck, Bruges Group

As a result it increased its number of seats in the parliament from a dismal 13 in 2012 – the worst result in its history – to 19 today, marking a steady revival for a party some thought dead and buried.Dutch pollster Tim de Beer told the party had scored success by altering its rhetoric to target eurosceptic voters who were reluctant to vote for the more extreme Mr Wilders.He said: “The Christian Democrats did reasonably well, but to put things into perspective it was the second worst result for them ever and they are suffering from an ageing electorate.“Part of their more recent and relative success definitely has to do with their shift towards conservatism and a more strong position on integration and immigration.”Afterwords, a jubilant Mr Buma said his party was “among the big winners of the election” and vowed to “start working for a better Netherlands”.He said: “However, tomorrow a major challenge awaits, for many Dutch people have concerns. It is now up to the politicians to come up with answers.”The conservative leader now looks set to form the backbone of a coalition government run by prime minister Mark Rutte, who himself took a turn to the right in his attempts to fend off Mr Wilders.

As election day grew nearer Mr Rutte ramped up his eurosceptic rhetoric, insisting that “this whole idea of an ever closer union is now really buried” during a speech to the World Economic Forum at Davos in January which caused a furore in Brussels.A month before he had implored European leaders not to “push the project over the edge by pushing for more Europe”, telling them: “If you love Europe, stop dreaming of more Europe and start fixing problems.”The centre-right PM also took a surprisingly tough stance on immigration and the issue of Dutch national identity in a move which was seen as a clear pitch to voters swaying towards his far-right rival.In January he sparked controversy worldwide by issuing a strongly worded open letter in which he directly told migrants to respect people’s way of life in the Netherlands or leave the country.And in the closing days of the campaign the erratic behaviour of Turkish president Recep Erdogan presented him with an open goal on immigration, which he gratefully accepted with a tough line of rhetoric towards the Muslim majority country.As a result, a coalition dominated by the VVD and the CDA is likely to prioritise more controls on immigration in a country which already has some of the tightest restrictions in Europe.In particular Mr Buma is an outspoken critic of the EU’s current free movement rules, saying they must be adjusted to stop workers from Eastern Europe undercutting wages in the West.He also surprisingly chose to oppose the ratification of an EU-Ukraine deal, which was rejected by Dutch voters in a referendum last year, saying ignoring the result would be “crippling” for democracy.
Mr Rutte has himself also hinted at possible reform of the free movement system, saying that European leaders needed to show their voters that it was possible to “control immigration”.Ben Harris-Quinney, the chairman of the conservative Bow Group think-tank, told “Populism is an accusation that is thrown around too easily today.“What we are actually seeing is the the resurgence of genuine ideological movements on the left and right – the opposite of populism.“The result in Holland was a good one for both Euroscepticism & conservatism.“Mark Rutte has shown in his campaign a return to conservatism, strong leadership and even light Euroscepticism, I commend him on this and on his victory.”That sets the nascent Dutch government up as a potential block to the Commission’s plans for greater federalisation of the eurozone, which would include the further transfer of power to Brussels.Jean-Claude Juncker is believed to favour the fourth of five planned “pathways” for the bloc’s future set out in his white paper, which entails greater amalgamation and a further loss of sovereignty for member states.

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