The Dutch Far Right is Booming. Here is Why and How it Should be Stopped.

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In a country known around the world for its liberal reputation, the Dutch Far Right is booming. “Forum for Democracy” is an explicitly white nationalist party led by 37-year old Thierry Baudet and it has now become the largest party in The Netherlands’ Senate. The country’s proportional electoral system —unlike the US’ bipartisan one— is characterized by its broad political representation, which allows niche parties to enter the ballot. The more representative a political system is, the more specialized parties it is likely to have. However, this by itself does not explain the rise of the Dutch Far Right —it just shows how it was able to get its foot in the door.

Historical Background

The Netherlands’ current electoral system has been in place for many years, but it wasn’t until the beginning of the 21st century that the Far Right started gaining traction in national politics, dating back to Pim Fortuyn. Under a party named after himself, Fortuyn ran on an anti-immigration platform at a time when talking about these issues was considered taboo in The Netherlands. A gay man himself, Fortuyn posited that immigrants —especially Muslim ones— were a threat to the liberal values of Dutch society. In the words of The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert, “Fortuyn arrived at a form of xenophobia ideally suited to a nation that prides itself on its tolerance. The problem with immigrants is that they are intolerant. In this context, Fortuyn’s flamboyant gayness probably was an asset.”

Dr. Eelco Harteveld, a professor at the University of Amsterdam whose research focuses on populism, tells us that the target of Fortuyn’s antagonism was not immigrants per se, but rather second and third-generation descendants from Turkish and Moroccan nationals who were brought into the country when there was a shortage of labor. Some citizens considered that these people had failed to integrate into Dutch society, which was especially true in Fortuyn’s hometown of Rotterdam, home to Europe’s largest seaport, which at the time faced an increase in crime largely attributed by locals to the surge in immigrants.

Fortuyn’s rise in popularity also coincided with the spread of modern global terrorism and world events such as 9/11, which fostered the idea of terrorism as a Muslim phenomenon in the public imagination. His party, the “Lijst Pim Fortuyn,” reached unprecedented levels of popularity for a far-right political force and many thought Fortuyn had a good chance of becoming The Netherland’s next prime minister. However, close to the time of the 2002 election he was assassinated by a left-wing activist. Despite his death, Fortuyn’s legacy in Dutch politics did not disappear, and a few years later Geert Wilders took his place by running on an anti-Muslim agenda.

In 2006, Wilders founded the “Party for Freedom” or PVV, becoming a controversial political figure worldwide for his views on Islam, calling for the closure of all Islamic schools, and the creation of an ethnic registry for all Dutch citizens. Wilders stood as the face of the Dutch Far Right for many years, however, in the elections held last year, his party did not do very well. Instead, his voters opted for a new face in Dutch politics: Thierry Baudet and his party “Forum for Democracy.” Out of 75 seats in total, Baudet gained 13 in the Senate, one seat more than the current prime minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party, the “People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy” or VVD.

As a young scholar from the prestigious Leiden University, Baudet is far more sophisticated than Wilders, drawing the media’s attention by speaking in Latin during some of his speeches and by using obscure words to highlight his background in academia. In his victory speech, Baudet criticized the country’s governing classes for their “oikophobia,” a word popularized by British philosopher Roger Scruton, referring to “the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours.’” Additionally, Baudet managed to add climate skepticism to his agenda at a time when there was a perceived consensus on climate change in Dutch politics.

Many have even compared this young politician with Fortuyn, and this has gained him support from past Wilder’s voters and new audiences. Moreover, Baudet’s popularity was boosted when, two days before the election, three people were killed in what came to be depicted by the media as a terrorist attack by a Turkish-born man in the city of Utrecht. Out of respect for the victims, the other parties suspended campaigning, but Baudet didn’t and blamed the government’s weak migration policies for the incident.

Nonetheless, what is happening in The Netherlands cannot be analyzed as an isolated phenomenon. All over the West there is a perception of civilization as being on decline, with a widespread pessimism about the future and nostalgia for the past. As Baudet put it in a speech: “we stand here in the rubble of what was once the most beautiful civilization.” Dr. Harteveld points out that, in a changing political landscape, some people in the Netherlands perceive a loss of social status which they want to gain back —and this is what Baudet allegedly offers them.

The threat posed by the Far Right

In the face of the resurgence and mainstreaming of far-right rhetoric, the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) was created. CARR’s director Matthew Feldman argues that the Far Right is extremely dangerous for society, as it poses a multi-faceted threat to democracy, liberalism, and security. Mr. Feldman posits that after 1945, Europe and the world were revolted by fascism and the atrocities committed during the war period stigmatized the Far Right. This is why it took more than 50 years for the movement to evolve and rebrand itself to recapture its mass appeal. Mr. Feldman recognizes that today’s Far Right is different from that of the pre-1945 years but emphasizes that many of its original aspects are still present —especially its focus on nativism and its populist approach to politics—. 

Additionally, the rise in popularity of the Far Right will undoubtedly translate into a change in Dutch foreign policy. Both Baudet’s and Wilders’ parties are Eurosceptic, meaning that they want the Netherlands to exit the European Union. Cynicism towards the EU has been bolstered by economic crises in some member countries, which have slowed down the economic growth of the rest that have to carry their dead weight. However, despite Baudet’s disapproval of many aspects of the EU, he has recently stated that he wants to wait and see how things play out for Britain before declaring his party’s position on whether to leave the contingent or not. Therefore, although Nexit does not seem like a real possibility at the moment, no one really knows if the issue might regain popularity in the near future.

More important is the refugee crisis that Europe faces, which has led to the continent hosting millions of people escaping violence in the Middle East and North Africa. This immigration wave is linked by the Far Right to social and economic problems in the region, including terrorism, which populist parties like the “Forum for Democracy” use as a platform to attract voters with its anti-immigration stance. Therefore, as the Far Right gains more popularity, we can expect these countries to stop taking refugees and strengthening their immigration control to prevent more people entering the country. This hostile foreign policy could result in the stranding of thousands of innocent people seeking asylum.

Another impact of the Far Right in Dutch foreign policy might be a shift in The Netherlands’ diplomatic and commercial relations with Russia, as Baudet has been very explicit about his interest in strengthening his country’s ties with Moscow. Relations between the two countries took a downward turn when in 2014 almost two hundred Dutch passengers were killed in the MH17 crash—a passenger flight shot down over Ukraine, allegedly by Russian-backed rebels. This event resulted in Dutch economic sanctions against the Kremlin. However, Baudet still wants to improve the bilateral relationship, as his party’s goals align those of Russia: they both want to undermine the status quo in Europe.

Nevertheless, despite the increase in popularity of the Far Right in the Netherlands, Dr. Harteveld claims that the radical right parties remain relatively small and will hardly get a true majority. For him, the real threat of the Far Right is not a government takeover but rather the “rightward shift in the political center of gravity.” This means that, although these parties are unlikely to have a prime minister in power, they have pushed other parties’ positions further to the right as the result of the competition to gain more voters, which has become especially clear in the topic of immigration.

Still, many other analysts believe that —under the right conditions— Baudet’s party could get into power. If the “Forum of Democracy” can unite a divided right-wing electorate, Baudet could easily become The Netherland’s next prime minister. The scenario becomes increasingly plausible if an economic recession follows the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Baudet and Wilders have been very vocal critics of Rutte’s policies to mitigate the spread of the virus, saying that the current prime minister is not doing enough to protect the Dutch people. An economic recession for the Netherlands would mean more desperate and frustrated people, sentiments that the Dutch Far Right could effectively exploit and channel to damage the status quo. New elections will take place next year, and the risk of voters turning to the Far Right cannot be dismissed, with the broader effects of the virus still unclear.

What the future holds for the Netherlands is uncertain. However, we can be sure of one thing which is that —when talking about the Far Right— there is yet more to come. These groups have been around for a while, and so far they only seem to get more popular with time. Thus, it doesn’t seem like the Far Right is going to go away any time soon —unless of course the proper policies are adopted by parties who understand the real threat posed by the Far Right.

How to stop the Far Right

The Elephant Chart in the EU Room - Harvard University Press Blog

The Far Right’s rise is daunting, but economics offers us some tools for understanding it and slowing it down. In 2013, researchers Christoph Lakner and Branko Milanovic developed what has been popularly known as the “elephant graph.” The graph demonstrates what many already feared, which is that the gains from globalization have not been equally distributed.

            Lakner and Milanovic’s work suggests that the losers from globalization have largely been what they denominate as “the lower middle classes of the rich world.” Populist parties draw most of their voters from this economic subgroup, which helps explain how the Far Right has been able to win so much popularity in The Netherlands and throughout the entire continent by appealing to these voters who want to regain their social status.

            Therefore, if we want to stop the Dutch Far Right, the best way to do it is by tackling the cause that is making these populist groups so appealing to a certain subgroup in the first place. Hence, we should focus on addressing the adverse effects of international trade through State interventionism in the economy. Specifically, we must provide safety nets that protect the most vulnerable members of society. That way we can guarantee the wellbeing of everyone in the population, paying special attention to the subgroups that have been most affected by globalization. Although The Netherlands is considered to be a developed economy and a welfare state, almost ten percent of the total population lives below the poverty line, meaning that the safety nets that are currently set in place are either ineffective or insufficient.

Nonetheless, contrary to the claims of some far-right groups, we should not incur in a process of deglobalization, as the benefits of the increased interconnection among countries have been extensively demonstrated by scholars. Rather, governments like the Dutch, should introduce more effective public policies at the national level which can mitigate the unfavorable effects of globalization. This is how to stop the Far Right.

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