The result of the election in the Netherlands held on 22 November 2023 has undoubtedly shaken the European Union.
In 1957, the country was a founder member of its predecessor, the European Economic Community. With a population of around 17.5 million, the Netherlands rates as a small to medium-sized EU country. It is also one of the most densely populated – which may be a factor in the election result. The country is currently experiencing housing shortages, and net migration was of the order of 220,000 in 2022.
In the run-up, there was speculation that Geert Wilders, the leader of the far-right so-called Party for Freedom (PVV), might be in the position of ‘king-maker’ in choosing coalition partners if there was no clear winner. In the event, his party was far ahead of all the others, claiming 37 out of the Dutch parliament’s 150 seats. The PVV is anti-Muslim and immigration, anti-EU and NATO, opposed to aid for Ukraine and sceptical about climate change.
An alliance of Green and Left parties, led by the former vice-president of the European Commission, Franz Timmermans, won 25 seats. The Liberals (VVD), the party of the former prime minister Mark Rutte, won 24 seats and a new anti-corruption centre-right party, New Social Contract (NSC), won 20.
For years, Wilders had been marginalised by other parties. Rutte’s coalition of centre-right and liberal parties had itself collapsed as a result of his proposals for curbs in immigration in July 2023. However, the departure of Rutte, who had led the Netherlands for 13 years, and a series of scandals linked to the previous coalition, led to a desire for change.
A strategic mistake made by the new leader of the VVD, Dilan Yesilgöz, when she failed to rule out forming a coalition with the PVV, is thought to have given Wilders more credibility with voters. The think tank UK in a Changing Europe considers that mainstream parties adopting policies of the far-right and their normalisation by the media have played a role in the rise of such extremist parties, including the PVV.
Finding a majority
Just because Wilders has won the most seats, it does not follow that he is entitled to become prime minister, or even that his party must be included in a coalition. With 24 per cent of the vote, PVV needs support from at least two more moderate parties in order to create a government with the required majority of 76 seats.
As pointed out by Reuters, coalition talks in the Netherlands can take months. Furthermore, Wilders’ nominee as a ‘scout’ to look into viable governing coalitions resigned abruptly after three days, when it was revealed that he was fighting a fraud charge. At present, former prime minister Rutte continues in a caretaker capacity.
In an attempt to woo the Liberals, Wilders has recently moderated his positions, toning down his asylum policy and saying he could drop his proposed ban on mosques and the Koran. However, if he wishes to form a coalition, he will have to be willing to compromise on most of the key issues of his campaign. The one previous attempt at governing with his support, by Rutte in 2012, collapsed after 558 days when Wilders refused to comply with EU budget rules.
With friends like these…
Just one party, the small Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) led by Caroline van der Plas, another populist politician, is ready to join Wilders, but with only seven seats it is too small to enable him to form a majority government.
The New Social Contract party, led by former Christian Democrat Pieter Omtzigt, claims to regard the anti-Muslim and anti-EU policies of PVV as unconstitutional but has also recently agreed to start talks with Wilders.
At the time of writing, these three parties (PVV, BBB and NSC) are currently considering whether they could collaborate, possibly with passive support from the VVD Liberals. The Liberal leader Yesilgöz’s current position is that, having lost 10 seats, the VVD should step down from government for a while. Nevertheless, following internal pressure within her party, she has hinted that she might support Wilders on some issues from outside his cabinet.
At present, it is perhaps difficult to conceive of Wilders forming an administration and joining other right-wing leaders such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni in trying to influence EU policy from within. (In view of labour shortages in Italy, Meloni has actually significantly increased legal migration routes for hundreds of thousands of workers to fill gaps in its labour force.)
Wider implications for Europe and new EU deal on migration
Of course, the implications of the vote in the Netherlands go much wider than internal politics. Europe has recently seen an overall rise in nationalist, anti-immigration parties of the far-right, although in the Czech Republic, Spain and Poland, these movements have been checked to some extent.
The EU cannot be complacent about this trend, however, which could be seen as building momentum for the European elections next June. The pressure on EU member states to overhaul the bloc’s asylum and migration rules has been mounting.
In December 2023, EU members agreed on a new pact on migration and asylum, which will establish a common framework for applications. The screening system envisaged will seek to distinguish between those in need of international protection and so-called economic migrants who are not. Importantly, the framework includes funding for non-EU countries supporting efforts to reduce migration flows.
Lessons for the UK
Brexiteers fail to mention that following Brexit in January 2021, the UK was no longer party to the common European asylum system (CEAS), including the Dublin Regulation, under which it was allowed to return many asylum seekers to other EU member states (including France), as their asylum claims had to be made in their first EU country of entry. Both legal and illegal migration to the UK are now at record levels.
As in the case of the UK’s Nigel Farage and other Brexiteers, the propaganda of Geert Wilders is therefore misleading in conflating the Netherlands’ EU membership with immigration pressures.
Wider international cooperation between the EU and non-EU countries, including the UK, is required to create safer routes for legal migrants and to tackle the root causes of illegal migration in the migrants’ countries of origin, rather than calls by the far-right for building walls at national borders.