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29 November 2023

Geert Wilders’ victory is a dire threat to the EU

The uncooperative presence of a populist-led Netherlands could wreck Brussels’ flagship legislative projects.

By Wolfgang Münchau

Italy has Giorgia Meloni, Hungary has Viktor Orbán, Slovakia has Robert Fico and the Netherlands will soon have Geert Wilders. It is difficult to see an alternative to a government led by Wilders, one of the most recognisable and flamboyant of Europe’s right-wing leaders.

In the country’s general election on 22 November, his Party for Freedom (PVV) went up from 17 to 37 MPs in the 150-seat parliament. The various liberal and conservative parties all performed worse than expected. In theory, they could gang up against Wilders and form a coalition with the centre-left alliance, which is led by Frans Timmermans, a former European commissioner. But they have all become more right wing over the years.

[See also: Sahra Wagenknecht’s new left-populist party should be taken seriously]

Wilders’ victory cannot be reduced to a rise in immigration. The Netherlands has, compared to Germany, France and the UK, a relatively low rate of net migration. The Hamas terror attack may have played a role. Wilders is the most vulgar of the anti-Islam right-wingers in Europe. In a 2008 interview he called Islam a “retarded culture”, and he has been convicted by a Dutch court for insulting the people of Morocco in 2014. But in this election campaign, he toned down his Islamophobic rhetoric. His opposition to green policies might well have aided his win too, along with the anti-woke counter-revolution in Western societies.

Wilders will need partners to govern. The most important ally will be Pieter Omtzigt, a former Christian Democrat, who founded his own party in August this year, called the New Social Contract. Like Wilders, he is a Eurosceptic.

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Another important partner will be the Farmer-Citizen Movement, which is opposed to green policies. It increased its representation from one to seven MPs. But its biggest political coup so far has been the senate elections in March, when it became the largest party. The Farmer-Citizen Movement’s big theme then was a protest against government plans to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2030, which would require a huge drop in livestock numbers and the use of fertilisers.

Nowhere will the shift to the right in Dutch politics be more painfully felt than in Brussels. The EU has experience in dealing with populists, like Orbán or the outgoing Polish government. Wilders is a much more potent threat as the Netherlands is the third largest net contributor to the EU budget.

With his 37 seats, Wilders will not be able to trigger a “Nexit” – a Dutch exit from the EU. But he and other right-wing leaders in Europe have shifted strategy. They no longer campaign for departure from the EU or the euro; they prefer to fight the EU from within. Without the support of the Netherlands, it will become much harder for the EU to pursue its flagship projects.

The most important of them all is the European Green Deal, a legislative package to secure the net-zero target by 2050. That package was agreed in 2020, a time when interest rates were low and when money grew on green trees. It was also a time when governments did not face the same budget pressures they do today.

What has happened since then is that people have started to count the cost. Homeowners have to finance costly replacements of oil and gas heaters. Many farmers will go out of business. And so a coalition between Wilders and the Farmer-Citizen Movement will try to block net-zero policies. Even the centre right in the European Parliament, which had previously supported Ursula von der Leyen’s climate change agenda, is now starting to oppose it. Earlier this year, the bloc voted against the Nature Restoration Law – an attempt to restore a fifth of the EU’s land and sea ecosystems by 2030. It is quite possible that an anti-green majority will emerge in the European Parliament elections next year. 

The other big project under threat is enlargement. The European Commission has recently recommended the start of membership negotiations with Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Enlargement will require reform of EU finances and voting procedures, but there is no way Wilders will accept enlargement if it involved an increase in Dutch contributions to the EU budget. Italy and France have no fiscal room for manoeuvre either. Orbán has already threatened to veto the EU’s latest financial aid package to Ukraine. No member state has the capacity or the will to bankroll Kyiv – and nor do I believe that the current net recipients of EU funds, led by Poland, Greece and Hungary, will want to give up the large inflows to their own countries.

The European elections in June 2024 are potentially a big moment for the parties of the right. They are all polling well. Germany’s AfD, quite possibly the most extreme of the lot, is at 22 per cent. Meloni’s Brothers of Italy is still the most popular party in Italy at 29 per cent. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is at 24 per cent in France. These numbers, if they hold up, would point to a large increase in the share of the right-wing groups in the European Parliament.

Wilders and Meloni will also have the opportunity to dispatch their own European commissioners to Brussels. Last time, both countries sent politicians from the centre left. The populists will soon be encroaching at all EU levels – commission, council and parliament.

I expect the Green Deal to be watered down, just as has happened in the UK. One struggles to see the unanimity required for Ukraine to become an EU member. There have been periods in the past 70 years during which European integration ground to a halt. Now, for the first time, that process threatens to go into reverse.

[See also: The EU is the “illusory giant” of geopolitics]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now