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17 May 2024

Geert Wilders is coming for the EU

The hard-right politician has at last formed a government after six months of negotiation.

By Ben Coates

In the winter of 2009, the Dutch MP Geert Wilders caught a flight from Amsterdam to Heathrow. The Dutch ambassador to Britain was waiting to greet him in arrivals, but Wilders never made it that far. The firebrand politician was stopped at the passport desk and refused entry to the UK on the grounds that the home secretary Jacqui Smith had decided Wilders’ much-publicised views on Islam “would pose a genuine, present and significantly serious threat to… community harmony and therefore public safety”. Wilders went straight back to Amsterdam.

Fifteen years later, he is now the most powerful man in the Netherlands and wields extraordinary influence in Europe. After six months of negotiations, Wilders announced on 15 May that his Party for Freedom (PVV) had reached an agreement with three other parties (the centre-right VVD and NSC, as well as the populist BBB) to form a new government. Wilders won’t be the next prime minister – his coalition allies baulked at the idea – but he’ll be the influential force behind the government, and it’s his policies that will form the bulk of its platform. Dutch commentators have already taken to referring to the new government as simply “rechts” or “centrum rechts” (right or centre right) but there’s little doubt this will be a hard-right government.

There are still some matters to address before the new government officially takes charge, but the four parties have published a draft policy agenda showing what they plan to deliver. This includes some policies – such as cutting the upfront costs of health insurance – which are straightforward crowd-pleasers. Others, like increased spending on defence, cuts to unemployment benefits and slashing foreign aid, wouldn’t look out of place in the manifesto of many mainstream conservative parties. The incoming government has pledged to “be extremely critical” about further EU expansion, though they have committed to support Ukraine “politically, militarily, financially and morally”.

Other policies are more controversial. The Dutch have never had a great environmental record – there are too many big ports and polluting industries, and too much intensive agriculture. But in recent years there has at least been some desire to cut emissions, embodied in a so-called Klimaatakkoord (climate agreement), which was painstakingly put together by the former prime minister Mark Rutte’s government. Wilders and his allies may now slash subsidies on electric cars and solar panels, increase North Sea gas extraction, raise motorway speed limits, give farmers cheaper diesel and halt the closure of large livestock farms. The new government will be perhaps the most environmentally unfriendly in Europe – a bold move for a country in which millions of people live below sea level.

Another flashpoint is immigration. Wilders has Indonesian ancestry, and his wife is a Hungarian immigrant, but he’s spent years blaming the nation’s problems on immigrants. The new government plans to scrap laws ensuring local authorities receive a fair share of refugees. They’ll also cut the number of foreign students and seek an opt-out on EU migration policy. Random passport checks at the Dutch border could become a reality. All this will please Wilders voters who are terrified of an asylum centre opening in their neighbourhoods, but it won’t do much to solve the very real Dutch immigration problems. In fact, it will likely make them worse, as new arrivals are forced into a smaller number of overcrowded asylum centres.

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It is still unclear who the next prime minister will be. The leading candidate appears to be Ronald Plasterk, a multimillionaire former cabinet minister under Rutte. However, it’s already obvious that the new PM will find it difficult to deliver some policies, particularly given that some promises stand in direct contradiction to others. A commitment to make childcare almost universally free, for example, will be hard to pull off when the childcare sector is already facing huge labour shortages and migrant workers are being turned away. As recent UK experience shows, big cuts in public spending are also easy to promise but hard to deliver without wrecking public services. Yet Wilders and his partners are pledging a 22 per cent cut in the civil service. It will be nearly impossible to deliver that without inflicting damage.

For Wilders’ opponents, the only bright spot is that the new government may not have long to implement its policies. Dutch prime ministers tend to have lengthy tenures, but the new government is likely to be particularly unstable given the fractious relationships between the four parties and the fact that no party leaders will serve in the cabinet. Few expect a Wilders-led government to last long – although it could still cause considerable damage to the country and trouble for the EU.

[See also: Why the Dutch are revolting]

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