We use cookies to help improve and maintain our site. More information.

05 December 2023

The Wilders effect

Italy has Giorgia Meloni, Hungary has Viktor Orbán, Slovenia 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. His Party for Freedom (PVV) went up from 17 seats in the 150-seat strong Dutch parliament to 37. The various liberal and conservative parties all performed worse than expected. In theory, they could all gang up against Wilders and form a coalition with the centre-left of Frans Timmermans, a former European Commissioner. But they have all become more right-wing over the years. 

Wilders' victory cannot be reduced to the rise in immigration. The Netherlands has, by comparison with Germany, the UK and France, a relatively low rate of net immigration. Maybe the Hamas terror attack has played a role. Wilders is a strong supporter of Israel, which he once referred to as a "lighthouse and the only democracy in a dark and tyrannical region". I think his opposition to Green policies plays a big role. So do the geopolitical shifts and the anti-woke counter-revolution in Western societies. 

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

Another important partner will be the Farmer-Citizen Movement, which is opposed to Green policies. It increased its share of the vote from 1 to 7 MPs. But its biggest political coup were the Senate elections in March when they became the largest party. Governments need majorities in both houses of the Dutch parliament to pass legislation. 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 massive drop in livestock 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 because the Netherlands is the third largest net contributor to the EU budget. (https://www.statista.com/chart/18794/net-contributors-to-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 exit from the EU or the euro. They now prefer to fight the EU from within. Without the support of the Netherlands in particular, it will become harder for the EU to pursue its flagship projects. 

The most important of them all is the 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 as they do today.

What also happened since then is that people started to count the costs. Homeowners have to finance costly replacements of oil and gas heaters. Many farmers will go out of business. A coalition between Wilders and the Farmer-Citizen Movement will try to block the agenda. Even the centre-right in the European Parliament, which previously supported Ursula von der Leyen's Green Deal, has started to oppose the EU's climate change agenda. Earlier this year, they voted against the nature restoration law. It is quite possible that an anti-Green majority emerges in the European Parliament next year.  

The other big project under threat is enlargement. The Commission recently recommended the start of membership negotiations with Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Enlargement will require reform of EU finances and voting procedures. There is no way Wilders will accept enlargement if this were to involve a further increase in the Dutch net 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. There is nobody in sight with the capacity and willingness to bankroll Ukraine. 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 into their own countries. 

The European elections in June next year are potentially a big moment for the parties of the right. They are all polling well. Germany's AfD, quite possibly the most extremist of the lot, is at 21% according to the latest polls (https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/germany/). Giorgia Meloni's Brothers of Italy are still the most popular party in Italy at 29% (https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/italy/). Marine Le Pen's National Rally is at 24% (https://www.politico.eu/europe-poll-of-polls/france/). These numbers, if they hold up, would point to a large increase in the share of the two right-wings blocks 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 be encroaching at all levels - Commission, Council and Parliament. 

I expect the Green Deal to be watered down as just happened in the UK. I also struggle to see the unanimity required for Ukraine to become an EU member. There were periods in the past 70 years where European integration ground to a halt. Now, for the first time, it threatens to go into reverse.

If you would like us to notify you when a new column appears, please fill out this form.