A ‘Trump moment’ in the Netherlands shows that Europe still has a populist problem

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The shock election results in the Netherlands have taken Europe by surprise, and left many onlookers unsure exactly what happens next.

Far-right populist Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party (PVV) are now seeking to form a government after an unexpectedly big win in Wednesday’s national vote.

Wilders and the PVV might have won the most seats (a forecast 37 out of a total 150), but it’s unclear if they have enough support to form a coalition government.

While the results show an overall victory for parties on the right, Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-European Union and Ukraine-skeptic manifesto was widely perceived to be beyond the pale for the center-right Freedom and Democracy Party (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

The most obvious path to office for Wilders is a coalition with the VVD, which came third with 24 seats, and New Social Contract, a Christian conservative party that followed with 20 seats, according to a provisional forecast based on 98% of the votes counted. A joint Labour/Green ticket finished second in the election, with 25 seats.

What that potential coalition government would actually look like is also unclear. It would be very unusual for a party that comprehensively won the most seats to be locked out of government. It is possible that Wilders could take a job that doesn’t place him at the head of the government, though that would presumably mean some serious compromises on his policy platform.

Beyond those immediate concerns, there are questions as to what Wilders’ victory means for the direction of Dutch and European politics more broadly.

The rise of European populism is not exactly new. Italy currently has its most right-wing government since the end of the Second World War and Slovakia re-elected the left-wing populist Robert Fico to office in September.

The EU is generally good at containing these sorts of leaders. In some cases it can soften their impact by dangling financial carrots or assistance with policies aimed at domestic audiences, such as border control.

However, having them inside the tent can also lead to problems.

The EU tends to make decisions by unanimous votes, meaning every member state has a veto. This allows countries to whack the rest of the bloc over the head over very domestic matters, in some cases blocking the whole EU budget – over a trillion euros.

Having more than one delinquent in the club also means they can gang up. This can happen both in the Council – which is made up of ministers and leaders from national governments – and in the European Parliament, where parties on the right or left from different countries form alliances.

The right in particular is very good at this and has increased its influence at a Brussels level considerably in recent years. This is partly why Wilders’ threats of leaving the EU might not actually be Brussels’ biggest headache.

Euroskeptics these days, as a whole, don’t want to leave the EU – they want to run it instead. Partly, it’s because they like the economic benefits of being in the EU. And if they continue increase their political power within the European bloc, they will have a lot of very big toys to play with on the world stage.

Other Euroskeptic leaders have already congratulated Wilders with speed and obvious joy.

“The winds of change are here! Congratulations to Geert Wilders on winning the Dutch elections,” Hungarian PM Viktor Orban said late on Wednesday.

“It is because there are people who refuse to see the national torch extinguished that the hope for change remains alive in Europe,” French far-right leader Marine Le Pen said.

Even if Wilders is unable to implement the more radical parts of his manifesto and is contained by Europe more broadly, concerns remain about what his success does the rest of European politics. Populist victories tend to drag others further to the right.

The most obvious examples of this are in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has aped anti-Islam rhetoric in order to not be outflanked by Le Pen, and in the United Kingdom, where the center-right Conservative Party is almost unrecognizable after 13 years in power and the influence of Brexit.

The other concerns are that Wilders is somehow locked out of government or decides to martyr himself, rather than sell out in office. In Italy, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has not been quite the radical right-wing firebrand some feared when she took power in 2022, and has to some extent been contained by the EU. She is, therefore, seen as a sellout by others on the right.

It’s often those who don’t hold office who can be the biggest influence in politics. Nigel Farage, the man who played a huge role in dragging the British Conservatives to the right and taking the UK out of the EU, has never been in parliament, let alone government. He is still threatening to eat the anti-immigration vote.

At the annual Conservative Party conference earlier this year, Farage was greeted like a hero by a number of delegates, despite being arguably the biggest threat to the party.

It’s very hard to predict what will happen in the coalition talks taking place in the Netherlands, or what the next Dutch government might actually look like. But these results really are a shock to many Europeans and we really are in new territory.

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