The Dutch elections were a great birthday gift for the European Union, which will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on March 25. The declarations of relief from European leaders when it was clear that anti-EU Geert Wilders would not win indicated the magnitude of their anxiety. Because it is unlikely that Dutch voters went to the polls to ease the worries of European leaders, it’s worth taking a look at the elections through the prism of the Greek experience.
For many who observed the elections from a distance, the narrative was that if Wilders won this would confirm the domino theory – that after Brexit and Trump, Europe would have to contend with the Dutch populist, before presidential elections in France and parliamentary elections in Germany, where local anti-EU populists would win or, at least, determine developments. In the end, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pro-EU party won the most seats (33 in the 150-seat parliament), although it lost eight from the previous election; Wilders’s party gained five seats (for a total of 20) and took second place. Jeroen Dijsselbloem’s Labor Party crashed from second place to seventh, to the benefit of smaller parties. The elections showed, first, that however attractive domino theories are they are always dicey (older readers will remember the American argument that if South Vietnam were to fall there would be a domino effect throughout Southeast Asia); second, in democracies today there is a strong trend toward the political system’s fragmentation.
The dissolution of the center strengthens marginal forces, as we saw in Greece when the crisis erupted. This demands greater cooperation between parties just as conditions make consensus ever more difficult. In the Netherlands, despite a long tradition of coalition governments (because of their proportional representation electoral system), there will be hard bargaining for an agreement. Wednesday’s results favor a coalition of pro-EU forces, but Wilders’s anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant rhetoric has been adopted to some degree by various other parties, which could complicate talks between likely partners. Also, in Greece we have learned that when more parties adopt extremists’ language, only the extremists benefit, gaining legitimacy for their views. So it is very likely that Wilders, or someone like him, will win the next elections if new policies do not weaken the currents that carried him so far.
A significant factor in the Dutch elections was the explosion in tension between Turkey and the Netherlands and Germany, and the role this played in the electoral outcome. Greece is on the frontline of this tension and may suffer the consequences. At the same time, our EU partners ought to understand what Greece faces from an aggressive neighbor. Maybe this will help them see Greece as an integral part of Europe, not just an accounting problem nor a moral drama.