THE HAGUE — One line in Geert Wilders’ inflammatory pitch to Dutch voters will haunt Brussels more than any other: a referendum on leaving the EU.
Seven years after the British voted for Brexit, a so-called Nexit ballot was a core plank of the far-right leader’s ultimately successful offer in the Netherlands.
And while Wilders softened his anti-Islam rhetoric in recent weeks, there are no signs he wants to water down his Euroskepticism after his shock election victory.
Even if Dutch voters are not persuaded to follow the Brits out of the EU — polling suggests it’s unlikely — there’s every indication that a Wilders-led government in The Hague will still be a nightmare for Brussels.
A seat for Wilders around the EU summit table would transform the dynamic, alongside other far-right and nationalist leaders already in post. Suddenly, policies ranging from climate action, to EU reform and even weapons for Ukraine will be up for debate, and even reversal.
Since the exit polls were announced, potential center-right partners have not ruled out forming a coalition with Wilders, who emerged as the clear winner. That’s despite the fact that for the past 10 years, he’s been kept out by centrists.
For his part, the 60-year-old veteran appears to be dead serious about taking power himself this time.
Ever since Mark Rutte’s replacement as VVD leader, Dilan Yeşilgöz, indicated early in the campaign that she could potentially enter coalition talks with Wilders, the far-right leader has worked hard to look more reasonable. He diluted some of his most strident positions, particularly on Islam — such as banning mosques — saying there are bigger priorities to fix.
On Wednesday night, with the results coming in, Wilders was more explicit: “I understand very well that parties do not want to be in a government with a party that wants unconstitutional measures,” he said. “We are not going to talk about mosques, Qurans and Islamic schools.”
Even if Wilders is willing to drop his demand for an EU referendum in exchange for power, his victory will still send a shudder through the EU institutions.
And if centrist parties club together to keep Wilders out — again — there may be a price to pay with angry Dutch voters later on.
Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage showed in the U.K. that you don’t need to be in power to be powerfully influential.
Winds of change
Migration was a dominant issue in the Dutch election. For EU politicians, it remains a pressing concern. As migrant numbers continue to rise, so too has support for far-right parties in many countries in Europe. In Italy last year, Giorgia Meloni won power for her Brothers of Italy. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally remains a potent force, in second place in the polls. In Germany, the Alternative for Deutschland has also surged to second place in recent months.
In his victory speech, Wilders vowed to tackle what he called the “asylum tsunami” hitting the Netherlands.
“The main reasons voters have supported Wilders in these elections is his anti-immigration agenda, followed by his stances on the cost of living crisis and his heath care position,” said Sarah de Lange, politics professor at the University of Amsterdam. Mainstream parties “legitimized Wilders” by making immigration a key issue, she said. “Voters might have thought that if that is the issue at stake, why not vote for the original rather than the copy?”
For the left, the bright spot in the Netherlands was a strong showing for a well-organized alliance between Labour and the Greens. Frans Timmermans, the former European Commission vice president, galvanized support behind him. But even that joint ticket could not get close to beating Wilders’ tally.
Next June, the 27 countries of the EU hold an election for the European Parliament.
On the same day voters choose their MEPs, Belgium is holding a general election. Far-right Flemish independence leader Tom Van Grieken, who is also eyeing up a major breakthrough, offered his congratulations to Wilders: “Parties like ours are on their way in the whole of Europe,” he said.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was celebrating, too: “The winds of change are here!”
Pieter Haeck reported from Amsterdam and Tim Ross reported from London.
David Turner is a globe-trotting journalist who brings a global perspective to our readers. With a commitment to shedding light on international events, he explores complex geopolitical issues, offering a nuanced view of the world’s most pressing challenges.