Dutch Party Leaders Meet After General Election Results
Wilders puts a brave face on defeat. Carl Court Getty Images

The Dutch Just Stopped the Advance of Europe’s Populists

Mar 16, 2017

Europe's liberal mainstream is breathing a sigh of relief Thursday after the Netherlands stopped the march of far-right populism in a national election.

Geert Wilders and his anti-immigrant, anti-EU Party for Freedom (PVV), who had led the polls as recently as January, came a distant second to the center-right party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.

As such, it's five more years of socially liberal, consensus-based rule by cosmopolitan establishment parties in the Netherlands. President Donald Trump's prophesy of other countries rushing to follow the U.K. out of the European door is as far as ever from being realized.

Wilders' chances of forming a government and upsetting the European applecart were never great, so the real issue in yesterday's election was how much he improved on his result of five years ago. The answer even to that was—not much. Despite a double-dip recession after 2008, the 2015 migrant crisis, and the revival of identity politics across the continent, the PVV only raised its share of the vote to 13.1% from 10.1%. Nearly 87% of those who turned out voted against his brand of thinly-veiled racism. Many of the deserting PvdA voters turned not to him, but to other expressions of the same essentially liberal, universalist view of Europe, like the Greens or the D66 party.

It would be too easy to draw a simple read-across from this to France, which has to elect a president in May. France faces a very different—and harsher—reality with regard to internal security, and its nationalist instincts in economic policy, exemplified by Marine Le Pen's chafing at the constraints of the euro, are much stronger than those of the Dutch. Joblessness is higher. Relations between the police and ethnic minorities are more tense, as recent riots showed.

But there are enough reasons to think that the final outcome—a centrist, pro-European government—will be the same in France too. Polling firm OpinionWay still projects Front National leader Marine Le Pen would be the clear loser in a run-off against either of her mainstream opponents, Emmanuel Macron or François Fillon (despite the latter being placed under formal investigation for abuse of public funds this week). While it's possible to envisage her winning against one of the two hard-left candidates in the race, Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, one of them would first have to decide to drop out in order to give the other a clear run, which seems too much to ask of either.

Voting preferences in the first round of France's presidential elections. Source: Opinion Way

In Germany too, where federal elections are due in September, the wave of populism that followed the Great Recession, the euro crisis and the migrant crisis seems to have crested. Support for the anti-foreigner Alternative für Deutschland, having surged from 4% to peak at 16% last September, is now back at 10%, its lowest in a year, according to polling firm Infratest-dimap.

Why the turn away from the specter of populism? Much, if not all, comes down to three factors. First, the economy. Joblessness is coming down across most of the Eurozone as growth returns, even in relative laggards on labor reform such as France.

Second, having closed the 'Balkan route', the EU appears to have brought the migrant crisis under control, at least for now.

Migrant arrivals in EU countries by sea. Source:  UNHCR 

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it remains the case that Europe still has a broad political center, and systems of proportional representation that allow populists to be marginalized with relative ease as long as the political will is there. As Berenberg Bank analysts Holger Schmieding and Kallum Pickering point out: "Under stress, the cohesion of continental Europe and the Eurozone tends to be stronger than many outside observers seem to believe."

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