As the Netherlands enters the final stretch in its 2017 election campaign, all eyes have turned to watch the political churning in this small but potentially significant EU member state. The intense interest by the international media is warranted; the Dutch election is the first of the “decisive three of 2017” (followed by elections in France and Germany) that many analysts believe will be leading indicators of the evolution of European politics in coming years. This has made the Dutch balloting in effect the first major European referendum on the past three decades’ immigration policy not only for Holland but also for the largest European countries.
Across Europe there has been a lot of polling, theorizing, opining, and (quite frankly) reading of tea leaves about the outcome of this vote. Paradoxically, the actual numbers of this election matter less than the political undercurrents it has brought to the surface. Geert Wilders’s anti-establishment, anti-immigration Party of Freedom (PVV) may still be positioned to deliver a stunning upset, though newer polling suggests a much tighter race. Still, the recent collapse of popular support for the social-democratic Labor Party (PvdA), a coalition partner of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) since 2012, has made any firm predictions about the outcome a mug’s game. Regardless of whether Geert Wilders’s PVV overtakes or comes a few seats short of current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD, election day will permanently alter Dutch politics—and the politics of Europe.
The consensus seems to be that, even if Wilders delivers an upset, it is unlikely that his party will be able to enter into a coalition government, and so it will most likely become an opposition party in Parliament. Still, even if the PVV is not able to enter into a coalition, much less form a government, its gains will shrink the center of Dutch politics, making the building of a workable coalition much more difficult. Most importantly, the Dutch election is likely to herald a broader European trend of the center losing more and more ground to extreme left and right political parties. As in the United Kingdom and the United States, the perception that elite policies have failed has spread throughout Dutch society. Wilders’s anti-immigrant message has resonated especially in the aftermath of the 2015-16 wave of migration from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA); the Netherlands has been a prime destination for migrants on account of its generous immigration and welfare policies.
Will the past three decades of multiculturalism and institutionalism continue to define the Continent’s future? This is precisely the question at issue in Europe today. The idea that Europe can in fact become a tapestry of comingling ethnicities and cultures has in only the past couple of years met with hardening resistance, not just in smaller countries like the Netherlands and Sweden but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the largest EU countries, including Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain. The gathering anti-immigrant rebellion in Europe has fueled a resurgent nationalism that cannot simply be dismissed as “populism” or “Islamophobia”—the default position of most media commentary. The predominantly Muslim wave of the current migration—including, for instance, the nearly one million MENA migrants that are estimated to have entered Germany in 2015–16—has contributed to the largest mass migration in Europe since the end of the Second World War (and furthermore, for the first time ever, members of the migrant wave predominantly hail from outside of Europe). At the same time, because of low levels of acculturation among these immigrants, citizenship in Europe is not generally seen as the primary identity marker. Public perceptions and differentiation in Europe increasingly focus on ethnic origin and religion. Hence, unlike in the United States, it matters less and less whether the Muslim population is first, second, or even third generation. One in five people living in the Netherlands is an immigrant or a child of immigrants. This is especially important in larger Dutch cities; for instance, in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, close to half of the population has a first- or second-generation immigrant background. For young people, the numbers are even higher, approaching two-thirds of school age children in those two cities. The high concentration of immigrant populations in Europe’s large cities is a pattern repeated across the Continent, from Paris and Copenhagen through Stockholm and Frankfurt to London and Brussels. The progressive balkanization of neighborhoods in these large cities of Western Europe is polarizing politics and raising tensions between the indigenous European population and immigrants and their descendants.
No other issue drives European politics more today than deep immigration fatigue. The unpredictability of European politics owes much to voters’ growing perception that the current pattern of open migration is unsustainably straining the absorption capacity of central and local governments, and, more importantly, that it is altering communities in ways that those communities simply reject. National awakenings, all too often dismissed as retrograde populism, are now the bellwethers of European politics, even if the surge of national identity politics in Western Europe and among the new EU entrants in Central and Southeastern Europe is being driven by differing interpretations of the “immigrant-vs.-indigenous” narrative.
In hindsight, the inability of Europe’s elites to anticipate the rising tide of public anger over immigration will likely be blamed for the European Union’s democratic deficit growing from a nagging complaint into a firestorm of popular rebellion. The insistence with which the commentariat has striven to label this uprising as merely a manifestation of illiberalism and prejudice does not augur well for the future of the European project. It is one thing to insist that regulatory excess or the bureaucratization of daily life is the necessary price to pay for benefits dispensed from Brussels across the Continent. It is quite another to persist in an immigration policy that is transforming entire communities and ultimately national cultures against the wishes of large and growing segments of the citizenry. The outcome of the Dutch election, no matter what the actual makeup of the country’s parliament, will make the cleavages between Europe’s elites and the public deeper still.