The present news brief is published in the framework of Fondazione ISMU’s strategic line of research
Immigration and the future of Europe
by Pierre Georges Van Wolleghem
“Wake up any expert on immigrant integration in the middle of the night and ask that person to name a country known for its multiculturalism. Ten to one that the answer will be Canada, Australia or the Netherlands.”
Han Entzinger (2003)
Research has shown that the Dutch are not amongst the most nationalist peoples in Europe. Nor are they much incline towards racist and xenophobic ideologies (SORA, 2001). For long, their political stance towards foreigners has been that of respect for, if not promotion of, cultural differences. Over the 2000s’, this climate deteriorated with the rise of nationalism first with liberal MP Bolkestein (VVD), followed by far-right politicians such as Pim Fortuyn and, later, Geert Wilders (Bruquetas-Callejo et al., 2011).
In this context, the forthcoming elections may well see Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom (PVV), win the highest number of sits in the House of Representatives (Kroet, 2017). Wilders has launched his campaign mid-February on a strong anti-immigration tone, calling some Moroccans “scum” and promising to ban Muslim immigration and shut mosques if he wins (BBC, 2017). More than a word on the fringes, immigration appears to have become THE most important issue of the campaign, with Wilder setting the pace. When asked what this election is about, the ruling party’s Europe spokesperson MP, Anne Mulder, answers “identity” (Mardell, 2017). Last month, Mark Rutte himself, leader of the liberal party (VVD), current prime minister, sung on Wilders’ tune whith his “act normal or leave” (The Econimist, 2017).
This short paper provides an overview of the situation in the Netherlands to help the reader understand the forthcoming election and its stakes. Firstly, I depict the country’s recent history with regard to immigration and integration. I then briefly trace back the rise of nationalism over the past two decades. Finally, I draw possible scenarios for the immediate post-election.
A bit of history: rise and fall of multiculturalism in the Netherlands
The Netherlands has never openly been a country of immigration, even though it factually was (Bruquetas-Callejo et al., 2011). The first newcomers to reach the country after WWII were roughly distributed into two main categories: on the one hand, a significant number of so-called “repatriates” came from the former Dutch colonies and therefore holding Dutch citizenship; on the other hand, guest workers were recruited to fill labour shortages. Since repatriates were Dutch citizens and since foreign workers were not to establish in the Netherlands, the idea of integrating newcomers into Dutch society did not emerge right away. When, in the mid-1970s’, the Dutch government realized that migrants would stay for good, an Ethnic Minorities’ Policy started to take shape with the objective of ensuring foreigners could preserve their cultural identities (Entzinger, 2003). Endorsing a multiculturalist approach to integration, the state notably supported the creation of immigrant associations and the introduction of mother-tongue teaching in primary schools. In the same vein, consultative councils for ethnic minorities were set up at both national and local levels to represent minorities’ interests. The limitations of such approach, however, started to tip as time went on. Tensions between natives and immigrants started to mount, showing the cracks in the wall of a multicultural society. In 1991, these tension echoed in (VVD) MP Bolkestein’s speech in which he overtly adopted an assimilationist stance, holding that “Islam” and “Western values” were irreconcilable, that migrants should adapt to their receiving society (Entzinger, 2003: 71). Despite vivid criticisms on the part of multiculturalism defenders, Bolkestein appeared to be backed by a significant share of the voters, as the results of the subsequent elections bore witness. This translated into facts with a policy shift in 1994 (Lower House, 1994); the ethnic minorities’ policy became integration policy, carving into stone the fall of multiculturalism. Accordingly, mandatory courses were put in place to familiarize newcomers with the language and culture; a model that was then taken on by Finland, Denmark, Germany and France notably in the space a few years’ time.
The rise of the far right in the Netherlands
It has to be said that far-right parties in the Netherlands had played a very limited role thus far in the Netherlands. The Centrumpartij, active from 1980 to 1986, was one of them and it barely obtained a seat in parliament in 1982. But the success of Bolkestein, a liberal, after his populist intervention may have sparked, or authorized in a way, the xenophobic thinking. Most notable is the sudden rise of the party led by Pim Fortuyn in 2002, boosted by his assassination a few days before the elections. The assassination of filmmaker Theo van Gogh two years later has most likely contributed to maintain the far-right party, then led by Geert Wilders, in the 2006 general elections.
Figure 1 – Number of seats in the House of Representatives for far-right parties
Source: different sources, official websites. Author’s compilation
Note: the House of Representatives counts 150 MPs, with a majority at 76.
Far-right parties have never had more than 26 seats in the House of Representatives (in 2002) but the prognostics for the 15th of March credit Wilders with more than 30 seats in the 150 seat chamber, far from the 76 seats required for a one-party government.
Plausible scenarios for the near future
According to Lijphart’s categorization (Lijphart, 2012), the Netherlands stands amongst the consensus democracies. Without going into too much detail, let us say that its electoral system is based on parliamentary proportional representation, that its effective number of parties is amongst the highest, and its degree of representative disproportionality is amongst the lowest. To make it short, any somewhat significant party in the Netherlands has good chances of being heard. This poses a series of questions: Can Wilders be appointed prime minister if he happens to be the first political force out of the general elections? Will the PVV, his party, be part of the governing coalition?
According to Mark Rutte, current prime minister, the answers are no and no (Mardell, 2017). Wilders can’t be prime minister because his party will be unable to build up a governing coalition and the PVV can’t enter a coalition as no mainstream party is willing to coalesce with it. This situation sounds vaguely familiar if one considers the formation of the first Rutte cabinet. After the 2010 elections, Rutte (VVD) formed a minority government with the Christian Democratic party CDA supported by Wilders party, controlling 24 seats in the chamber back in the day. The government collapsed when Wilders withdrew his support.
In the case Wilders fare well in this round, the consequences are multiple.
Wilders is excluded from the coalition. The other parties will have to form another coalition with a large number of parties to reach 76 seats. Four or five parties could be necessary, resulting in a foreseeably unstable government made up of parties with little in common. Adding the seats of the four parties ranked just below the PVV amounts to 74 seats, two seats short for simple majority. From a more substantive standpoint, it is hard to believe that the coalition will simply ignore the winner of the elections, which would, if everything goes according to the polls, represent some 20% of the population… But this seems to have already been thought through, notably through the turn to the right taken by mainstream parties (The Economist, 2017). As The Economist reports,
Figure 2 – Projected number of seats in the House of Representatives as of 19 February
(dark colour) and 12 February (light colour)
Source: Peil.nl, https://home.noties.nl/peil/
“Few dare mutter a positive word about Europe or refugees. Parties across the spectrum talk about national identity or “progressive patriotism” (a catchphrase that is as empty as it sounds).”
Wilders is included in the coalition. The prime minister will not necessarily be Wilders himself but the government would surely feature a strong leaning to the right, with anti-immigration rhetoric. As for the future of the EU, nothing is less sure. Wilders’ views should not prevail as long as the other members of the coalitions (with a number of seats necessarily higher than that of the PVV) supports membership. Any further move in the direction of more EU integration would be, however, unlikely.
The road ahead
The outcomes of the Brexit Referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the US has taught us to look at the polls with caution. Undecided voters may here again be game-changers, as there seem to be many of them (some figures announce 70% of the voters are undecided; see Kroet, 2017). Whatever the outcome of the elections, one thing will remain: Wilders has managed to influence other political parties in the definition of their agenda, placing other issues behind that of immigration and identity. So, sanctioned by the parliamentary poll or not, Wilders may well have already won.
- BBC (2017) ‘Dutch Populist Geert Wilders Talks of Moroccan “Scum”’, BBC Europe, available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39016179 (18 February 2017).
- Bruquetas-Callejo, M., Garcés-Mascareñas, B., Penninx, R. and Scholten, P. (2011) ‘The Case of the Netherlands’. In Zincone, G. /, Penninx, R., and Borkert, M. (eds) Migration policymaking in Europe: The dynamics of actors and contexts in past and present (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press).
- Entzinger, H. (2003) ‘The Rise and Fall of Multiculturalism: The Case of the Netherlands’. In Joppke, C. and Morawska, E. (eds) Toward assimilation and citizenship: Immigrants in liberal nation-states (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan).
- Kroet, C. (2017) ‘Majority of Dutch Voters Still Undecided: Polls’, Politico, available at: http://www.politico.eu/article/majority-of-dutch-voters-still-undecided-polls-netherlands-election/ (26 January 2017).
- Lijphart, A. (2012) Patterns of Democracy: Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, 2nd edn, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press).
- Lower House (1994) ‘Outline Policy Document on the Integration of Ethnic Minorities’.
- Mardell, M. (2017) ‘The Netherlands’ Populist Moment?’, BBC Europe, available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38956740 ( 13 February 2017).
- SORA (2001) ‘Attitudes towards Minority Groups in the European Union’ (Vienna: European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia).
- The Economist (2017) ‘The Netherlands’ Election Is This Year’s First Test for Europe’s Populists’, The Economist, available at: http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21716643-geert-wilders-dragging-all-dutch-politics-nationalist-direction-netherlands (11 February 2017).