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The Times (Section Opinion) - 17 March 17 2017


Finger in the Dike

Dutch elections have dealt a blow to right-wing populists but Europe still has to address the pressing problems of immigration and integration

Leading article


Peter Brookes - The Times, 17 March 2017

‘Rarely has an election in the Netherlands sparked such international interest. The thwarting of the ultra-nationalist Islamophobe Geert Wilders has prompted relief in the political establishments of Europe who see it as a sign that the populist wave, started by Brexit and the campaigning of Donald Trump, has hit a Dutch dike and dispersed.

This is probably wishful thinking. True, the centre-right VVD party of Mark Rutte, the prime minister, has beaten Mr Wilders’ Freedom Party into second place. It is true, too, that the talks aimed at forming a new government have excluded Mr Wilders. And yet Mr Rutte lost eight parliamentary seats, his Labour party coalition partner has slumped to a historic low and Mr Wilders has expanded his representation.

Europe’s mainstream politicians would be foolhardy to assume that normal service has resumed. The control of borders, poor social integration of newcomers, resentment about the power of Brussels and fears about the erosion of national identity preoccupied the voters of both Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders. They will certainly play an important role in the forthcoming French and German elections and define the European debate.

Mr Rutte’s use of anti-immigrant rhetoric demonstrates that the centre-right in Europe can shore up its position by stealing some of the clothes of populist rivals. That is surely a lesson for the conservative François Fillon as he squares up to Marine Le Pen in the first round of the French presidential election next month. He has already insisted on stricter enforcement of secularism, such as a ban on headscarves in schools.

Seeking a fourth term in office Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has also started to talk tough. She promises faster deportation of failed asylum seekers and a ban on full-face veils in public institutions. No one on the centre-right has gone as far as Mr Rutte, however. “If you don’t like it here, you can leave,” said the Dutch premier, referring to migrants. In other words: Fit in or go home.’