Not always that keen on ‘Nexit’: the evolving Euroscepticism of the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders

Stijn van Kessel

As in many European party systems, Eurosceptic sentiments in the Netherlands are most loudly expressed by a party of the populist radical right. Members of this party family typically lament the loss of national sovereignty due to European integration and see the EU as an elite-driven project which does not benefit ‘ordinary people’, and even hurts their interests. The Dutch Freedom Party (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV) of Geert Wilders is no exception in this regard, although the intensity of its Euroscepticism and the prominence of the issue in its communication have fluctuated over the years. Notably, while opposition to the EU was at the heart of the PVV’s 2012 parliamentary election campaign, Mr. Wilders is seemingly giving somewhat less priority to the issue in the current campaign for the upcoming election of 15 March.

Two weeks ahead of the poll, the PVV is one of the front-runners. Recent opinion polls suggest that the PVV is competing with the Liberal Party (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD) of prime minster Mark Rutte to become the largest party in parliament. The PVV has, nevertheless, seen its predicted number of seats dwindle somewhat in the most recent weeks. It also seems unlikely – at least at this stage – that the PVV will enter a governing coalition: all mainstream parties, and most other serious contenders, have ruled out cooperating with Wilders’ party in government. Although the PVV has never been in government before, the party provided parliamentary support for a centre-right minority coalition including the VVD and the Christian Democrats (Christen Democratisch Appel, CDA) between 2010 and 2012.

The PVV has been a Eurosceptic party from the outset. The party was founded after Mr Wilders left the VVD parliamentary group in September 2004, following a conflict with the party leadership over the issue of Turkish EU membership, which he opposed. In a document titled ‘declaration of independence’ (Onafhankelijkheidsverklaring) from March 2005, Mr Wilders continued to voice opposition to Turkish EU accession and also spoke about the loss of sovereignty as a result of European integration, not least regarding the area of immigration, and the EU’s high costs to the taxpayer. He also criticised the EU’s undemocratic character, stressing its remoteness from citizens.

In the years after the official foundation of the PVV, and entrance into parliament in November 2006, the party’s line on ‘Europe’ remained fairly consistent. While the PVV acknowledged the value of economic cooperation in the form of trade, it remained sceptical of other forms of integration. From the election campaign of 2010 onwards, the party also made a more explicit link between European integration and multiculturalism. By this time, Mr Wilders’ position on Islam had become more radical, and warnings about the threat of ‘Islamisation’ more central to the PVV’s discourse. Not only the ‘left-wing elites’ at the national level were blamed for allowing this process happen; in the 2010 PVV manifesto the EU was dubbed a ‘multicultural super state’, and the party complained that ‘thanks to that club in Brussels, Europe is swiftly turning into Eurabia’.

The issue of European integration truly took centre stage in the programme of 2012, which was titled ‘Their Brussels, our Netherlands’. At this time Mr. Wilders explicitly criticised the EU’s handling of the financial and economic crises. Indeed, Mr Wilders’ central argument for withdrawing his support from the governing coalition – and thus triggering the 2012 election – was that the austerity measures deriving from Brussels’ budget rules threatened the financial position of the Dutch elderly. The 2012 manifesto was filled with a multitude of disparaging comments about partying ‘EU-nationalists’ enjoying ‘ever-lasting lunches’, ‘blind inhabitants of the ivory towers in Brussels’, and Dutch politicians obediently following the orders of their European ‘masters’ According to the manifesto, Romanians were laughing at the silly Dutch for continuing to donate money, while Greeks drank another ouzo at the expense of the Dutch citizens.

Thus, the unfolding of the ‘Great Recession’ and Eurozone crisis seemingly encouraged Mr Wilders to increase the salience of the EU issue, and to make opposition to ‘Europe’ a central theme of his party’s campaign. What is more, the party also shifted to a ‘hard Eurosceptic’ position: for the first time the PVV proposed to end Dutch membership of the EU and the Eurozone.

The PVV maintained this position in more recent years. As a case in point, Mr Wilders congratulated Britons with ‘Independence Day’ after the Brexit vote of June 2016. The party wrote in a newsletter that Great Britain showed Europe the way towards the future, and that the Dutch deserved their own referendum as soon as possible. The desire to leave the EU in order to make the Netherlands independent again was also reflected in the party manifesto for the 2017 election, which notably covered only a single page.

In comparison with the 2012 campaign, however, Mr. Wilders’ focus is less strongly on ‘Europe’. For the PVV leaving the EU still constitutes a crucial step towards making ‘the Netherlands ours again’ – the party’s key slogan for the campaign – and Mr Wilders’ criticism of EU institutions and representatives has not waned. Yet the issue takes a less central position in the party’s communications, in which themes concerning immigration, cultural identity and ‘Islamisation’ – issues whose salience has been fuelled by the more recent refugee crisis – traditionally play a large role.

It may nevertheless be clear that no other significant Dutch party rivals the PVV’s Euroscepticism. Two new parties on the conservative right, For Netherlands (Voor Nederland, VNL) – a party founded by two ex-PVV MPs – and Forum for Democracy (Forum voor Democratie, FvD), are in favour of a ‘Nexit’ referendum, and otherwise seek to reverse many aspects of European integration (VNL) or promote to leave the EU altogether (FvD). Their electoral support, however, is likely to remain limited. On the socio-economic and ecological left, Eurosceptic messages are voiced by the Socialist Party (Socialistische Partij, SP) and Party for the Animals (Partij voor de Dieren, PvdD), but they propose reforming the EU and continuing Dutch membership. The traditional mainstream parties – CDA, VVD and Labour (Partij van de Arbeid, PvdA) – have, in recent years, been keen to identify publicly the weaknesses of the EU, but remain firmly in favour of EU membership and the idea of European co-operation more generally. The greens (Groenlinks) and social liberals of Democrats 66 (Democraten 66, D66) are the two most unapologetically pro-European parties.

This leaves the PVV as the most prominent opponent of the EU. Whether many citizens are attracted by the PVV’s Euroscepticism per se is a moot point. More generally, even though public Euroscepticism is also evident in the Netherlands, certainly among PVV supporters, Dutch citizens favouring a ‘Nexit’ clearly remain in the minority. If extending electoral support for the PVV is his aim, Mr Wilders is probably wise to campaign on the basis of a multifaceted nativist programme, and not one primarily centred on opposition to Europe.

Stijn van Kessel (S.Van-Kessel@lboro.ac.uk) is Lecturer in Politics at Loughborough University, UK. His main research interests are populism and the discourse, voters and electoral performance of populist (radical right) parties in Europe. He published his monograph Populist Parties in Europe: Agents of Discontent? with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. In addition, he has published in edited books and journals including Government and Opposition, the Journal of European Integration, and the Journal of Political Ideologies.

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Serbian presidential election 2017: Can Vučić pull a Putin-Medvedev?

Tena Prelec

The presidential election due to take place in Serbia this spring promises to be a significant affair. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić had already stated that if his preferred candidate does not win, he will step down from his post. In recent times, the choice of politicising and personalising a ballot has backfired for three European prime ministers – David Cameron, Matteo Renzi and Boyko Borisov – so it will be interesting to see whether Vučić can pull this one off.

So high are the stakes that Vučić has eventually decided to stand himself, as announced by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) on 14 February. This means that the ruling party will not back the current President Tomislav Nikolić in his bid for re-election. The choice has allegedly come on the back of public opinion research which has even involved showing three different electoral spots, with different candidates, and seeing how respondents reacted.

Why is the prime minister so preoccupied with keeping control over the institutions, given the relatively wide majority he enjoys? In part, this is to be attributed to his style of governing: he adopts an undeniably top-down, controlling approach. And yet, dismissing these concerns as the caprices of an egomaniac would obscure significant internecine developments that have occurred within Vučić’s block.

Rumours hinting at internal fractions within the ruling coalition seem to have found confirmation in the fact that it took almost four months for Vučić to form a government after last year’s election. The prime minister himself had stated that he ‘can’t form a government with backstabbers’ (presumably hinting at the Socialist Party of Serbia – SPS), that ‘the long wait is not just a whim, there are serious problems’, and that ‘the government might be formed by someone else in case he fails’, thus feeding rumours that external pressures – perhaps from Russia or from the West – were determining the spheres of influence. Either way, there is little doubt that at least two internal factions that are fighting over posts and resources are giving the prime minister a hard time in keeping the desired control.

On the other hand, keeping a constant atmosphere of tension plays favourably in convincing voters that Serbia needs a strong hand. Speaking of the upcoming presidential election, the PM has depicted the country’s situation in stark terms, as a choice of the path Serbia will take in the future. Politically, the intention here is certainly to present himself (once again) as the only candidate who can keep Serbia firmly on the road towards European integration. In the past, he has been able to obtain the trust of Western leaders and of the EU institutions, and there is no real sign of this support faltering for now.

Indeed, Vučić has been skilled in ensuring that his mix of credentials (a nationalist turned European reformist) make him ideally placed to carve a large middle ground encompassing citizens with a positive vision of the EU and those who place themselves on the right of the political spectrum, who prefer a ‘strong leader’ and are partial to nationalistic rhetoric.

As for the challengers, among the first to announce their candidature was Vuk Jeremić, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs who is said to have had his eyes set on the presidential ballot for a while, recently running a solid race for the post of UN Secretary General with the likely knowledge that his chances of getting through were rather low, but laying the ground for a new contest. A Cambridge and Harvard graduate and an anti-Milošević dissident in his early days in politics, Jeremić describes himself as ‘fervently pro-European’, but is also a figure capable of garnering some enthusiasm from nationalist-minded Serbs due to his strenuous commitment to keep Kosovo part of Serbia while he was at the Foreign Ministry.

More recently, Serbia’s Ombudsman Saša Janković announced his already expected candidature after handing in the official resignation from his post. Janković stated that he is standing for President to ‘return meaning to that institution, ensuring that it serves all citizens, and not only one man’. He is expected to elicit support from the liberally-minded opposition in urban centres and has received the backing of the Democratic Party (DS). It is however yet unclear whether another opposition candidate, Miroslava Milenović of ‘Enough is Enough’, will stand as well. Jeremić, Janković and (potentially) Milenović would be competing for the vote of broadly similar portions of the electorate.

And then there is Vojislav Šešelj, the head of the ultra-nationalist Radical Party who has only recently been acquitted by the ITCY, where he was tried on nine counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. Šešelj, who very publicly rooted for Donald Trump in the run-up to the US elections, is expected to attract a sizeable share of the vote in the first round in case he will throw his hat in the ring. Boško Obradović, leader of the far-right party Dveri, has also announced he will stand. Finally, in a surprise move shortly after the SNS’s decision to put forward Vučić as their candidate, the incumbent President Tomislav Nikolić announced he will run as well, only to withdraw the candidature a few days later after behind-the-scenes talks.

The presidential election – a two-round affair – foreseen for the spring is, therefore, bound to be another testing ground for the ruling coalition and for the opposition alike. Currently, polls give Vučić near-certainty of victory, perhaps even in the first round. A question remains, however, as to whether Vučić’s appeal will be enough in a hypothetical second round, as opposition voters would in that case certainly unite around either Jeremić or Janković, should one of them reach second place.

Serbia’s voters, and especially those from the country’s capital, are not unanimous in their affection for the prime minister. His party had already lost some ground at the parliamentary elections last April, after which scandals involving alleged vote-rigging and the illegal demolition of houses in the centre of Belgrade triggered widespread demonstrations and fed civil society’s discontent towards the government. It is also worth noting that the mayor of Belgrade, Siniša Mali, a member of the ruling party and close Vučić ally, is once again at the centre of corruption allegations – this time being directly accused by his ex-wife. However, while the ruling party’s appeal might have started to falter in urban centres, Vučić’s party remains strong in the countryside. Big shifts in power look unlikely for now.

If Vučić manages to change roles in power, in a reverse version of what Putin did in Russia in 2012, we don’t know as yet who might be the present-day Medvedev to replace him as prime minister. Another open question is whether new parliamentary elections will accompany the presidential ballot – a possibility that has already been raised by the prime minister. It would be the sixteenth time that time Serbian citizens have been asked to vote for their parliament since 1990: another year, another electoral drama.

Tena Prelec (T.Prelec@sussex.ac.uk) is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex and editor of the LSE’s EUROPP – European Politics and Policy blog.