In The Netherlands, It’s Not Just The Economy, Stupid

The Dutch economy is strong, but so is resentment toward immigrants

Far-right candidate Geert Wilders and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — REUTERS
Mar 15, 2017 at 7:29 AM ET

Ultra-nationalist politician Geert Wilders, a front-runner in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, has embraced the nickname the “Dutch Donald Trump.”  His campaign platform includes plans to shutter mosques, ban the Quran, exit the European Union and “make the Netherlands ours again.”

While Wilders has been in the game for years, he is now joining a far-right wave throughout Europe, from Brexiters in the UK to Le Pen fans in France and followers of Frauke Petry’s “Alternative for Germany” in Germany. But his rise to prominence in a historically liberal and economically stable Netherlands reveals a critical aspect of social democracies: they are based on a common goal for prosperity as well as, if not moreso, cultural identity.

While the Dutch economy is performing well, “in the face of globalization, there is a new delusion in Dutch culture, a loss of identity, where we feel more and more vague within the EU, and we’re asking ourselves, ‘who are we?'” said Max Andela, a professor of political history at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands.

Wilders was convicted of discrimination last year after leading a chant against Moroccans. Speaking in English with reporters, he called the country’s Moroccan population dangerous “scum,” adding that he was not referring to all Moroccans, but to “a lot of Moroccan scum.” While the Dutch by and large have condemned the firebrand politician’s anti-Muslim campaign, even some liberals see a grain of truth in Wilders’ emphasis on the political and cultural, if not economic, challenge posed by the country’s large Muslim immigrant populations.

“The average Dutch intellectual wouldn’t vote for Wilders, or at least wouldn’t tell his friends that he would,” said Andela. “There’s a general sentiment [regarding Muslim immigrants] that you come here and you pay your taxes and go by the rules of the country, there should be no problem. But there is this large group of Moroccans and others who make up about 60 percent of the prison population, they’re throwing their future away and all the services that the Dutch society is offering.”

“They act rather ungrateful,” he said of immigrants within Netherland’s Muslim population, which makes up six percent of the total 17 million people. Most Dutch believe the group actually numbers 19 percent.

That view may be due to an influx of migrants in recent years, a net increase of 56,000 immigrants in 2015 and 88,000 in 2016, with the largest number last year, about 29,000, coming from Syria, according to the country’s central bureau of statistics.

The rise of Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PPV) party in one of Europe’s most liberal countries is alarming because the Netherlands has served as the continent’s bellwether, seen as setting the political tone for the rest of Europe. In the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, all eyes are on the Dutch elections as the first of three pivotal European elections this year. It comes ahead of France and Germany, countries that are also welfare states, but have to a larger extent been shaken by both Islamic terror and Islamophobia.

The Netherlands is dealing with two separate Muslim migrant crises. The first began in the 1960s, when mostly uneducated migrant workers workers from Morocco and Turkey were brought in to fill menial jobs in factories and sanitation. They were treated as guest workers — meaning they weren’t encouraged to integrate — but continued to live in the country after those jobs disappeared. They took advantage of Dutch family reunification policies to bring in their families, leading to second and third generations of migrants who later complained of discrimination in working-class neighborhoods where they remain largely culturally and socioeconomically secluded.

The second and more recent is the wave of Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees who have fled war-torn countries and who inspire resentment from lower-class Dutch who say that wave is burdening the welfare system. Those who are granted asylum are provided shelter at government-funded reception centers as well as a weekly allowance of up about 60 euros for expenses. They are allowed to work, though part of their salary must go to the reception center.

But many Dutch fear they are in the country to stay and will fail to integrate like former groups of migrants, said Gijs Schumacher, an assistant professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam.

“Industrialization in the 70s and 80s disproportionally hit all of these migrants, and many of them did end up on some sort of welfare, or some early retirement scheme,” he said. “Because the far-right is defining the new asylum seekers as the same as the earlier groups, people seeking fortune, Dutch are concerned that this could all happen again.”

The fissures within Dutch society are deepening, surprisingly, against the background of a robust Dutch economy. In contrast to the economic crises that have plagued Europe in recent years, the Dutch system continues to maintain a relatively good quality of living. Prime Minister Mark Rutte highlighted the country’s strong economy in his reelection campaign, noting that the country’s growth reached 2.1 percent in 2016, according to preliminary data from Eurostat. That’s a quicker pace than the EU average and higher than the 1.6 percent expansion recorded by the United States.

“When the economy is doing well, people start to ponder about more cultural issues,” argued Schumacher.

He said that while pensioners and workers in the industrial field have been hurt by the globalized economy, a more common source of resentment among Dutch voters is anxiety over the future of multiculturalism in both the Netherlands and in Europe.

It has been challenged by the September 11 attacks, and the rise of Islamic terrorism in Europe. Before that, “there was a consensus that multicultural society was a good thing, that we should put efforts into integration,” but after which there’s been a lot of confusion, said Schumacher.

Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom has made the economy part of his platform, advocating for abolishing the minimum wage and increasing benefits to native-born Dutch by de-funding aid to immigrants. He’s shown that even when white voters know they have socioeconomic success, it’s not enough to rid their anxieties regarding the decline of the middle class, shrinking work opportunities in the industrial field, and the shifting makeup of the family in the era of globalization.

And while the plan to restructure the Dutch welfare system still remains a minority ambition, experts say, that it is even being referenced by Wilders hints at just how deeply the country’s identity crisis runs.

“That is definitely a quite radical pipe dream of Wilders, especially considering that most of the migrants have a Dutch passport, and are Dutch citizens all the way,” said Max Andela, a professor of political history at Nijmegen University in the Netherlands.

Those radical ideas have dragged the Dutch political system to the right, allowing fears and far-right rhetoric to enter into the mainstream. Even Prime Minister Rutte, the center-right incumbent, wrote in a full-page ad in January that immigrants needed to “act normal or go away.”

It is also gradually allowing the country to use the rhetoric of European extreme right parties that “ask for the total dismantling of the welfare system, an aggressive nationalism, a form of social Darwinism, the restoring of moral traditionalism, an authoritarian state and xenophobia policies towards foreigners,” wrote Piero Ignazi, an Italian expert in extremism in Western Europe in the 2016 book, The Populist Radical Right: A Reader.

The allure of Europe’s social democracy has long been idealized in the United States, most recently by Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Throughout his campaign, he praised the mixed-market economy for its balance of both private and government involvement, made possible by high taxes and government regulations. In the Netherlands, Dutch have the right to “vacation money,” Christmas bonuses, rent benefits, and unemployment insurance.

The reward, Sanders and other proponents argue, is universal health care, free or heavily subsidized education and other benefits. Less than two weeks after Donald Trump won the elections, Sanders said America should double down on following a model that would allow all and every citizen “to stand up with the working class of this country and … take on big-money interests.”

It stands in polar contrast to the politics of the rising far-right in Europe and the United States, where President Donald Trump last year posted on Facebook that “illegal immigrant households receive far more in federal welfare benefits – than ‘native’ American households.”

In the Netherlands, experts say the anti-Muslim movement has been gaining ground since 9/11. Pim Fortuyn, an openly gay politician who described Islam as “backwards,” long argued that Islamic and Dutch culture were incompatible. He was assassinated by Volkert Van Der Graaf, an environmental and animal rights activist, who said he murdered Fortuyn to stop him from exploiting Muslims as “scapegoats.” In 2004, Theo Van Gogh, a film director and the great-grandson of Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, was killed by a Muslim with terrorism ties. The murder followed the release of Van Gogh’s film “Submission,” in which the words of the Quran were projected upon a naked female body, along with testimonies from battered Muslim women. Since then, Dutch discourse has shifted towards seeing Muslim migrants not only as outsiders, but also as a danger.

Wilders may have a strong showing and may even clinch a large portion of the vote. Both Wilders and Rutte rose in a snap poll published Monday night, following a diplomatic row after Rutte refused to allow Turkish ministers to enter the Netherlands to campaign for the Turkish expat vote. But few believe that Wilders will be able to cobble together a coalition with the mainstream parties who have already ruled out the possibility. Observers will likely know the election results only late Wednesday, given that the Dutch are notorious for deciding at the last minute.

But many say there is also a possibility that in the wake of Trump’s win and the rise of other far-right parties in Europe, Dutch progressive parties will come out even stronger in favor of liberal democracy which sees Muslim immigrant communities as an asset, rather than an enemy.

It’s an idea that the European Left is committed to defending.

In a Wednesday tweet, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk praised Ahmed Aboutaleb, the Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam, a heavily-migrant city where tensions have been high since the Dutch-Turkish diplomatic row.

“We are Europeans & proud,” he wrote.