For much of the past decade, radical right-wing populism in the Netherlands has largely been associated with Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV). Following in the footsteps of the late Pim Fortuyn, Wilders established himself as one of Western Europe’s most outspoken promoters of anti-Islamic rhetoric, whose often outrageous and inflammatory rants exerted considerable influence on the populist radical right, both in Europe and beyond.
Since the beginning of 2019, however, Wilders has been upstaged by a new star on the populist stage — Thierry Baudet. With his Forum for Democracy (FvD), Baudet won the provincial election of 2019, which determines the composition of the Dutch senate. Against that, Wilders’s PVV was among the biggest losers of that election.
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Baudet belongs to a new type of Western European populist leaders (Tom van Grieken from Belgium’s Vlaams Belang is another), whose dapper and flamboyant demeanor is a far cry from the likes of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Umberto Bossi or Christoph Blocher. Baudet has a doctorate in law, taught for a while at the university and regularly wrote for one of the country’s major newspapers, the NRC Handelsblad. He is a self-promoting aficionado of the arts and classical music, prominently displaying a grand piano installed in his office, quotes poetry and is the proud author of two novels.
Brussels or Kuala Lumpur?
At the same time, however, he is also the new highly photogenic face of white nationalism in Western Europe — or so a Dutch court recently ruled. Commencing the proceedings, Baudet sued a Dutch TV presenter for having suggested that he had said that “the EU has a preconceived plan to replace the white European race with African immigrants.” In reality, Baudet had said that in his view the European Union was setting up ferry services “to transfer immigrants from Africa to Europe, to weaken national identities so that there will be no more nation-states.”
The court rejected Baudet’s claim arguing that the television presenter had done nothing but paraphrase the essence of many of Baudet’s previous statements. In fact, in his speech on the eve of his victory in 2019, Baudet charged that the political establishment in Europe had nothing but contempt for its own culture. It was this “oikophobia” (the fear of own’s own or self-hatred) of Europe’s political, cultural and intellectual elite, which posed a fundamental threat to “our boreal world,” referring to the northern regions of the world — a euphemism for white or, worse, Aryan.
Baudet reiterated his views in a long interview that proclaimed him as the “dandy of the Right” in Europe, according to the conservative Swiss news magazine Weltwoche, a paper closely aligned with the Swiss radical-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP). Baudet’s answers were as frank as they were revealing. Among other things, Baudet acknowledged that he wanted to “turn back the clock.” In his view, the whole history of modernity, starting with the French Revolution, was a giant mistake that fundamentally undermined the importance of rootedness and “embeddedness,” most prominently reflected in the aesthetic.
As Baudet put it, this is why in late 19th-century European architecture, “ornaments and facades, as well as the use of natural materials, were considered so important: they helped engender a proper sense of home for the spiritually homeless.” This is why today, buildings in Brussels are indistinguishable from “those in Kuala Lumpur and Pyongyang.”
In Baudet’s view, these are aberrations caused by the nefarious influence of cultural Marxism on the contemporary society’s elite, who are “bewitched” by the notion that “what stands in the way of utopia” is the “bourgeois way of life of ordinary people.” This is what informs the elite’s major projects of the day — the promotion of mass immigration, “climate mysticism” and, above all, the dissolution of national identities via the European Union — all of which are vigorously denounced by Baudet’s radical-right party.
All this combines with a certain air of fascist-type sense of superiority present in Baudet’s ruminations, particularly when he claims to be “the leading intellectual in the Netherlands,” agrees with the interviewer’s suggestion that he is “a crown jewel of the elite” or when he affirms that “society needs an elite that leads the way.”
Unfortunately, in the face of the thousands of people dying from COVID-19 around the world, philosophical ruminations are of little use — unless one subscribes to a Nietzschean ethic of the survival of the fittest. This might have been Donald Trump’s instinctive reaction, at least during the first weeks of the pandemic. In Western Europe, it is one that goes nowhere. As in other national contexts like France and Italy, the COVID-19 crisis has posed a fundamental challenge to Europe’s populist radical right, and the Netherlands is no exception.
For example, unlike in the Flemish part of Belgium, where the Vlaams Belang party has soared in the polls, in the Netherlands, both radical right-wing populist parties have found it difficult to gain political traction. Indeed, recent polls had both parties losing considerable support, particularly Boudet’s Forum for Freedom. Had there been an election in late March, for instance, the latter would have lost five seats; Wilders’s Party for Freedom, three. Together, the two parties would have garnered around 17% of the vote. This was a significant loss of around 5% compared to the period before the pandemic: In late February, the two parties together stood at around 22%.
This might appear somewhat surprising. Both parties are well known for their hostility toward the EU, and in this crisis, the European Union has certainly done little to improve its image. In fact, the profound animosity that erupted during the debate over how best to deal with the economic fallout of the crisis — particularly over the question of the so-called corona bonds — further raised doubts about the EU’s future, particularly in countries such as Italy and Spain, both traditionally EU friendly. In theory, the EU’s poor response to the crisis should have boosted the fortunes of the Dutch radical populist right since it appeared to confirm their vehement anti-EU position. In reality, they profited little to nothing from it.
Geert Wilders did try to monopolize on the crisis, raising the question of the transfer of funds from the EU budget to Morocco. In late March, Wilders noted that Morocco (“not a EU member, with a bit more than 500 COVID-19 cases”) had received €450 million ($496 million); the Netherlands, with more than 17,000 coronavirus infections, got a mere €25 million to deal with the crisis. The fact was, however, as pointed out by Belgian members of the European Parliament, that the two funds had little to nothing to do with each other. Nevertheless, for Wilders there could be only one consequence — “Nexit.”
The Dutch populist radical right might not have profited from the crisis in terms of its potential electoral fortunes. This does not mean, however, that they have become irrelevant. Quite on the contrary. For instance, during the recent bitter row over the question of how to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic, the Dutch were particularly hard-nosed and intransigent, if not outright insulting, toward the EU’s southern members.
In the end, the Netherlands was the only member state to hold out and insist on stringent conditions attached to any kind of funding mechanism benefiting the hardest-hit members of the community. As Germany’s leading newsmagazine, Der Spiegel, pointed out, this was to a significant degree informed by the Dutch government’s fears that if it failed to vigorously defend Dutch interests, it would boost support for the country’s radical populist right.
In German, there is an expression, vor sich hertreiben. It conjures up the image of a herd of cattle being pushed along by a couple of cowboys. The image appears quite appropriate in this context. The Dutch radical populists might not have benefited from the COVID-19 crisis. It has, however, managed to push the Dutch government and its representatives in a direction which they might otherwise not have chosen. The result has been quite disastrous for the Dutch image in Europe. But then again, protecting Europe’s image is scarcely at the top of the agenda for the Dutch populist radical right.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.