By Barry Rubin
The political situation in Europe today is quite different from the stereotype of a continent hostile to the United States (even if Obama is personally popular) and Israel; appeasement-oriented toward Iran and revolutionary Islamism; and eagerly multicultural and Politically Correct. True, it is more oriented in that direction than North America, but there is a real struggle afoot.
In many countries—notably the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, Norway, and to a slightly lesser extent the United Kingdom and France—the partisan gap between the left and center-right marks a boundary of much greater significance than a decade or two ago. Although each situation is different, the parties of the left tend to be more anti-American and anti-Israel and less alert to the threat of revolutionary Islamism as well as favoring continued large-scale immigration and big-state, big-spending policies.
Take the Netherlands as a case study. After elections last month, the parties of the center-right hold 83 seats while those of the left have 67. Since there are ten parties in parliament, talks to form a coalition government will last for weeks, especially since the two largest have only twenty percent each. In the elections, only three seats changed hands between blocs.
But the big news was the shift within the center-right, the rise of the People’s Party for Freedom (PVV) led by the controversial Geert Wilders, which almost tripled its vote, going from 9 to 24 seats. To his enemies, almost no epithet is too extreme to throw against him. The flamboyant Wilders has been outspoken in opposing immigration and especially that of Muslims, making a sharp critique of political Islamism and sometimes Islam itself.
The power of the Dutch state was turned on Wilders, who is currently on trial for making statements which in America would fall well within Constitutional protection. State television ran documentaries during the election designed to show he was a virtual Nazi.
What is Wilders’ program? First, a sharp limitation on asylum seekers admitted into the country and none from Muslim-majority states. No dual nationality; new mosques; separate Islamic schools; wearing of burqas; or government subsidies for Islamic media. Mosques where violence is propagated will be closed and there would be heavy punishment for female circumcision. For their first ten years in Holland, immigrants receive no social benefits or citizenship. At the end of that period, those with no criminal record will receive full citizenship.
The rise in support for Wilders’ party is in large part a response to serious concern over the domestic situation in the country. Aside from the assassination of a filmmaker by a radical Islamist, there has been a steep increase in crime and social welfare spending. Amsterdam, not long ago the most gay-friendly city in the world, is a place where homosexuals might be attacked in the streets by Muslim immigrant youth, while a recent television program that followed three Jews wearing identifiable garb as such in a stroll around the city showed them being harassed and insulted. Twenty percent of Dutch teachers report that attempts to teach about the Holocaust, in the country of Anne Frank, were rejected or disrupted by immigrant children.
While Muslims still comprise only a bit more than 5 percent of the population, whole areas of Dutch cities have a majority of people who are recent immigrants and whose commitment to assimilation into the country’s norms is questionable. For example, polls show that much of the country’s Muslim population sympathizes with the September 11 attacks. Certainly, they disagree with the Netherlands’ rather libertarian views on women’s rights and homosexuality.
One of the main arguments against mass immigration is that it is incredibly costly to Dutch taxpayers. A report was written by the country’s most respected independent think tank said the bill came to 7.2 billion Euros a year for a country of only about 16 million people. This is not much higher than the government’s own estimate of 6 billion Euros a year.
And here’s where it gets interesting. For while the focus was on Wilders’ VVD, the second biggest winner was the mainstream conservative (in European terminology, liberal) People’s party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), which went from 22 to 31 seats. The VVD favors lower taxes, smaller government, less government regulation. While Wilders often focuses his criticism on Islam itself, the VVD is quite critical of radical Islamism.
And though the VVD’s positions are less extreme than Wilders, it also favors serious reductions in immigration, the closing of mosques where radical doctrines are preached, and the denial of social welfare payments for immigrants during their first decade in the country. These two parties received one-third of the vote and three Christian parties, from whose voters Wilders and the VVD obtained their increased support have somewhat similar stances.
For instance, here’s what the platform of the Christian Union, the most liberal—in the American sense of that word—of these parties:
”Every Dutchman has the right to assembly, to religion and to express his opinion. But financial support of Dutch political, cultural and religious institutes from demonstrably non-free countries (such as Saudi-Arabia and Iran) is not permitted. It’s allowed to protect a free society from the importation of bondage.” It also supports banning the burqa from public buildings, public transport, and schools.
A similar pattern emerges regarding stances toward Israel. Wilders is an outspoken supporter but the other parties are also sympathetic, though there is an anti-Israel minority in the VVD. The foreign minister, for example, a Christian Democrat, said that Israel was entitled to stop Gaza flotilla ships in international waters, refused to condemn Israel’s actions, and supports tough sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. While the four non-Wilders center-right parties are more nuanced in their attitude than decades ago, they are certainly not kneejerk anti-Israel in their positions.
Thus, about 55 percent of Dutch voters backed parties that want a real change in key policies.
Why is nothing dramatic likely to happen? Because 45 percent endorsed parties on the left and given the Dutch passion for consensus, the existence of so many parties, and the reluctance of several parties to bring Wilders’ party into government some kind of broad coalition will likely emerge.
On the left, the largest party, Labour, led by former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, got less than half of the overall vote. It can be described now as the party of the Dutch status quo, that is, continuation of existing policies. Despite being led by a nominal Jew, it is very critical of Israel and totally uncritical of Hamas. The left favors increases in taxes and government regulations.
Outsiders would view this situation of deadlock between two sides with such different visions of Dutch politics and society as a big problem. In contrast, the Dutch believe they thrive on this kind of paradox, finding some compromise to ease them through. Yet can a major crisis be long avoided given the economic and social issues faced by the Netherlands and so many other European states today?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books.