Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 1 December 2023

 

The Death of the Old Europe—and the Rise of the Right

Geert Wilders reacts to the early results of his stunning election victory, which have reverberated throughout Europe. (Photo by Remko De Waal/AFP via Getty Images)

Geert Wilders’ landslide victory in the Netherlands has shocked Europe. It didn’t shock Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Evelyn Markus.

Europe is in shock. Geert Wilders—variously called “far-right,” an “anti-Islamist populist,” and the Dutch Donald Trump—won last Wednesday’s election in the Netherlands. His party is now the biggest in the Dutch parliament. For years, Wilders has been an outcast, considered too toxic by mainstream politics and too extreme by the overwhelmingly liberal media. And yet he has won—and not by a small margin. 

Europe is in shock. We are not. 

That is because we both left the Netherlands because of the phenomena that have now brought Wilders to power. 

What we have witnessed will tell you not just about how Wilders could win a landslide victory in one of the most liberal countries in Europe, but about what could soon be coming to countries like France, Germany, and other liberal democracies who fail to grapple with the dual challenge of mass migration and assimilation and ignore the very real concerns of their citizens.

One of us—Evelyn—was born in the Netherlands to two parents who survived the Holocaust (her mother was in Bergen-Belsen; her father was hidden by a righteous Christian family). The other—Ayaan—was born in Somalia and made the Netherlands her home in 1992, after fleeing a forced marriage during a stopover flight on her way to Canada.

One of us—Evelyn—has been an out gay woman since the 1980s. The other—Ayaan—enjoyed the kind of liberties that would have been unthinkable for a woman in her native country: in 2003, she became a member of Parliament in the classical liberal VVD Party.

One of us has 400-year roots in the Netherlands. The other is Dutch by choice. For both of us, the Netherlands represented freedom. 

But much of what we loved about the Netherlands began to change in the early 2000s. A few brief anecdotes will summarize the transformation from the early 2000s onward:

  • During the Second Intifada in Israel, which began in 2000, Muslim immigrants from Morocco started beating up Jews in Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe, out of “solidarity” with the Palestinians. Some of our friends were beaten up. Week after week, stones were thrown at Jews on their way to synagogue. These crimes barely made the news.

  • In the years after that, we would hear “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas” chanted in the soccer stadiums by thousands of fans, and by Moroccan immigrant kids during the two minutes of silence in commemoration of those who were killed in World War II.

  • “Jew” and “cancer Jew” became popular slurs on the streets of Amsterdam. 

  • Gay men began to get regularly beaten up. Because of this, gay male couples no longer walked hand in hand in Amsterdam, which had long been considered the gay capital of the world. 

  • On Dutch public television, an imam said “homosexuality is contagious and a danger to society.” In several mosques and bookstores, Islamic books were marketed and sold that called for “throwing gays from the roof with their head down.” In both cases, the judiciary considered this protected speech under freedom of religion.

  • In 2002, the political novice Pim Fortuyn was poised to win a landslide election. Fortuyn was gay and a member of the elite—until he ran on immigration and Islam, which he called backward and misogynist. He was ejected from establishment circles, demonized, and ultimately murdered by a vegan man, who said he wanted to stop a potential Hitler from coming to power.

  • In 2003, at the home of a colleague—a single mom who lived in a primarily Muslim immigrant neighborhood—“Jewish whore” was sprayed on her door and she was beaten up. She wasn’t Jewish, but the police didn’t interfere “in order to prevent escalation.” 

  • In the summer of 2004, a pink Star of David was graffitied on Evelyn’s front door. 

  • And then came the most seismic event of all: on November 2, 2004, filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s throat was slit in the middle of Amsterdam in broad daylight. A dagger was stabbed in his chest with a note that said that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of Dutch Parliament, would be next. The Dutch military had to enter the streets with tanks to arrest the terrorist group groomed by al-Qaeda—Hofstad Groep—that was behind the assault. 

One of us—Evelyn—left that year for America. Two years later, the other—Ayaan—left the country amid unrelenting threats from Islamists. 

It was in 2004, the same year that Theo van Gogh was brutally murdered, that Geert Wilders saw his opening. 

Though Wilders had been in Dutch politics for a long time, that year Wilders left the VVD—the center-right party where he served alongside Ayaan—and branched out on his own with a new party, the Party for Freedom. The key issue that led to his break was that Wilders refused to countenance the possibility of EU membership for Turkey (which the VVD was willing to accept as long as certain conditions were met). 

Almost immediately, Wilders became the most controversial man in Dutch politics. He urged the banning of the Quran and a halt to the construction of new mosques. He railed against what he described as the “Islamization of the Netherlands.” When he asked a crowd in 2014 whether they wanted “more or fewer” Moroccans, the crowd chanted “fewer,” and Wilders replied that this was something that would be arranged. Prosecutors argued this constituted an illegal collective insult, and the Dutch High Court ultimately ruled that Wilders was guilty, but without sentencing him to a penalty. 

It was easy to be scandalized by Wilders. The press and the political class certainly were. Some publicly supported Wilders’ prosecution in the “fewer Moroccans” case. 

We disagreed—and still do—with Wilders’ calls for blanket bans on additional asylum seekers, with the notion of banning the Quran (let alone any book), and with his consistent failure to draw a distinction between Islam and Islamism. 

But we understand how and why his message resonated with the public.

While elites over the past two decades have told the public to ignore their lying eyes, Wilders continued to emphasize the hot-button subjects that resonated with the public: the struggling economy, the importance of borders, the risks of devolving too much power to Brussels, the threat of Islamism, and the challenge of mass migration. 

While elites told the public that opposing migration was xenophobic, ordinary people noticed structural changes in their country and felt they—the public—had not been adequately consulted. In the 1960s, 60,000 Muslims lived in the Netherlands; today there are around 1.2 million, thanks to massive chain migration, asylum, and a high birth rate. (Fewer than 50,000 Jews remain in the country.) 

While political elites told the public to be tolerant of Islam, in keeping with a long-standing tradition of religious tolerance, ordinary people saw that Islamists were increasingly well-entrenched in the country, a point even made by Dutch intelligence officials. Although Wilders’ rhetoric can be uninhibited and extreme, he articulates a general and perfectly legitimate feeling among voters who know that Islamism is a threat to their way of life and want to oppose it. (Wilders has been the subject of sustained Islamist threats and has had to live his life within a tight security bubble because of them.)

While elites told the public that giving more power to the EU was an unqualified good, ordinary people took a more nuanced view. When we left the Netherlands in the early 2000s, the Dutch were solidly pro-EU. Today, although most Dutch voters do not wish to leave the EU, there are growing concerns that, especially when it comes to migration and borders, too much authority has been ceded to supranational institutions.

Over the years, we have heard more and more friends express private sympathy with Geert Wilders. And it should be noted that during the most recent campaign, he toned down some of his more extreme rhetoric. Previously, his party called for a “Ministry of Re-migration and De-Islamization.” That is no longer the case. Similarly, the phrase “Islam is not a religion, but a totalitarian ideology,” which was previously part of the election manifesto, was scrapped. This time around, Wilders emphasized his commitment to working within the Dutch coalition system, which he conceded would require him to make compromises in order to be able to govern.

The recent aggressive and occasionally violent pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the Dutch streets—as elsewhere—may have been the final blow that led to last week’s landslide. It’s worth noting that Wilders’ voters do not fit a crude stereotype—he won the most votes of any party among voters between the ages of 18 and 35.

It turns out Donald Trump’s “forgotten men and women” are as much a European phenomenon as they are an American one. A large and growing number of voters on both sides of the Atlantic have seen their living standards stagnate—their manufacturing jobs outsourced or automated and their neighborhoods flooded with immigrants, many of whom are hostile to them and their way of life. Worst of all, they see this decline as multigenerational. In other words, the future of their children and grandchildren seems even bleaker as they stand in line for almost every basic service and have little or no prospect of ever owning their own home. While the elite obsess over climate change and “woke” identity politics, ordinary people face crime and an untenable cost of living.

Wilders’ victory also shows that voters are dissatisfied with the “cake-ist” liberal policies of open borders combined with a welfare state. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Likewise, you cannot have a generous welfare state and open borders. Such a combination is impossible in practice, and the Dutch elite are now paying for their commitment to that chimera. 

Wilders’ rise also symbolizes the uselessness of the old left-right political framework. It is now more appropriate to speak of globalists and anti-globalists because traditional right- and left-wingers can now be found on both sides of that divide. This is the new political spectrum of our time. 

We have yet to see whether or not Wilders will be able to form a coalition with one or more of the establishment parties that hate him and thus become prime minister. The Netherlands is politically fragmented, with 15 parties now entering a 150-seat parliament. But even if he fails, his victory should be a wake-up call to the liberal establishment in the Netherlands and across Europe, where the old liberal consensus is dead.

It would be wise, in this moment, for the Netherlands to learn from America. If the American establishment (including some members of the Republican Party) had respected the result of the 2016 presidential election rather than concocting a story about Russian collusion and undermining Trump at every turn, perhaps America would not now be in such a combustible state. 

If the Dutch elite want to regain their legitimacy, they must accept rather than seek to subvert the extraordinary victory of Geert Wilders. They must take seriously the millions who voted for Wilders—and respond to their perfectly legitimate concerns about immigration, Islamism, and the reasonable fear that their national identity is being eroded. 

If they and their ilk fail to do so, we can look forward to a future, bigger vote for Geert Wilders. And we should prepare for Wilders’ counterparts around the world to seize their opportunity, too. After a certain point—when its vote share has overtaken that of the established parties—the term far right surely loses its potency. 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s most recent book is Prey: Immigration, Islam, and the Erosion of Women’s Rights. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) @Ayaan. Evelyn Markus is the director of the documentary Never Again Is Now and the co-host of a weekly podcast of the same name.

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