Supporters of the European Union breathed a sigh of relief when the Netherlands right-wing leader Geert Wilders failed to win the Dutch elections of March 15. He was tipped to win the most seats, which would have given him a good chance of forming the next government. Wilders, whom the media called the Dutch Trump, is not just right-wing but an ultra-nationalist who detests the EU and the euro regime, is against immigration and Muslims in particular, and in every possible way an opponent of the Union’s self-image as liberal, cosmopolitan, inclusive and multi-cultural. Each of these descriptions is anathema to Wilders and his supporters who feel the EU is forcing the Dutch and other societies to dilute national identities to vanishing point while making concessions to immigrant communities, especially Muslims, that give them no incentive to assimilate.

Indeed there is a widespread feeling that the Union’s approach has encouraged Islamic radicalism in every country where Muslims have a significant presence. If we add to this the perception that immigrants steal jobs and disrupt the old sense of community, we have a potent, flammable mixture just waiting for the right demagogue to exploit the sense of grievance. Britain got it in the unlikely persona of Nigel Farage of UKIP, who was joined by hard right conservatives in a campaign that stoked nativist discontent to the point where a majority of Britons voted to leave the Union in June last year. Then came the election of Donald Trump, the unlikeliest of hard right candidates in the world’s oldest democracy.

Brexit and the US election were thus a huge shot of oxygen for the likes of Wilders, Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Front and neo-fascist right wing groups in Germany. The latter two are due for elections in the next few months, so the Netherlands was considered a sort of advance run by moderate and liberal elements who were watching with bated breath. Wilder’s inability to make the final cut is being seen as a victory for sanity in a Europe turning increasingly inward but appearances can be deceptive. Wilders may not be the next Dutch prime minister but his agenda has advanced beyond expectations.

For one thing, his Party for Freedom (PVV) gained five seats over its previous 15 and is now the second largest in Parliament. It’s also increased its popular support from 10.1 per cent of the vote to 13.1. By contrast the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of Mark Rutte, now the largest at 33, lost eight seats and its vote share slipped by five per cent. For left-wing Labour (PvdA) 2017 was a catastrophe. It lost 29 of the 38 seats it held and its vote share slipped from 24.8 per cent to 5.7. More importantly, Rutte’s now notorious outreach to far-right voters through an open letter that said “People who refuse to adapt and criticise our values should behave normally or go away” shows he may be closer to Wilders than he cares to admit. It could have been a tactical move but if the right continues to rise in popular sentiment, Rutte or his party may align with VVD at some point.

The real story here is that the right in Europe, whether Christian, fascist or Catholic, is by definition anti-Muslim, opposed to non-white immigration and strongly nationalist in spirit. In other words, it stands for all those things the European Union was set up to oppose and its popular appeal is surging. If France or Germany bows to this nationalist tide it would mean the end of the EU and the world as we have known it since World War II. It is impossible to estimate the chances of this happening but it is worth noting that French opinion polls widely predict a Marine Le Pen victory in the first round of the presidential election. Data from a March 20-23 survey showed her polling at 25 per cent. Her main rival is the moderate right-wing maverick Emmanuel Macron, shown at 26 per cent. The left and liberals are nowhere in the picture.

People and cultures are different across the world but the hard right—whether in the US, France or India—has one thing in common with the hard left; it holds in contempt any opposition to its ideals. It brooks no rival either, as is clear from Poland, Philippines or the state government in Uttar Pradesh. Democracy, on the other hand, is critically dependent on shared political space, compromise and recognition of the other, a complex balance that is threatened by the monotone refrain of cultural nationalism.

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