European leaders shouldn't breathe too big a sigh of relief if Wilders does not gain power

Geert Wilders is unlikely to build a coalition in the Dutch parliament: Reuters

Such is the fragmented state of the Dutch political system that a party can “win” a general election on little more than a quarter of the popular vote, and much less than that as a proportion of the total adult population.

Thus, even if Geert Wilders and his extremist Party for Freedom “wins” the general election by coming first in terms of the popular vote or in parliament seats, there is little chance of him either governing alone or in coalition. No other party will deal with him and, as if to pre-empt their post-poll rejection of collaboration with him, he has also ruled out governing with the Dutch equivalent to the Conservatives. Despite his best efforts and visible fractures in the Netherlands’ society, Mr Wilders has not managed to engineer some kind of Brexit/Trump breakthrough. He is not storming to power.

Then again, neither is anyone else. The most likely victor is Mark Rutte, the rightist prime minister who has managed to contain Mr Wilders’ populist and anti-Islam sentiments with some fairly uncompromising policies of his own. Recently Mr Rutte has enjoyed a “good war” of words with the Turkish government. The row over allowing Turkish ministers to attend pro-Erdogan rallies in Rotterdam burnished his patriotic credentials. His People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy is likely to continue to run the Netherlands in turbulent times.

Such is the new normal in Dutch politics, and on much of the continent; a sizeable neo-fascist grouping is enjoying anything from 15 per cent of the vote (as with Alternative für Deutschland) to perhaps approaching 40 per cent (Marine le Pen in France) or even winning power in Hungary. Sometimes, as in Spain and Greece, it is leftist insurgency that makes the greater gains. In Catalonia and Northern Italy we see separatists seeking their opportunity. Slowly but very surely all these parties have distorted and disfigured the political debate in their countries, calling for radical change, often scapegoating immigrants or “bankers”, many resorting to street violence, though not yet terror. It seems a long time since the tension between social democrats and Christian democrats was the norm in Western Europe, an almost distant age in fact as de-alignment from traditional party allegiances has gathered pace.

The disappointment is that Europe, which is to say the EU and its member states, has failed so badly its peoples. They see livings standards stagnate, they see few job opportunities for their families, their currency, the euro, is in a semi-permanent state of crisis, their banks, and savings, teetering on the edge of collapse. The snake-oil salesmen such as Mr Wilders have enjoyed an easy market and ready audiences. Their political opponents have few answers and few policies to rejuvenate Europe’s economy, which remains in structural decline.

Just because Mr Wilders is likely to stay frozen out of power this time round, like Marine le Pen and the Afd, it is no reason for the leaders of Europe to simply have a sigh of relief and continue their not-so-merry way. Next time, or the time after, Wilders or Le Pen, or their successors could get lucky and achieve the breakthrough they have long yearned for. For as long as Europe’s economy lays unreformed the extremists are not going to go away.