Nationalism still in vogue in Europe, despite Dutch setback

Valérie LEROUX, Clare BYRNE
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Militants of the Dutch Democracy party D66 celebrate during an election rally in Scheveningen, on March 15, 2017

European leaders heaved a sigh of relief after Dutch voters backed pro-EU liberals over the far-right. but analysts warned that populism on the continent had yet to peak.

France and Germany, which are also facing key elections this year, heralded the defeat of the anti-immigration anti-EU Freedom Party of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands as a defeat for extremism.

Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France, where far-right leader Marine Le Pen is forecast to win the first round of the presidential election in April, congratulated Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte with "stopping the rise of the far-right".

In Germany, where the anti-immigration AfD aims to become the first hard right party to win seats in parliament since World War II in September, Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed the victory of fellow "friends, neighbours, Europeans."

In Brussels too the relief was palpable with EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker hailing the result, which comes as Britain prepares to secede from the European Union, as a "vote for Europe".

Wilders' defeat is the second setback in three months for rightwing populists in Europe, coming after the defeat of the far-right in Austria's presidential election in December.

But Wilders's European allies took a mostly upbeat view, pointing to his party's gain in parliamentary seats which have catapulted it to the Netherland's biggest opposition force.

"It proves that the ideas we share are advancing in the various European countries," said France's Le Pen, who aims to emulate Donald Trump's upset in the US election by beating her mainstream rival in May's presidential runoff.

Rutte's VDD meanwhile dropped eight seats and the Labour Party was decimated, mirroring the demise of the mainstream left across the continent.

"The right ideas are progressing," the head of Italy's far-right Northern League, Matteo Salvini, said, listing them as "changing Europe, saving jobs and blocking the invasion (of migrants)."

Alternative for Germany (AfD) co-chief Frauke Petrym however, admitted to having hoped for a "better" score by Wilders, who had vowed to pull the Dutch out of the EU, shut mosques and close its borders.

It showed that voters were turned off by policies seen as "too hardline", Petry, who presents her anti-immigrant party as an acceptable nationalist force, told German news agency DPA.

- 'Wrong kind of populism' -

"This was the evening when The Netherlands, after Brexit and the American elections, said 'stop' to the wrong kind of populism," a jubilant Rutte told his supporters.

Analysts however warned against treating his win -- sealed in part by a spat with Turkey that allowed him to outshine Wilders -- as a sign that rightwing populism was a spent force.

"One election does not foretell another in a different country with a very different electoral system," Jean-Yves Camus, a French expert on far-right movements told AFP.

While the far-right has yet to win the keys to power in Europe the election showed they were increasingly setting the agenda, Camus said.

"Would Mr Rutte's reaction to the Turkish meetings have been the same had he not been in an election with Wilders nipping at his heels? Undoubtedly not," he said.

"When you win 46 percent in Austria (the score achieved by far-right FPOe presidential candidate Norbert Hofer) and score like Wilders in the Netherlands, you influence the course of events."

The FPOe has pressed home that point, claiming credit for the tough stance taken by the ruling social democrat-conservative coalition on migration, among other issues.

Harald Vilimsky, an FPOe member of the European Parliament, said those who saw the election as a defeat for Wilders were suffering from a "denial of the truth".

- Waiting at the gates -

Stephane Rozes, head of French political consultancy Cap, said that populists were still at the gates of power in several countries, "even if voters are for the moment still blocking the door".

"The danger in the Dutch result is that European governments fail to attack the root causes of the populist rise, which is that people have the feeling, because of European and international governance, that they no longer control their destiny."

Scandal-hit French conservative candidate Francois Fillon, who has been knocked off his frontrunner perch by an expenses scandal, said it showed a united right was "the best defence against populism and extremism".

Like former president Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon has been accused of chasing after FN voters on Islam and immigration.

For Leonardo Molino, political science professor at Luiss University in Rome, Rutte owed his success in part to such a strategy.

"If the traditional parties can take up themes that are usually populist," he said, "they can beat them, or at the very least, contain them."

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