The Observer view on Geert Wilders’ win: far-right victory is a warning to the rest of Europe | Observer editorial

The fact that a far-right politician who peddles offensive anti-migrant and anti-Muslim views and bears more than a passing resemblance to Donald Trump has triumphed in the Dutch general election is dismaying, to put it mildly. But too much is being read into the less than overwhelming success of Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) in last week’s polls. Nor, on this showing, is Europe about to succumb to a far-right takeover.

For a start, Wilders’ victory is hugely qualified. While his party won 37 seats, more than double its 2021 total, this represents only a fraction of the 150-seat Dutch parliament. As has typically been the case in other European countries where the populist-nationalist far right has done well in recent years, the vast majority of voters did not support the PVV. Disowned by the outgoing prime minister, Mark Rutte, and his party, Wilders faces an uphill struggle to become the Netherlands’ next leader.

A leftwing alliance of Labour and Greens came second in the election with 25 seats, Rutte’s liberal-conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy won 24, and the centrist New Social Contract party won 20, while minor parties took the rest. This outcome hardly represents a PVV clean sweep. From this multiple-choice smorgasbord a viable governing coalition will hopefully emerge. While Wilders may be part of it, other parties will not want him to lead it.

That is just as well given the divisive, destructive impact Wilders’ trademark policies would have, if implemented. His pledge to freeze asylum-seeker claims and slash immigration is legally and morally impractical, and probably politically unsustainable. Softening his stance, he now talks about “restrictions”. And what are Muslims, about 5% of the 18 million population, to make of his proposed bans on mosques, headscarves and the Qur’an, even if he has back-pedalled a little on his plans?

That said, there is little doubt the PVV’s success stems to a considerable extent from serious concerns, mirrored across Europe, about large-scale, uncontrolled migration. Such worries are compounded by the inability of mainstream parties like Rutte’s, and the EU as a whole, to agree credible policies. Brussels has repeatedly failed to reach a consensus on how best to handle the influx. The Dutch result is a warning, rendering the quest for solutions more urgent.

These serial policy failures have frequently translated into advances for far-right parties such as National Rally in France and the AfD in Germany. From Austria and Slovakia to Finland and Sweden, the populist-nationalist far right has become a fact of political life. In Italy, it is in charge. In Britain, where figures last week revealed record net migration of 745,000 in 2022, hard-right rhetoric is gaining traction. In Ireland, violence in Dublin last week, stoked by far-right, anti-migrant lies, shows how incendiary the issue can be.

Yet it would be misleading to attribute this rightwards drift, and concomitant anti-establishment sentiment, solely to one cause. The cost of living crisis, the energy crunch caused by the Ukraine war, poorly performing post-pandemic economies and problems with over-burdened, under-resourced public services are all contributing to broad popular discontent. Lack of trust in politicians is another key issue across Europe. Part of what is happening is a wholesale rejection of politics as usual.

Two recent European elections show the far right’s advance is not inevitable. In Poland, former EU council president Donald Tusk broke the grip of an unscrupulous, hard-right government. In Spain, Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists beat back the challenge of neo-Francoist party Vox. The future does not belong to the far right by right. They only win when the progressive majority loses heart and lets them in.

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