The 2017 Dutch Elections
On 15 March 2017, the Dutch headed to the polls and to the relief of many mainstream European leaders, Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party (PVV) did not emerge as the winner. At almost 81% turnout, highest in 30 years of electoral history, the 2017 elections was seen as a test of whether the Dutch would move away from being a tolerant, liberal country down a nationalistic, anti-immigrant path. It was also seen as the first major electoral test of right wing populism since Brexit and the election of Trump.
28 parties contested for 150 seats in the Parliament, and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) led by incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte, emerged with the biggest win with 33 seats. This was a significant drop in support as Rutte’s party won 41 seats in the last elections in 2012. Nevertheless he was swiftly congratulated by mainstream European leaders. French President Francois Hollande remarked that this was a “clear victory against extremism”, and Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian Prime Minister said “the anti-EU right has lost the elections”.
The relief felt by these leaders was understandable as before the elections, there was concern that the anti-EU and anti-Islam leader Geert Wilders would make significant gains, further destabilizing the EU after Brexit. Wilders’ had campaigned on the promise to bring about a “populist revolution” to Europe. Although Wilders’ party did gain 5 more seats in this election (PVV has now 20 seats in Parliament), it was overshadowed by the fact that two main pro-EU parties Democrats 66 (D66) and the Green Left gained far more seats compared to the last election. It was also not the PVV’s best show as it won 24 seats in the 2010 elections.
While some see the Dutch elections as a bellwater to gauge the support for far right parties, others felt that the real bellwater is the French presidential election. Mabel Berezin, professor of sociology at Cornell University said that “defeat for Mr Wilders, who has been in parliament for nearly two decades, should not be considered a sign that European populism is waning”. She added that “Rutte got a loast minute boost from a diplomatic row with Turkey”, which allowed him to appear tough and taking “a tough line on a majority Muslim country during an election campaign in which immigration and integration have been key issues”.
Tensions rise between Turkey and EU member states over political rallies
An ugly spat erupted between The Netherlands and Turkey as both countries prepared to go to the polls. The Dutch was to hold its general elections on 15 March, while Turkey is holding a referendum on 16 April on the issue of expanding the power of the Turkish president.
The whole incident began when the Dutch government prevented the Turkish Foreign Minister’s plane from landing in Holland and expelled the Turkish family minister over the weekend. This was done to prevent them from speaking at rallies in The Netherlands aimed at lobbying Turkish citizens to support the expansion of the presidential power in the referendum.
It was not only the Dutch but Germany had also blocked Turkish ministers from staging rallies to court the vote of expatriate Turks in European countries.
In his typical fiery style, Turkish President Erdogan accused both countries of having Nazi inclinations which brought sharp rebuke from both Germany and The Netherlands. Dutch Prime Minister remarked that this was most inappropriate, reminding Erdogan of the 200,000 Dutch citizens killed by Nazi forces during the 2nd World War.
Analysts believed that Mr Erdogan has purposely picked a fight with Europe “to inflame nationalist minded voters” to back him in the referendum. From suspending top-level ties with the Netherlands to blocking the return of its ambassador, and accusing Germany of “supporting terrorists”, there was concern that it would spiral out of control affecting Ankara’s entire relationship with Europe. Senior EU and NATO (Turkey is a member of NATO) officials pleaded for restraint as Turkey further threatens to “re-evaluate Ankara’s agreement with Brussels to prevent refugees and migrants from crossing into the EU”. This EU-Turkey agreement was signed in March last year, and had helped to stem the flow of refugees transiting from Turkey to the EU.
ECJ ruling on Islamic headscarf ban at workplace
In a legal case brought about by a Muslim employee, Samira Achibita, against service company G4S, for discrimination and wrongful dismissal because she started wearing a veil to work, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that what the company did was not in breach of EU law.
The landmark ruling by ECJ that EU companies can ban employees from wearing religious symbols such as the Muslim headscarf was swiftly criticized by various human rights watch group. Amnesty International warned that the ruling pandered to prejudice. Georgina Siklossy, spokeswoman for the European Network Against Racism expressed concern that this ruling “will effectively exclude Muslim women from the labour market and it will force them to have to choose between their rights to express their religion through clothing and their right to access the labour market”.
Upon closer examination, however, the ruling was more nuanced and stipulated that banning Islamic headscarves could happen under certain circumstances when there is an internal company rule which prohibits the visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign, and not when companies pander to the prejudices of their clients. However, director of Amnesty’s Europe and Central Asia Programme, John Dalhuisen said that despite this, the ruling is disappointing as it comes at a time “when identity and appearance has become a political battleground”, and when “people need more protection against prejudice, not less”.
Turkish president Erdogan in his campaign mode was quick to pick on the case and accused the ECJ of starting a crusade against Islam. He made this remark in a televised speech in Turkey (16 March) with the Turkish press adding that “the country’s government will provide legal support to Turkish citizens living in France and Belgium after the ECJ ruling”.
British Parliament passes the Brexit Bill while Scotland seeks second Independence Referendum
On 13 March, the British Parliament approved the Brexit Bill empowering Prime Minister Theresa May to trigger Article 50 and start the process of negotiating the exit of United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU).
Immediately after the vote, Scotland signaled its opposition with the announcement by its First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, that she will start the legal process for a second referendum on Scottish independence. This will be held before the UK leaves the EU.
However, on 16 March, Prime Minister May took the stand in Parliament that “now is not the time” for a second Scottish referendum, because it would be unfair to ask people to decide on their future without knowing the exact details of the Brexit deal”. This led to a war of words with Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party as the Scottish government has said it would launch the procedure to request a referendum next week, with a vote to take place in the parliament on Wed (22 Mar). Ultimately, it will be up to Westminster whether to allow the referendum to go ahead.
Besides the threat of independence from Scotland, British Prime Minister May also has to contend with noises of dissent from Northern Ireland. The new leader of Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill said “Brexit would be a disaster for Northern Ireland” and would hence want a “referendum on Irish unity”, asking to leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland.
While there were rumours that UK will trigger Article 50 immediately when the Brexit Bill received royal assent from Queen Elizabeth, May’s spokesman reiterated that Article is likely to be triggered end of March. Politco carried a report detailing what happens after Article 50 is triggered. Another Politico report highlighted the warning by the House of Common Foreign Affairs Committee on the difficulties of reaching a deal within two years and that UK better be prepared for the possibility of a “no deal” on Brexit.
In response, UK’s Brexit secretary, David Davis, reiterated what Prime Minister May said in January that the government was ready to leave the EU without a deal, and that no deal is better than a bad deal. However, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council cautioned that ending the Brexit negotiations without a deal would hit the UK the hardest.
China supports a united EU while playing down the risk of Brexit
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at his annual press conference on Tuesday (15 Mar) expressed strong support to the EU just hours before the start of the general election in the Netherlands. “I would like to stress specifically that China supports a united, prosperous and stable European Union. It supports a strong euro, and Europe integration,” Li said, because a strong EU is “beneficial to a globalised economy, a multipolar world and a diverse human civilisation.” Premier Li also clarified that China does not seek trade surplus with the EU and pledged widened market access for European businesses in China.
His pro-EU signal followed Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement last week that Beijing has faith in a post-Brexit EU, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. On the side-lines of the National People’s Congress last Wednesday (8 Mar), Wang said: “We believe the challenges confronting the EU [e.g. Brexit and populism] could be an opportunity for it to mature. We are willing to work with Europe to revive the global economy, improve global governance and boost healthy development of economic globalisation.” Like Premier Li, Wang repeated China’s support for multilateralism, adding that China valued the strategic importance and status of Europe.
However, Chinese leaders’ friendly statements on Europe seem to stand in contrast with some less favourable views held by some Europeans towards the Chinese. In recent weeks, a German on-line marketplace started to sell graphic tees reading, “Save a Dog, Eat a Chinese” and “Save a Shark, Eat a Chinese”. The site’s refusal to take the two designs down nearly sparked a diplomatic incident and was heavily criticised by Chinese newspapers. For example, Liu Yan, a commentator with Global Times, blasted some Westerners’ stereotyping and racist disposition. “It seems that many Europeans are stuck in the outdated snobbery and sense of political superiority despite their declining clout,” Liu wrote. Calling supporters of the T-shirts and designers “just a bunch of inferior populists in Western society”, Global Times in another editorial called on Chinese not to be bothered by those offensive words and racist actions.
Trump’s foreign policy is dividing Europe, says Yomiuri Shimbun
The Yomiuri Shimbun on 11 March carried an opinion piece by Norihide Miyoshi, a Senior Writer of the Japanese newspaper, arguing that “Trump’s foreign policy is dividing Europe”. Basically, Miyoshi saw two Trump-related sources of tension within EU countries.
First is Trump’s immigration policy. “While Western European countries are critical of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, many Eastern European nations have shown support for it,” Miyoshi noted. For example, Hungarian and Polish leaders had expressed understanding of Trump’s executive order restricting the entry of citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations, saying Trump has the right to make decisions aimed at improving the safety of the American people. In contrast, Germany questions the US immigration control, arguing that being suspicious of people from specific regions or religions is unjustified.
A second dividing factor concerns Russia. Miyoshi argues that three former Soviet-bloc EU members – Poland, Estonia and Latvia – reply on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and “above all on the military presence of the United States” for their security against Russia. In 2014 following the Ukraine crisis, NATO decided that its members should spend at least 2 per cent of its GDP on defence. Poland and Estonia have already achieved the target, but the figure for Germany stands at 1.2 per cent. This led to the US warning that it would “moderate” its commitment to NATO if other members fail to meet the requirement. The varying level of commitment to NATO and diverging views on Russia as a “security threat” risk further splitting Europe.
On the Russia factor, former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer voiced similar concerns. He wrote in Project Syndicate last month that Trump’s “unclear” relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin highlights the possibility that Trump and Putin will reconcile their interests and stage “Yalta 2.0”, dividing Europe into separate spheres of influence.
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