The scene from a train station in Amsterdam shows some of the diversity to be found in the country
The study of anti-immigrant radical right parties in Europe in the mid-1990s wasn’t always considered a good “long-term” project. In fact, as I conducted my research some people told me that these parties were a “flash in the pan” and wouldn’t be around long enough for me to finish my dissertation. Despite the naysayers, I completed my dissertation in 1999, and my book on the radical right, now considered a classic in the field, came out in 2005. Since that time, radical right, aka far right parties have not gone away, and have increased their influence on policy, particularly immigration policy. Conservative politicians, in order to compete with far-right politicians, have taken increasingly extreme positions on immigration policy.
In general, the rhetoric of the far right has steadily become more mainstream, in the U.S. and Europe. Also, since the terror attacks of 9/11 and the series of attacks in Europe, including the 7/7 attacks in London and various other attacks by Islamic extremists, there have been increasing connections between far right politicians in Europe, and activists and politicians in the U.S. The rise of anti-Muslim sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic has led to both financial and political support developing between conservatives in the U.S. and far right politicians in Europe, and more recently a growing connection to Russia (sound familiar?).
This connection was emphasized in a tweet on July 6th by Geert Wilders. For most Americans, this tweet and picture don’t mean much. Although Geert Wilders has been a fixture in Dutch politics since the early 2000s, he hasn’t made much of an impression in the U.S. outside of far right, anti-Muslim circles. However, Wilders was invited to the U.S. by Pam Gellar, an anti-Islam activist, to attend the 2009 CPAC convention and he has reportedly received financial support from several sources in the U.S. Wilders is now, apparently, welcome at the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands:
06 June 2018
Geert Wilders is a far-right politician who has developed a following by opposing immigration to the Netherlands and has been put on trial for inciting hatred against Muslims. Like Donald Trump, Wilders has called for banning immigration from Muslim countries, and has connected with like-minded politicians such as Steve King in the U.S. Wilders attended the Republican National Convention in the summer of 2016 and Representative Steve King encouraged communication between Wilders and Trump after his election, in the hope of boosting Wilders’ standing in advance of elections in the Netherlands, as described in an article in Politico. Wilders’ party received a substantial share of the vote in the Spring 2017 election, but not enough to win a majority in parliament over the conservative party. In February of 2018, Wilders visited Russia, speaking to the Russian Duma and drawing criticism from victims’ family members of downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 for tweeting a picture of himself wearing a Russian-Dutch friendship pin.
Wilders is part of a wave of far-right leaders and parties in Europe, which includes Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France, and the AfD (Alternative for Germany) who have made gains in elections in the past year. I argued in my book that one of the factors that has kept far right parties from being more successful in Europe is the fact that people would vote against them strategically because the mainstream parties would make it clear that they could not be part of government. This is often referred to as a cordon sanitaire or a barrier to the far-right making their way into government. For example, most radical right parties had difficulty gaining enough votes in the 1990s to even win seat in national parliaments.
The Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) did become part of the Austrian government in 2000, partly because they were seen as the only alternative to a grand coalition government, but the party has been through many changes since then, which complicates an analysis of where they are now. Being part of government seemed to moderate at least the leaders of the party at the time, but it has shifted back to a more strident tone in recent years. When the FPO candidate, Norbert Hofer, was defeated by independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in the Austrian Presidential Election in December of 2016, it was an indication that support continues for the EU, but Brexit and support for far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in France indicate that there is much work to do.
The recent Italian election sent a strong message on immigration with its populist government asking the EU to take migrants rescued at sea to other countries. Mainstream candidates on both sides of the Atlantic must find a way to support the growing ethnic minority populations in their countries, while acknowledging the concerns of voters who see those groups as threats. As the U.S. government takes a harder line on immigrants crossing the border, it is not a given that European countries like France and Germany will inevitably move in the same direction, although Chancellor Merkel is moving in that direction in her streit with her coalition partner, the Bavarian CSU. It will take smart leadership and grass-roots support for progressive policies that will help all, like healthcare and economic development that supports the lower and middle classes. Unfortunately, in the U.S., the policies of the Trump administration appear to be increasing disparities that have led to high rates of inequality. How this will impact voting behavior remains to be seen.
The fact that a controversial figure like Wilders is welcomed to a U.S. Embassy and is meeting there with a U.S. Congressman is more than troubling. It provides Wilders with the publicity he craves and the stamp of approval from the Trump administration. As anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment continue to take hold across Europe and anti-immigrant policies are implemented in the U.S., it will take a major effort from people of conscience on both sides of the Atlantic to call out these politicians who are dehumanizing people who have a right to claim asylum and to be supported in our countries. People across the U.S. rose up on June 30th to decry the policies of family separation, and it will take a Transatlantic approach that emphasizes, for example, our countries’ international treaty obligations to refugees to ensure that we don’t devolve into a series of policies that are racist and inhumane.