Pride and Prejudice

Germany’s mixed record on equal rights – and how Merkel gets away with it

For anyone who believes the clichés about Germany being a sober, sensible, slightly humourless country, the Gay Pride parade in Cologne might come as a big surprise. Travelling down the Rhine yesterday as part of a book project I’m working on, I found no shortage of eye-catching attractions on the big river bridge in Cologne; from bearded men in ball-gowns to topless women spraying champagne, and a man dressed as a dog on a leather leash, barking at the city’s twin-towered cathedral.

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Cologne’s Pride parade – better known as ‘Christopher Street Day’, in honour of the place where the Stonewall riots began in 1969 – has long been a major fixture of the Rhineland summer, attracting hundreds of thousands people to drink and dance, protest and celebrate. This year, the mood was perhaps even livelier than usual. Just ten days before the parade, the German parliament had voted to legalize gay marriage; an occasion which saw the Bundestag erupt in cheers, glittery confetti tossed across the debating chamber and same-sex couples kissing in the gallery. It was, as the German Lesbian and Gay Association said, “a historic day, not only for lesbians and gays, but also for a more just and democratic society”.

Across Europe, gay rights have taken huge strides forwards in recent years. The Netherlands voted to legalize gay marriage in 2001, and was soon followed by a host of imitators, including France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and even the United States. There are still serious problems with discrimination in many places, but in countries like Britain, the political turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Twenty years ago, it was routine for senior British politicians to advocate banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools. Now, even on the conservative right, it’s almost as unacceptable to oppose gay marriage as it is to love taxes or dislike dogs.

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In all those years of progress, though, there’s been one major exception. Same-sex couples in Germany have been able to register their relationships on a legal basis for several years, but when it came to actual marriage, the German government has bucked the European trend, refusing to change the law even as the rest of the world moves on. The reasons for this are complex, but include the personal views of the Angela Merkel. The Chancellor has recently become a hero of the European Left, thanks to her refugee policy and her principled opposition to Donald Trump. However, at heart she’s fundamentally a right-wing politician; a pro-business conservative who’s the devout daughter of a Protestant pastor. “Man and wife, marriage and family, stand at the centre of our social model”, she said in 2005. “Other lifestyles should not receive comparable constitutional protections.” In government, Merkel has depended on the support of a Bavarian conservative party, the CSU, whose president recently promised to launch a “family-oriented offensive” in support of traditional values. And outside government, too, the gay rights lobby has faced other formidable headwinds. The churches still play a significant role in German civic life, and (like the Dutch) many Germans are still quietly but profoundly conservative in their attitudes to work, money and family. Until very recently, the legalization of gay marriage in Germany looked like a passionate affair between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin: something which could theoretically happen, but was almost impossible to imagine.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, everything suddenly changed. DSCF8698Answering a question from a member of the public, Merkel unexpectedly relaxed her opposition to same-sex marriage. Five days later, parliamentarians were allowed a free vote on the issue, and history was made. German politics isn’t usually known for its rapid pace, and the change came so quickly that even some supporters were left reeling – in Bonn last week, I met someone who was convinced that the whole thing was essentially a mistake, with a few careless words by Merkel triggering a vote which she’d never expected. The Chancellor herself has claimed that the shift was more deliberate, and she changed her mind after talking to two gay women in her constituency who were caring for eight foster children.

That twee tale may well be true, but there’s also little doubt that politics again played a role. In late 2016, a poll found that 83 percent of Germans back same-sex marriage, and 95 percent think gays should be legally protected from discrimination. German elections are looming, and although Merkel looks likely to win , she’s facing a sparky liberal challenger in Martin Schulz, and must be worried about succumbing to a Clinton-style shock defeat. As in the Netherlands, German governments are almost always coalitions, and two major parties had already announced they wouldn’t agree to any future power-sharing with Merkel unless gay marriage was on the table. With prominent members of her own party coming out in favour of change, the populist AfD making homophobic comments, and Schulz noisily trying to position himself as a German Martin Luther King, Merkel was being squeezed from several sides. DSCF8774Weighing the odds, she may have judged it was best to leap without looking for too long. U-turns on other issues like nuclear power and military conscription haven’t always been popular with her conservative base, but they have enabled her to keep firm control of the centre ground. By being flexible on gay marriage too, and allowing MPs to vote on the issue immediately, she’s effectively killed off the issue before the election campaign really gets started. Ever pragmatic, the Chancellor seems to have pulled off the neat trick of keeping both sides happy – personally opposing gay marriage while heading a government which makes it possible. One can’t help but wonder whether poor Theresa May (who once opposed gay marriage but then changed her mind and helped implement it as Home Secretary) would be quite so easily forgiven if she now voted against gay rights.

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Of course, the battle for equality is far from over, and in Cologne on Sunday there were plenty of lurking criticisms: snarky posters of Merkel hugging Hillary Clinton, campaign ads for Martin Schulz, and protest banners accusing the Christian Democrats of persistent homophobia. Overall, though, in a country which often seems haunted by the moral failings of its past, the mood was grateful and joyful. And politically, the U-turn seems to provide further proof that whatever her faults, Merkel is still an unusually savvy operator. As the public broadcaster ZDF put it on Twitter on Friday: “Merkel’s vote against ‘marriage for everybody’ is a shame. But she has another eight terms as Chancellor to think about it”.

Little Britain

The Tory Party Turns Inward

Just over eleven years ago, a young politician called David Cameron traveled to Norway, where he rode a sled towed by husky dogs to a remote glacier.

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Cameron had recently been elected as leader of the venerable Conservative Party and wanted – he told waiting photographers – to see the effects of global warming “first-hand”. In the months and years after the trip, Cameron’s sled ride was widely derided. In both the left- and right-wing media, ‘husky-hugging’ became something of a by-word for the worst kind of political posturing, hollow environmentalism and photo-opportunism. At the time, though, to some people at least, it seemed like a ground-breaking step: a moment when the Conservatives stopped talking about ‘bringing back matron’ in hospitals, and began to engage with the modern world. I started working for the Conservatives around the same time as the Norway trip, and can remember the palpable sense of relief and excitement which swept through parliamentary offices and Westminster bars as Cameron made his vision clear. Finally, we thought, a leader who was more interested in Kashmir than in fox-hunting, more worried about abolishing poverty than banning abortion, and more likely to spend his holidays surfing in France than making jam in the Home Counties!

In hindsight, of course, Cameron’s record is far from unblemished. But even in retrospect, the husky stunt was a signifier of something important: a worldview which one might call centre-right internationalism. In five years as Conservative leader, and another six as Prime Minister, Cameron spoke strongly in favour of international development aid, and co-chaired the UN process to set new global development goals. He built alliances with other centre-right globalists like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Domestically, he modernised the party’s platform and promoted candidates who were comfortable with the way the world actually is today, rather than the way it was in the 1950s. Economic conservativism was married with social liberalism; tax cuts with gay marriage; a hawkish military policy with proud support for British charity abroad. Cameron insisted the party should stop “banging on” about Europe, and then (having foolishly called a referendum) campaigned in favour of Britain remaining a strong, reformist voice in the EU.

 

 

Of course, all this had its downsides – Cameron and his acolytes were (among other things) rightly criticised for seeming aloof and detached from the lives of people who couldn’t ski and did’t read four newspapers before breakfast. Above all, as Prime Minister he’ll be judged by the single disastrous decision which made him, as a woundingly accurate Sky News headline put it, a ‘Serial Gambler Who Lost It All’. However, in terms of his outlook, Cameron at his best embodied (like Tony Blair before him) what Britain could and should be in the 21st century: cosmopolitan, assertive, globally engaged and outward-looking. For many people like me – members of that privileged, globe-trotting generation who were just as likely to spend weekends in Lisbon as in Leicester – the Conservatives of 2005-2010 seemed to embody what we wanted Britain to be, if not domestically then at least on the world stage. One of the reasons I was happy to stay working for the party, on and off, for about five years was that I didn’t want to see that vision – for confident, tolerant, centre-right internationalism – defeated, and replaced by something more old-fashioned.

Yet sadly, under Theresa May, that’s exactly what now seems to be happening. This year’s British election campaign has been pretty disagreeable in many ways, but one of them is its sheer parochialism. Politicians across the scale seem to be competing to prove they believe that there’s no good sense to be found south of Brighton or west of Harwich.

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This is partly about Brexit, of course, and the loss of influence which leaving the EU will entail.

It’s also partly about May’s baffling decision to align (or at least, be seen to align) with Donald Trump at the expense of people like Macron and Merkel. But even looking beyond Brexit, the Conservatives seem to be embracing the idea that Britain should withdraw from the world stage.

Efforts to balance Brexit with a new global role for Britain have been half-hearted at best. The international aid commitment has been kept, but only after a bruising internal fight, and is now treated like a dirty secret best not talked about. Brussels is treated as an enemy, and geopolitics as a zero-sum game where Britain only wins when other countries lose. Foreign experts reportedly have been banned from advising the government on Brexit, and foreign students are discouraged from doing anything as foolish as going to Britain to learn about the world. Businesses may be forced to reveal the proportions of their workforce which are “foreign”, as if hiring people from (say) Germany or the Netherlands were something to be ashamed of. ‘Immigration’ is considered a dirty word, and the triumvirate of politicians running British foreign policy – Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis – do little to inspire confidence in their strategic vision. On issues like Russia and Ukraine, British policy is difficult to define. Ironically, an administration which will be judged almost solely on its ability to manage foreign policy doesn’t really seem to have one.

One might well argue that all this represents a necessary retreat from the over-reach of previous years, which lead to calamities in places like Iraq and Libya. However, 631880596watching the election campaign unfold, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the petty domesticism of it all, and the extent to which leaders have focused on issues which could be designed to discourage first-time voters: grammar schools, dementia, inheritance taxes, fox-hunting and clamping down on internet freedom.

Above all, the government sends countless small signals about the new world order they wish to build; pledging to create a post-Brexit “Empire 2.0” in which “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. There seems to be little in Theresa May’s worldview with which UKIP would disagree.  At best, this represents a weakening of the internationalist tradition which has served Britain (and the Conservatives) well. At worst, it represents a wholesale rejection of Britain’s strategic role as a defender of liberal values, and the beginning of a long process which will see the UK turn from a global hub into an isolated, grumpy fortress.

When Brits go to polls on Thursday, May’s Conservatives will almost certainly win a comfortable majority, and continue governing in much the same way as they have done before. Given the feeble alternatives, that’s probably a good thing. In my opinion, a government lead by Jeremy Corbyn would be a disaster, and (like any reflexive, populist backlash) harmful to the very people it would claim to be helping. After the election, post-match analysis will probably focus on the decimated centre-left: those centrist New Labour supporters who feel abandoned or betrayed by Jeremy Corbyn, and may (if he clings on as leader) break away to form a new party. However, it’s perhaps also worth sparing a thought for those of us who are stranded on the internationalist centre-right, too. nintchdbpict000329243420

Faced with a choice between a pro-Brexit, pro-Trump, anti-globalist Conservative Party and a pro-Brexit, pacifist, socialist Labour Party, a former Tory internationalist could be forgiven for feeling a distinct lack of enthusiasm for either.

This week, someone erected giant effigy of Theresa May atop the White Cliffs of Dover, giving the middle finger to the rest of the world. No-one seems to know who put the effigy up, and (unlike the huskies) it certainly wasn’t an official Conservative Party campaign stunt. But the fact that it could have been speaks volumes.

Pim, Populism and Polder Politics

The Mixed Legacy of Pim Fortuyn

Fifteen years ago this weekend, the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn attended a radio interview in Hilversum, a small town not far from Amsterdam.Pim_Fortuyn_-_May_4 There was just over a week to go until the 2002 national elections, and opinion polls showed that that Fortuyn’s party was on track to win a significant number of votes – so many, in fact, that he might even become Prime Minister of the Netherlands. After a lively discussion of his future career prospects, Fortuyn left the studio, ready for his next engagement. But as he strode towards his Jaguar, a young man stepped forward and shot him several times. Fortuyn bled to death in the car park.

For the Netherlands – a country where no leader had been assassinated since William of Orange, more than three centuries previously – the assassination was a landmark event in the country’s history; a crime so heinous as to be profoundly “un-Dutch”. Thousands filled the streets in tribute to Fortuyn, and a sea of flowers swept across the pavement in front of his house in Rotterdam. A decade and a half later, the shock has naturally faded, and commemorations of the anniversary are largely low-key. However, long after his death, Fortuyn’s legacy remains significant.

Most obviously, Fortuyn’s meteoric rise helped lay the foundations for a new kind of populism which was once rare, but now dominates headlines worldwide. Geert Wilders, for one, differs from Fortuyn in many ways, but is a clear ideological descendant. “Today we remember a great man”, Wilders tweeted on Saturday, before quoting Fortuyn on the “aggression of Islam”.

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In today’s climate, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary such populist sentiments once seemed. In the Netherlands, for much of the post-war era politics was sensible to the point of being utterly boring. Under the so-called ‘polder model’ of government, Dutch votes were usually split among a large number of political parties, and the Netherlands was run largely on the basis of compromise and negotiation. The convergence of major Dutch parties over several years made grand coalitions across the right/left divide possible, but also created a perception that nothing ever really changed. People who rose to the top in Dutch politics were usually boring technocrats rather than consensus-shattering Thatchers or Reagans.

In that context, Pim Fortuyn’s arrival on the scene was the political equivalent of a Groningen earthquake. He was flamboyant and outgoing; a snappy dresser with a soap-opera love life, who deliberately courted the media by saying things which others thought unsayable. “Ik zeg wat ik denk en ik doe wat ik zeg!” he liked to say. “I say what I think and I do what I say!” As tensions rose after 9/11, Fortuyn deftly exploited fears that the Netherlands was in decline and the Dutch had taken tolerance too far, looking the other way even as immigration undermined the very fabric of society. “This is a full country”, he once said. “I think 16 million Dutchmen are about enough.” Many Dutch were appalled by his views, but many others were thrilled: in March 2002, Fortuyn’s party stunned the establishment by winning more than a third of the vote in local elections in Rotterdam. Shortly afterwards, opinion polls showed that Fortuyn was among the front-runners to become the next Prime Minister, or at least secure a major role in a coalition government. Ultimately, history intervened and prevented that happening – but fifteen years on, it’s hard not to conclude that much Dutch political debate – including the recent Wilders-dominated election campaign – is still conducted in Fortuyn’s shadow. He was a populist before it was popular to be one.

Fortuyn’s other great legacy was to reset the parameters for political debate in the Netherlands. In almost every country, there are certain red lines which any sensible politician would never dare to cross.220px-Beeld_Pim_Fortuyn_Rotterdam In America, for example, it’s all but impossible for prospective leaders to criticise the military, while in Britain it’s career suicide for a politician to express anything less than a deep love for the National Health Service. In general, the positions of these red lines are well-established along party lines: politicians who take a conservative stance on economic issues also take a conservative stance on social issues. Conservative Republicans and French National Fronters who aren’t keen on open borders and free trade are also not usually big fans of gay marriage.  In the Netherlands, issues relating to race and immigration were long considered well over the red line – newspapers were restricted from reporting the race of criminal suspects, and any politician who criticised immigration risked a firestorm of criticism. Dutch tolerance only went so far.

Fortuyn, though, helped completely redefine those parameters, taking a strong right-wing stance on some issues while remaining very liberal on others.  Crucially, he argued that his own intolerance of Islam was a means of safeguarding Dutch tolerance: when a Dutch imam famously said that homosexuals were “pigs”, Fortuyn said that the imam had a right to voice that opinion – but that Fortuyn himself also had a right to say that the imam’s religion was “backward” or “retarded”. Media interviews would move seamlessly from discussions of how much Fortuyn hated radical Islam to how much he enjoyed pursuing young men in Rotterdam’s gay bars. “I don’t hate Arab men – I even sleep with them”, he said. For all his outspokenness, the red lines which Fortuyn drew were clear: criticism of immigrants or Islam was fair game, but hostility towards gays, transsexuals, drug users, divorced people or single parents was beyond the pale. Nearly a generation later, these red lines still exist – Geert Wilders is happy to stand trial for promoting hatred against Moroccans, but staunchly defends gay rights. This careful straddling of fences also helps explain why Fortuyn’s reputation has survived relatively intact: in contrast with people like the Le Pens, he’s often remembered as someone whose views were controversial rather than hateful.

Looking back, it’s impossible to guess what might have happened had Fortuyn lived and won the elections. Looking around today’s Netherlands, and surveying its political scene, one suspects he would not approve. Yet whatever one’s politics, it’s fairly certain that if Fortuyn had risen to power, many of his cheerleaders would have turned against him sooner or later. In the worst case, his anti-immigrant policies might have been taken to their logical, Trumpian conclusion: discrimination and deportations on the polder. In the best case, a Prime Minister Fortuyn might have stayed true to his better instincts, but still ended up disappointing those who hoped he’d deliver radical change, just as every other inspiring leader from Blair to Obama (and, soon, Emmanuel Macron) inevitably does. Either way, to many Rotterdammers, he remains an iconic figure: a kind of Dutch Princess Diana, about whom it’s impossible to say a bad word.

Was Geert Wilders Right?

The Trouble With Dutch Democracy

After months of reading, writing and talking about the Dutch elections, I was in a car crash just before polling day, and missed the whole thing. When the polls opened I was lying unconscious in a hospital bed, and when they closed I was entombed in an MRI scanner. When the results came in, I could barely lift my head to register them on the television screen.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter much. After months of wild speculation, the results were largely as expected: Mark Rutte, the incumbent Prime Minister, was rewarded with the biggest share of the vote; the left-leaning Labour Party (PvdA) collapsed; and a cluster of smaller parties enjoyed picking up the pieces. The far-right nationalist Geert Wilders fared reasonably well, but had done such a good job of offending everyone beforehand that there was no chance of him getting into government. At the time of writing, coalition negotiations are barely past the “let’s talk about talking” phase, but Rutte’s VVD is set to stay in the driving seat, leading a motley crew of D66 liberals, GroenLinks left-wingers and Christian Democrats. It typically takes about ten weeks for a Dutch coalition to form, but in effect, the outcome will be business as usual: a compromising, centrist, reasonably competent government which most people can safely ignore.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the VVD Liberal party appears before his supporters in The Hague

Although unexciting, this outcome was exactly what many people had hoped for; a solid defeat of the populists who’d threatened a ‘Nexit’ to follow ‘Brexit’. Angela Merkel said the outcome was a “good day for democracy”, while Francois Hollande said it represented a “clear victory against extremism”. However, those celebrating the death of populism might be wise to put the champagne on ice for a while. I’ve written previously about the sudden demise of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), and the question of whether the Dutch left can bounce back from a bad result, or will instead (like the UK Labour Party) continue to spin as aimlessly as an untethered windmill. It now seems that a variation of the same problem faces the Netherlands as a whole: how best to respond to a narrow victory over populism, and ensure that Wilders doesn’t bounce back in the future?

These are hard questions to answer, but a couple of things are clear. Firstly, it’s clear that in many ways, the Dutch political system is a stitch-up. A proportional voting system and coalition governments are not without their benefits, and have helped build a stable social democracy where the rights of minorities are strongly protected. But the fact that all Dutch governments are coalitions also means that the social contract between voters and politicians often seems more like a disappointing polygamous fling than a stable marriage. People might vote enthusiastically for a party which (say) promises to build a bridge between Den Haag and Haarlem, but they also know that the bridge will probably never get built – after the election, party power-brokers will meet in private to agree compromise policies which don’t massively offend anyone, but don’t really please anyone either. This endless splitting of differences is one reason why Wilders’ populism is popular. In a system where no-one ever gets exactly what they vote for, and where governing is done by back-room negotiation, it’s easy to argue that the whole system is rigged in favour of the elite.

In that context, there’s a risk that Wilders’ recent result might make things worse. Thousands of Dutch voters backed Wilders in part because they liked his anti-establishment message. If the establishment’s response is to assemble a wobbly multi-coloured coalition which includes almost everyone but Wilders, they risk effectively proving his point; confirming (in the eyes of the populists) that the system is rigged to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit in with the crowd at Davos. Wilders’ supporters, having been told for months that they were in with a real shot at seizing power, are unlikely to go gently into the night, and may become more angry and alienated than ever.

It’s also clear that the major parties need to find new voices and new policies which can appeal to those who feel ignored. If the Dutch mainstream fails to do this, they risk going down the same road as their counterparts in United States; where discontent with the governing elite was left to bubble under the surface for years before exploding 1946_election_poster_PvdA_-_uw_kindvolcanically in last year’s election. There were many reasons for Donald Trump’s victory, but one was the abject failure of the Democrats to find a presidential candidate who could appeal to voters who felt trampled rather than rewarded by globalisation. In the Netherlands, the situation is far less extreme. There’s plenty of space for fringe voices in politics, and it’s hard to portray Wilders – a well-educated professional politician – as an authentic ‘man of the people’. The elevation of the thirty-year-old Dutch-Moroccan-Indonesian Jesse Klaver to within grasping distance of a cabinet seat also seems like a step in the right direction. However, it’s notable that the leaders of the seven largest parties in parliament are all men who have spent most of their working lives in politics. It’s easy to see why a blue-collar worker in Rotterdam might feel little affinity with centrist, managerial leaders like Rutte and his new allies, who speak fluent IMF and look like the kind of guy who fires you.

To be clear: I think that Geert Wilders is wrong about most things. In my opinion, his narrow-mindedness goes against the instincts – openness, internationalism, tolerance, creativity –  which have made the Netherlands so successful, and his foreign policies are reckless and impulsive in a way which make Donald Trump look like a great statesman. However, during the election, Wilders was right to argue that the Dutch economy has performed unimpressively. Like Trump, he was right to point that while many people have benefited from globalisation and free movement of labour, many others have not. Above all, he was also right to argue that the voices of the left-behind are too easily ignored by those for whom immigrants (as I crudely put it in my book) are “more likely to give them a good price for retiling the bathroom than to take their job”.

Whatever the eventual shape of the new government, one must hope that they don’t simply kick the can further down the road, mock or belittle the populists, and revel in their narrow victory. Instead, they should make a concerted effort to understand and address the concerns of the millions who flirted with populism. If not, the next election will simply be a re-run of the last one, and could be even closer. Wilders’ tone and his policies may be poisonous, but on one or two critical issues, he was right to raise warning flags. Even a broken clock is right sometimes.

Turkish Delight

The trouble with the Netherlands and Turkey

Two days ago, the Dutch election campaign seemed to have all but run its course. Some still feared a surprise upset, but overall a strange sense of calm had descended: with Prime Minister Mark Rutte rising in the polls, and the populist Geert Wilders sinking, politics had ceased to be front-page news. This weekend, however, saw a series of dramatic upsets: crowds rioting in Rotterdam, foreign politicians deported, and the Dutch government both accused of trampling on human rights and praised for defending them.

As has been widely reported, the trouble was sparked when the Dutch government, citing security concerns, blocked an attempt by the Turkish Foreign Minister to hold a rally in Rotterdam, t1as part of a campaign to strengthen the powers of the already-authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What should have been a minor diplomatic squabble over the cancelled event quickly spiralled out of control, with the Turkish government threatening to impose sanctions, the Turkish Foreign Minister saying the Netherlands was the “capital of fascism” and Erdogan himself saying the Dutch were “Nazi remnants”. When the Turkish Foreign Minister’s plane was refused permission to land in the Netherlands another Turkish minister tried to travel overland to Rotterdam from Germany, but had her convoy stopped by Dutch police at a petrol station, and was forced to drive back over the border. By Saturday evening, President Erdogan’s supporters were protesting violently outside the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. Crowds of mostly young men threw bottles and rocks at police, who pushed back with baton charges, dogs and water cannon. Twelve people reportedly were arrested and seven injured. Amid the broken bottles and hurled bricks, an election which had started to look like a foregone conclusion suddenly looked anything but.

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Ties between the Netherlands and Turkey have always been unusually close, thanks in part to the large number of Turks who live in cities like Rotterdam. Turkish immigrants began to arrive in the country in significant numbers in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Netherlands’ post-war economic boom created a demand for labour that the local population could not meet, and the Dutch government responded by encouraging the recruitment of so-called ‘guest workers’ from lower-income countries on the fringes of Europe, including Morocco and Turkey.
Thousands came to work in Dutch dockyards, factories and building sites; living in cheap boarding houses, working hard, saving harder and making long car journeys to visit their home countries each summer. The government assumed that the ‘guest workers’ would be exactly that – guests who came on a short-term basis – but it quickly became clear that many planned to stay permanently.t2
By 2016, the Netherlands – a country of fewer than seventeen million people – was home to 400,000 people of Turkish descent, including around 40,000 in Rotterdam alone. Despite the Dutch government’s introduction of tougher immigration rules, the Turkish population continued to grow over time – between 2000 and 2015, the number of Turks living in the Netherlands increased by 27 per cent.

The conventional wisdom in the Netherlands is that the country’s Turkish immigrants are a modest success story: relatively well-integrated, with educational attainment and unemployment rates which compare favourably with other ethnic groups. In cities like Rotterdam many successful businesses are run by Dutch-Turkish entrepreneurs, and there’s even a national political party (‘Denk’) lead by two Turkish MPs. Statistically, Turks in the Netherlands are socioeconomically better off than other minorities, and less likely to commit or be suspected of crimes. Promisingly, the employment rate of second-generation Turks (that is, children of immigrants from Turkey) is higher than that of the first generation, suggesting integration is improving over time. In less politically-correct circles, it’s common to hear stark comparisons being made between Dutch Turks and Dutch Moroccans: around Rotterdam, the crude racial stereotype says that Turks are educated, secular, socially liberal and hard-working, while Moroccans are said to be lazier and more inclined to commit crimes and hold hard-line Islamic views. Geert Wilders regularly speaks out against Turkish membership of the EU, but it’s probably no coincidence that when his language turns darker and he starts threatening mass deportations, he’s usually talking about Moroccans rather than Turks.

Of course, between the crass stereotypes there are many shades of grey – Moroccans who are well-integrated and successful, Turks who are more devout than their Moroccan neighbours, and Dutch Muslims who believe strongly in gender equality, freedom of speech and the right to enjoy a glass or six of Heineken. However, it’s also fair to say that the Dutch Turkish community is not without its problems. Unemployment among Turks in the Netherlands nearly doubled between 2002 and 2012, and Turks are roughly three times as likely to be criminal suspects than the native Dutch. Turkish girls in particular lag far behind their Dutch peers at school; and nearly a quarter of young Turkish and Moroccan men are what the British would call ‘NEET’ – not in education, employment or training. Turkish people in the Netherlands are also perhaps not as well integrated as some statistics imply – compared with other minorities like Antilleans and Surinamese, Turks are less likely to marry Dutch citizens and more likely to marry within their own communities. In the book which I wrote about the Netherlands, I wrote of my own surprise at how common it was in Rotterdam to meet Turks who had lived in the Netherlands for years but spoke little or no Dutch, and fraternised only within their own communities. According to one Dutch government review of differences between ethnic groups in the Netherlands: “Turks have the strongest focus on their own group. Turks often feel especially Turkish, have fewer contacts outside their own group, often use media from the country of origin and have little interest in Dutch politics.” Compared to other minorities, the Dutch Turks’ troubles may be slight, but their integration in Rotterdam is also not quite as smooth as some cheerleaders claim. A city which initially looks like a proverbial melting pot of ethnicities often turns out to be more like the baklava sold in local shops: lots of colourful layers which sit neatly side by side but never mix.

Recent years have also seen emergence of some troubling tensions between the Dutch authorities and parts of the Turkish community. Dutch politicians’ hard-line rhetoric on immigration and Islam has understandably offended many migrants, while the rise of more conservative strains of Islam within Turkish politics has coloured relations between the two countries. In 2013, for example, Erdogan strongly objected to the adoption of a Turkish child by a lesbian Dutch couple, accusing the Dutch state of mistreating the child by exposing him to homosexual influences. More recently, the Dutch and Turks have diverged over whether to support Kurdish fighters in the battle against Islamic State, and a deal whereby the Turks effectively agreed to control the flow of refugees into Europe has t3.jpgbegun looking increasingly shaky.
As Erdogan jails opponents, detains journalists and centralises power, the Netherlands finds itself increasingly at odds with its former ally. The Turkish government long prided itself on its ability to act as a moderate ‘bridge’ between the Middle East and Europe, but the recent change in tone has been striking. Last week, for example, a delegation of American journalists visiting Ankara were treated to a mayoral presentation claiming that the U.S. and Israel had colluded to artificially trigger an earthquake in Turkey so that they could capture energy from within the fault line. A Turkish minister tweeted yesterday that her country was demonstrating what “a true democracy” looks like, but the truth is that President Erdogan is rapidly turning into the Vladimir Putin of the Middle East; a corrupt ‘big man’ who tolerates no dissent.

Within the Netherlands, the big question is of course what impact the latest dispute will have on the election. As Prime Minister, Mark Rutte has faced a delicate balancing act this weekend – trying to stand up for his country without destroying the unity of NATO, and trying to appease right-wing critics without alienating left-leaning voters. As the spat intensified, Rutte pledged to do whatever he could to “de-escalate” tensions, but the fear of losing votes to Wilders has been evident in his populist rhetoric. “The Netherlands”, Rutte said after Turkey threatened sanctions, “is a proud nation. We can never do business under those sorts of threats and blackmail”. Asked later if he’d apologise to the Turks, Rutte replied: “Are you nuts?”

A cynic might think that a dispute with a Muslim country was just what Rutte needed right now: a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that he’s willing to take a tough stance in defence of Dutch values. Most centrist commentators agree that Rutte has made the best of a bad situation, but among people who tweet angrily about such things, opinion is more divided: some say the Prime Minister shamefully trampled on cherished Dutch principles of free speech, while others say the whole saga proves that the Netherlands is at war with Islam and that Rutte’s centrist policies have failed. In a messy, fragmented election, it’s difficult to map what the overall impact will be. Will moderate Turks who disliked Rutte’s immigration policies now back him because he fought with Erdogan? Or will pro-Erdogan Turks vote strategically to force Rutte from office? Will centrist voters shocked by violence in the streets take a second look at liberal, left-leaning parties who preach a softer line on immigration? Or will floating centrists decide that enough is enough, and the Netherlands’ tolerant attitude to immigration and Islam has gone too far?

No-one really knows, but it’s safe to assume that news footage of angry young Muslim men fighting with police is helpful to Wilders. Predictably, the blonde bombshell has been quick to do his best to make a bad situation worse, tweeting that “all Turks in the Netherlands who agree with Erdogan” should “go to Turkey and never come back.” t4.pngYesterday, as police maintained a defensive line around the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam and pro-Erdogan stickers were chiselled from tram stops, a small plane was seen circling overhead, trailing a long banner encouraging locals to vote for Wilders’ party.
Like the banner, the dispute over the cancelled visit will likely blow over, but it’s hard not to see the broken bottles and toxic talk as yet another sign that the Netherlands is not quite the island of tolerance and tranquillity that it used to be.

Into the Abyss

The Sudden Death of the Dutch Labour Party

With only ten days until voting begins, the Dutch elections are still a pollster’s nightmare. Will the ‘Party for the Animals’ pull off a surprise victory? Or will the ‘50 Plus’ party for pensioners finally get its chance to shake up the Dutch parliament? In a fragmented system where coalitions are the norm, no-one really knows.

In the international media (and on this website) most of the attention remains focused on one man: Geert Wilders, the lion-haired Trumpian scaremonger who’s set for his best-ever election performance. However, the probability of Wilders ending up in power is low, and there’s a risk that a bigger story is being neglected: the near-total collapse of the Dutch left.

For decades, the Dutch Labour Party (Partij van de Arbeid, or PvdA) has been one of Europe’s great left-wing political parties; producing several Prime Ministers and typically holding between a quarter and a third of seats in parliament. 7614f22b-f4b6-4c50-bf10-ec64bff6ae5c.jpgSince 2012, the PvdA has been a coalition partner in government, and currently holds major cabinet seats including the Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Finance Minister. Now, though, the PvdA suddenly finds itself staring into the abyss. Polls predict that the party’s share of the vote will slump to perhaps a quarter of its previous level, and that it will lose around 70 percent of its seats in parliament.
With the PvdA set to go from being the second-largest party in the Netherlands to the seventh, its leader, Lodewijk Asscher, doesn’t risk overstating things when he says “there’s room for improvement.”

So why is the PvdA doing so badly?

Firstly, the party’s woes reflect the fact that Dutch elections are becoming increasingly competitive. As the big parties have faltered, smaller ones have sprung up around them, stealing shares of the vote like birds pecking at a carcass. In the mid-1980s, the three largest parties in the Netherlands won about ninety percent of the seats in parliament. By 2012 that figure had fallen to about sixty percent, and this year is likely to fall below fifty percent. With more than a dozen parties now competing for seats, behemoths like the PvdA are naturally struggling to preserve their support. On the left, smaller parties are set to do rather well. The liberal ‘D66’ party is headed for its best election performance since the early 1990s, while the ‘GroenLinks’ (Green Left) leader Jesse Klaver is also doing well, thanks to (or perhaps despite) ham-fisted efforts to rebrand himself as a Dutch Justin Trudeau. The arrival of fresh faces may be welcome – but it also means that the Netherlands, a country famed for its liberal values, risks being stuck with no clear leadership on the left of the spectrum.

Secondly, the PvdA is also suffering from a case of what the Brits might call the Lib Dem effect. The PvdA has spent the last five years propping up a centre-right prime minister, Mark Rutte, who’s implemented a typical centre-right austerity agenda: cutting government spending, introducing stricter immigration policies and taking a tougher line on law and order. PvdA leaders defend their record in government, saying they’ve helped rein in right-wing excesses while fixing the Netherlands’ fragile economy. But to many of the PvdA’s traditional supporters, it seems more like the party has sold out its principles in order to enjoy the trappings of high office. As The Economist magazine once put it, the PvdA has “lost support on the left by governing in the centre”.

A third problem is that the PvdA has been losing the support of many ethnic minority voters. Traditionally, the party’s pro-immigration, pro-poor policies helped it hoover up votes from minorities, including the substantial Turkish and Moroccan populations which live in places like Rotterdam. One might think that the rise of Geert Wilders, who noisily abuses immigrants whenever a camera appears, would boost support for parties trying to defend minorities, including the PvdA. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened. In an increasingly polarised atmosphere, many minority voters have broken with the PvdA in favour of more left-wing parties. In 2014, two Turkish MPs, aghast at the governing coalition’s immigration policies, broke away from the PvdA altogether, quitting to form their own party. The party, one of the MPs said, had become like “an inverted car wash, where you go in clean and come out dirty”.

Fourthly, the collapse of the PvdA also reflects a broader decline in the fortunes of left-wing parties across Europe. Broadly speaking, the left had a good run in the 1990s under Cameron,_Obama,_Merkel,_Hollande,_Renzi_in_2016.jpegleaders like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroder, but then made itself unpopular by introducing spending cuts which appalled traditional supporters. At the same time, centre-right leaders like David Cameron began pinching some of the left’s most popular policies: school reform, minimum wages, environmental protection and gay marriage. Simultaneously, far-right populists like Wilders began stealing voters from the left’s traditional base, with promises to cut immigration, cut taxes, and take back control from the governing elites. As a result, the Dutch PvdA aren’t the only leftists in trouble – France’s Socialists are about to lose power, Italy’s Matteo Renzi has been forced to resign, and the UK Labour Party is in an abysmal state. In the US, the Democrats are also still reeling from a crushing defeat. As the commentator René Cuperus put it, social democrats in the Netherlands and elsewhere find themselves stuck as “neither opponent nor engine”, unable to disagree strongly with much of what the government does, but also unable to articulate a significantly better way of doing things.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the PvdA’s problems are rooted in its failure to respond to the challenge posed by populists. As Geert Wilders’ arguments have gained traction, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has steadily shifted his rhetoric rightwards, saying (for example) that a Dutch-Turkish protester should “go back to Turkey.” This shift has horrified some people, but it’s not unpopular: most polls show Rutte gaining ground on Wilders. In contrast, the left-leaning PvdA has often appeared to be suffering from an identity crisis, simultaneously pledging traditional left-wing policies (higher taxes on the rich) while also clumsily pandering to the right (clamping down on free movement within the EU). This week, former PvdA leader Wouter Bos said that the party was “terribly oriented” on policy, and that Geert Wilders had a better understanding of Dutch workers’ anger than those on the left. Bos was criticised for his comments, but he was right.

It’s still not impossible that the PvdA might pull a late rabbit out of the hat, and do unexpectedly well in the elections. However, that looks very unlikely. b80a4717b7d7dade94ea2792d7e36484.jpgA large proportion of former PvdA voters now say they either don’t know who to vote for, or won’t bother voting at all. Perhaps the biggest question, though, is how the PvdA will react to a disappointing result. Can the party find new leaders who are more in tune with the public mood? Can they develop new policies which win back disillusioned ethnic minorities voters and blue-collar workers, while also appealing to urban liberals? Can they return to government without further compromising their values? Or will they, like UK Labour Party, keep marching down the road to oblivion?

Friends In Low Places

The strange alliance of Europe’s far-right

A few weeks ago, Europe’s far-right leaders gathered in the German city of Koblenz. Taking turns to speak in front of an invited audience of supporters, Frauke Petry of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), Marine Le Pen of France’s Front National, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) and Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Northern League jointly pledged to curb immigration and “Make Our Countries Great Again”. Marine Le Pen encouraged downtrodden French and German voters to “free ourselves from the chains of the European Union”, while Geert Wilders declared in fluent German that “Europe needs a strong Germany… that stands for its culture, identify and civilisation”. As enthusiastic crowds chanted Nazi-era insults about the “lügenpresse” (“lying press”), Wilders and others did their best to bask in Donald Trump’s reflected glory. “Yesterday a new America”, the blonde bombshell said. “Today, a new Europe”.

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Viewed from afar, the whole spectacle was more absurd than menacing. Wilders, in particular, seemed to be doing his best to win a role in a film adaptation of a Kafka novel: making a visa-free trip across international borders to speak in another language about the urgent need to close Europe’s borders. However, the participants obviously saw things differently. Conference organisers argued that the event wasn’t just about creating PR opportunities, but about setting out a “joint vision for a Europe of freedom”. “Each of us”, Le Pen told journalists, “is strongly attached to sovereignty and freedom in general [and united] in a rejection of the European Union’s laissez-faire policies”. To many journalists covering the conference, the implication was clear: far-right parties are not isolated phenomena, but part of a global, world-changing trend; Wilders, Le Pen, Trump and Farage members of a rebel alliance seeking to destroy the current world order. As one American headline put it, “Europe Is Horrified of Trump, But He’d Fit Right In”.

In reality, though, Europe’s far-right is rather less united than it seems. Despite a mutual dislike of Islam and of the EU, parties like Le Pen’s FN and Wilders’ PVV share almost as many differences as they do similarities. Le Pen has, for example, pledged to end gay marriages, while Wilders has attended pro-gay rights rallies. Le Pen’s party continues to flirt with anti-semitism, while Wilders is a staunch supporter of Israel. And while Wilders has praised free trade in his previous election manifestos, Le Pen says that Trump’s policies are already proving that “protectionism works”. As I pointed out in a recent interview, it’s hard to imagine many of Wilders’ far-right friends agreeing with him that the main problem with immigration from Muslim countries is that it threatens “the decay of our cherished values [such as] the equality of men and women, freedom of opinion and speech [and] tolerance of homosexuality”.

Wilders’ position in the rebel alliance is also odd because of the national context in which he operates, and the places where he draws his support from. In the four centuries after it won independence from Spain, the Netherlands rose to become one of the world’s wealthiest countries largely through its openness to the wider world; making up for its small size and lack of national resources by serving as the trading crossroads of northern Europe. Even today, in the era of e-commerce and 3D printers, one of the biggest engines driving the Dutch economy is still the port of Rotterdam, which handles more trade each year than Southampton, Bruges, Felixstowe and Genoa combined. In that context, it’s surprising to see that support for Wilders seems strongest in the very places (like Rotterdam) where people have gained most from an open, internationalist free-trading system, and have the most to lose if Trumpian walls and trade barriers go up. That people would vote against their own economic interest is no longer surprising, but it’s strange.

Finally, it’s also important to note that (as I’ve written in the past) the true level of support for the far-right remains very hard to measure. In the Netherlands, Wilders is currently enjoying his day in the sun, but polls show that support for his ideas appears to be sliding. While his party is still likely to make a strong showing in the elections, it’s hard to envisage an outcome whereby other parties agree to support a Wilders-led coalition government. Referring to Moroccans as “scum” may have pleased many of his followers on Twitter, but it’s unlikely to win over floating voters who are worried about rocking the boat. This week’s much-publicised trip by Wilders to the Rotterdam port satellite of Spijkenisse was notable mainly for the fact that the journalists and bodyguards following Wilders far outnumbered his supporters.

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The results of the Brexit referendum and Trump election mean we’re now primed to expect the unexpected, but it’s also worth remembering the times when support for far-right has fizzled out in the past. When I worked in UK politics, for example, politicians and advisers suffered from a widespread terror that the extremist British National Party was on the verge of upending the balance of power. In the end, the party sank without a trace. More recently, in 2015, UKIP dominated the British political news in the same way that Wilders now dominates the Dutch press. In the end, they won only one seat in parliament, which was held by a defector from the Conservatives who barely bothered to hide his dislike of Nigel Farage.

In many countries, the same anti-establishment trends which have cheered the far-right are now also boosting support for left-wingers. In France, for example, the independent centrist Emmanuel Macron is attracting support from millions of voters looking for a “none of the above” option, and might actually win the Presidency. In the Netherlands, the polls are as turbulent as ever, but the most likely outcome is still that the boringly competent current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, returns to power supported by a motley crew of leftish leaders. It’s certainly possible that Europe could be torn apart this year by a President Le Pen and Prime Minister Wilders. But it’s also possible that a French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Martin Schulz and Dutch Prime Minister Rutte could end up working together to quickly refurbish a damaged and dented Europe. In that case, 2017 could indeed be – as Marine Le Pen predicts – “the year when the people of continental Europe wake up”.