Last week marked the 25th anniversary of one of the major events in the European Union construction. On February 7th 1992, in the little Dutch city of Maastricht, the then 12 members of a relatively modest economic partnership – the European Community – agreed on the creation of an ambitious political institution, establishing the very structure of the European Union. Yet the commemoration of this historical event were only echoed by a deafening silence all across the continent.
The Maastricht Treaty set the roadmap for the European Union, pooling national sovereignties, opening the doors for an integration of Eastern Europe and establishing the mechanisms for common economic, security and foreign policies. As a result, this agreement also gave birth to a common European currency and set stringent monetary rules for European countries up to today. But as the European integration has become the scapegoat of populist parties, European leaders did all they could to muffle any mention of this revolutionary agreement last week.
The strict monetary rules and supranational institutionalism included in this treaty fueled the rise of far right parties from UKIP to the French National Front and the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV). The incapacity – or unwillingness – from European elites to adapt the famous “convergence criteria” (low inflation, reduced debt and deficits as well as monetary stability) to the economic recession which hurt so many of the most vulnerable European citizens was the very cause of the structural unemployment that plagues the continent today.
Keynesian answer to economic recession
If the original objective to build a strong politically integrated union should be praised, the orthodox economic dogma inspiring it prevented national government from implementing a much needed Keynesian answer to economic recession. The ensuing unrest and despair felt by middle and lower classes explains the rise of xenophobic and far rights movements and the risk for a populist and xenophobic takeover in many elections this year.
The Maastricht Treaty was the ancestor of the European Constitution which was rejected by referendum in France and Holland in the spring of 2005. Ironically the citizens of both countries are the next to elect their representatives over the next three months. And in both cases, far right parties are expected to win at least the first round of the elections.
In France, of the five candidates expected to gather 15 percent or more in the first round, none had campaigned in favor of the Maastricht Treaty during the 1992 referendum. This is no surprise for far left candidate Jean-Claude Melenchon as well as for the extreme right representative Marine Le Pen as their respective party have historically been against the European Union’s supranational powers.
However, even the two moderate party nominees, Francois Fillon (Republican) and Benoit Hamon (socialist) had vigorously campaigned against Maastricht despite their own party’s official directives. The fifth candidate Emmanuel Macron – probably the most pro-EU candidate – was still a teenager at the time.
The Netherlands domino
With elections less than a month away, the Netherlands might very well be the next domino to fall to right wing populism after the Brexit vote in Great Britain. The insurgent Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders – a man so controversial he was banned from entering the United Kingdom for racist and Islamophobic comments – has campaigned for its own “Nexit” and is currently leading in the polls.
The PVV political platform is, however, slightly different from the xenophobic message hammered by Marine Le Pen or the Brexit advocates. It is indeed anti-EU and anti-immigration but Wilders also advocates for more money for the healthcare system and a lower retirement age. It is this combination (left on social issues, right on societal and sovereignty) that seems to appeal to a part of the electorate who rejects today’s European Union with its neoliberal right wing economics doubled with a societal permissiveness which blurred the European identity and values.
Many misunderstand the rise of the PVV as a reactionary movement similar to the French National Front. Marine Le Pen promotes traditional conservative values and pillories the modern evolutions of a society which embraced same-sex union and gender equality. Unlike the National Front, Wilders however does not call for an authoritarian return to a thankfully bygone era when women would stay home and homosexuality and secularism would be lampooned by religious zealots.
Somehow, a viciously anti-Islam and anti-immigration Wilders has been able to position himself as the last rampart of a Dutch liberalism portrayed as being at risk by media campaigns and populistic discourses. Only 4 percent of the Dutch population is Muslim and unemployment is far lower than in neighboring countries. And yet polls reveal that a sizeable portion of the Dutch population believes that jobs are being taken away by refugees and immigrants and that European values are under siege.
This is the result of the failure of a Dutch political class, unsympathetic to legitimate fears and incompetent when it came to educating the population by demonstrating the economic benefits of immigration and the role played by the EU to protect the European values of secularism and societal freedom.
A key example can be found in the recent Bohmermann-Erdogan incident, when a German satirist made fun of the Turkish president, resulting in Turkey’s consulate in Rotterdam asking Turkish organizations in the Netherlands to report “insulting, defaming” social media posts about Erdogan and Turkey.
This sovereignty infringement was immediately exploited by the Dutch far right movement to alert on attacks to Dutch liberalism. Mainstream politicians should have been able to highlight that it is the very European Union laws and regulations that protect freedom of speech and satire in the Netherlands while preventing the rise of authoritarian figures in the continent.
So when voters turn to the ballots with the intention to vote for a politician that advocates for a Nexit, a Frexit or any other return to narrow national sovereignty, they hopefully will realize that their naivety and legitimate concerns are being exploited.
Far right politicians are using identity fears for their own political gains and if voters want to ensure the permanence of liberal freedoms protected by EU regulations, they might want to reconsider their choice.