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Geert Wilders: Yet Another Warning to the Center

Many Europeans are waking up to the failures of multiculturalism and open-border policies and are demanding action. If the parties of the center left and center right continue to fail on this front, someone else will step in.”

Western and Central Europe’s right-wing populists are going from strength to strength. From Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) in France to Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), they have been able to win over a significant portion of the electorate. In recent polls, the AfD has even overtaken German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), and Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy (FdI) already serves as the country’s prime minister. Now Geert Wilders has won a major victory in the Netherlands with his nationalist Party for Freedom (PVV). What explains this trend, and what are the implications?

While the political discontent that has piled up during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) years and the economic crisis that Europe is facing at present are certainly part of the explanation, it cannot be ignored that this is also a consequence of the failure of multiculturalism and poor immigration management. Every country is different, of course, and has its own problems to deal with and challenges to meet, but the established centrist parties of Western and Central Europe have downplayed the negative consequences of mass immigration for too long. Now they are getting their comeuppance.

It is true that right-wing populists have a talent for dupery and incitement, but they are also good at detecting trends in public opinion. Ordinary people tend not to be multiculturalists, especially if they are directly affected by immigration, for instance in their jobs or where they live. If the demographic makeup and cultural character of their neighborhood or town changes so dramatically that they start to feel like foreigners in their own country, they are unlikely to support multiculturalism, in particular when the immigrants in question do not seem to return the favor. 

And while selective skilled immigration obviously makes economic sense, mass unskilled immigration constitutes a threat to the livelihoods of low-skilled natives and a drain on the health, welfare, and criminal justice systems. It also negatively affects housing, social cohesion, and even the environment. And then there is the issue of Islam, the world’s fastest growing religion, posing a security risk—not to mention the bigotry and backwardness that comes with it.

For decades, virtually anyone who voiced such concerns was branded a racist—with the effect that the word has lost its power to dissuade people from voting for the populist right. Conversely, the latter has consistently addressed these issues and has often been in a position to say, “I told you so.” Trying to keep up and stay relevant, Europe’s banged-up mainstream parties, even those left of center, now seem to be taking a tougher stance on immigration. 

The open display of anti-Semitism and support for jihadism at Islamist mass protests following Hamas’s barbaric attack on innocent Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023, functioned as a catalyst for this shift—especially in Germany, where I live. In light of the country’s Nazi past, which had hitherto been used to justify liberal immigration policies, such obscene transgressions simply could not be tolerated any longer.

Before October 7th, it would have been scandalous for a left-winger like Chancellor Scholz to proclaim, “We have to deport people more often and faster.” Even Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck from the pro-immigrant Green Party said that non-Germans who burn the Israeli flag or praise Hamas “risk their residency status,” and those without “a residence permit will have provided a reason to be deported.” Such clear words were previously missing from the debate.

What is more, Germany is currently cracking down on illegal immigration, an initiative supported by politicians from across the political spectrum, often out of fear of a far-right takeover. The question, however, is whether taking a page from the anti-immigrant right’s book is a sustainable tactic for the moderate center or whether this approach will backfire. After all, the message it sends is that the right-wing populists were right all along. And many voters will prefer the original to the copy.

There is also a danger that this development lends legitimacy to irrational and violent anti-immigrant sentiments in the population. To avoid this, the adoption of tougher immigration policies must be finely calibrated so as not to overshoot the mark. It must be made clear, for instance, that some immigration (even of low-skilled people) is desirable and beneficial to the host society, and that humanitarian concerns are valid.

Right-wing populists often have a point when it comes to the downsides of immigration. But they tend to be terrible on most other issues, such as climate and environmental issues. Furthermore, these parties frequently give cover to far-right extremists, or even have such people in their ranks, and undermine the pillars of liberal democracy. (The AfD provides a case in point.) Nor do such parties, whose political approach is all about agitation, have the slightest clue how to govern a nation. 

In my home country of Austria, one such party, the Freedom Party (FPÖ), has made it into government three times since the year 2000. Each time, leading party officials ended up in court or involved in major scandals. In 2019, a secretly recorded video incriminating FPÖ-leader and then-Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache caused the collapse of the coalition government with the People’s Party (ÖVP). Vice-Chancellor Strache had offered decoy assistance in acquiring business contracts in Austria in exchange for rendering support in the October, 2017 election by buying the mass-circulation tabloid Kronen Zeitung and donating funds through party associations that would be difficult to audit. 

People like that should be nowhere near the corridors of power. But the issues and concerns their parties address must be taken seriously. Many Europeans are waking up to the failures of multiculturalism and open-border policies and are demanding action. If the parties of the center left and center right continue to fail on this front, someone else will step in. The election of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands is another wake-up call and perhaps a final warning. For some countries, however, it may already be too late. The FPÖ is currently leading in the polls in Austria, and by quite a margin.

Gerfried Ambrosch is an author and writer and holds a Ph.D. in literary and cultural studies. He can be found on Twitter @g_ambrosch

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