The spat between the Dutch and Turkish governments over the barring of Turkish ministers from speaking to rallies in the Netherlands to Turkish émigrés has nothing to do with the forthcoming Dutch election this Wednesday – and everything to do with the Turkish referendum next month on, among other things, strengthening the powers of President Erdoğan. Nevertheless it should remind us all of the importance of a stable and prosperous Turkey to a stable and prosperous Europe. This is not just a Dutch matter, nor indeed just an EU matter, for Turkish politicians have also been barred from Switzerland. This is affects us all.
The danger of course is that videos of Dutch police in Rotterdam using dogs and water cannons to disperse Turkish demonstrators will skew the attitude of the voters against immigration in general when they vote on Wednesday. Geert Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party, is the potential beneficiary for his pitch to the electorate is explicitly and vociferously anti-immigrant. His party may well become the largest single bloc in the new parliament, though given the Netherland’s fragmented party system and the unwillingness of other parties to form a coalition with the Freedom Party, it seems unlikely that it will be part of the next government.
But the appeal of Geert Wilders cannot be dismissed as anti-immigrant rabble-rousing or a protest from people who feel left behind in economic terms. The Netherlands is one of the most successful EU economies, with among the highest standards of living and the lowest inequality of any member state. The proportion of immigrants in the population is not particularly high either. His support is part of a wider rejection of the present European leadership, evident just about everywhere and particularly so in France and Italy.
In France the two front-runners for the first round of the forthcoming presidential election are both outsiders: Marine Le Pen from the hard right and Emmanuel Macron from the radical centre. Ms Le Pen is explicitly anti-euro, promising a referendum on the currency and calling for a return to the French franc. In Italy, it is not clear yet whether there will be a general election this year, but the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo is riding high in the polls. It has called from the country to leave the eurozone, a view supported by some investment houses in Italy. The popular mood in much of Europe has turned strongly against the euro, blaming it for sluggish growth and high unemployment. This may be unfair. It may be that the real problems like in the lack of economic reforms, including in the tax systems and the labour markets. It may be that reverting to national currencies would carry higher costs than remaining with the euro. But this is Europe now and politicians have to confront a powerful movement against the established elite. They cannot go round this. They have to go through the middle.
In the case of the Netherlands this does not mean dumping the euro. It does mean a new government that is sensitive to the concerns of people who have voted for the Freedom Party, even if the party itself is excluded from cabinet posts. As for Europe as a whole, whatever happens in the series of elections this summer and autumn, the EU will have to feel its way towards a more flexible response to the fears of Europeans in members large and small. The prize – a stable, prosperous society that looks after its weaker citizens and remains open to the world – is as attainable as ever. But what is happening in Rotterdam demonstrates the need to be thoughtful and sensitive in working towards that goal.