Dutch lead populist charge in EU elections

The Hague (AFP) –


A flamboyant Dutch populist could open the floodgates for a tidal wave of eurosceptic and anti-immigration parties across the continent in this week's European Parliament elections.

Classics-quoting climate sceptic Thierry Baudet founded the Forum for Democracy just two years ago, but his party is on course to beat Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberals when the Netherlands votes on Thursday.

As the first country in the EU to vote, along with exit-bound Britain, Dutch exit polls will be closely watched as a bellwether of a populist earthquake ahead of official results for the whole EU on Sunday.

"What happens in the Netherlands is also happening elsewhere in Europe," Claes de Vreese, politics professor at the University of Amsterdam, told AFP.

Once best known for naked Instagram selfies and controversial comments about women, Baudet, 36, stunned Europe in March when the Forum became the biggest party in the Dutch senate.

In the process he stole votes from Geert Wilders, the bleached-blonde anti-Islam leader who has long dented the Netherlands' image abroad as a bastion of tolerant liberalism.

Baudet is now aiming for similar success on the European stage, with latest opinion polls showing the Forum snatching as many as five of the 26 European Parliament seats allotted to the Netherlands, similar to Rutte's ruling VVD.

- 'Owl of Minerva' -

"Baudet is the new flavour of the year," said de Vreese. "He does attract a certain audience of voters who may be disgruntled by the fact that Wilders' style is very confrontational and not particularly intellectual."

But while Baudet has toned down his support for a full "Nexit" from the EU after the chaos in Britain, his nativist, anti-immigration message is similar to the one that has swept Europe from Italy to Hungary.

His senate elections victory speech declaring that the "Owl of Minerva spreads his wings" -- referring to the Roman goddess of wisdom -- was typical of narrative that sees an ancient European civilisation under threat from immigration.

His references to "boreal" or northern Europe echo those made in the past by French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Baudet, who has a law doctorate, has also successfully tapped into the populist railing against elites, whether in The Hague or Brussels or Washington, that has transformed western politics in recent years.

"For a long time, Europe has been a very technical story and people did not understand that," Amy Verdun, European politics professor at Leiden University, told AFP.

"The populists made things simple. You may not agree with them, but they simplify things for the ordinary citizen."

She predicted gains for parties that have a "strong line on Europe, whether anti- or pro-EU."

- 'More extreme' -

Intriguingly in a low-lying country that is one of the world's most vulnerable to rising sea levels, the Netherlands' Baudet is also notable for his strong denial of climate change.

This puts him at odds with the leftist greens such as the GroenLinks party who also look set to make gains in the Netherlands on what is replacing the left-right divide as one of the most polarising issues of our age.

"Voters have become more extreme," said Verdun, pointing to factors such as US President Donald Trump pulling out of 2015 Paris accord.

But analysts urged overplaying populist gains, pointing out that the fragmented Dutch political scene means parties can come first with only a small share of the national vote, and most voters will still back centrist parties.

"There are very few voters who want to abandon Europe completely and there are very few who want a completely integrated state and no more nation states," said De Vreese.

The repeated failure of squabbling populist and far-right parties to unite within the European Parliament would also lessen their impact, said Amy Verdun.

"The populists' problem is that they can never agree on anything," she said. "If they don't capitalise on their result, the populists will never get much further."