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Geert Wilders could wreck Europe’s liberal consensus

He now holds all the cards. Credit: Getty

May 20, 2024 - 10:00am

Of the four parties which have just agreed to form a new government in the Netherlands, three can be described as populist — not least the Party for Freedom of Right-wing leader Geert Wilders.

The fourth, however, is the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD. Until Wilders’s shock victory in last year’s general election, the VVD was the dominant force in Dutch politics. Its former leader, Mark Rutte, has been Prime Minister since 2010 and is a major player in EU politics.

So what is his party doing putting the hard Right into office? That’s a question being asked by Renew Europe (RE), which is the EU-wide grouping of liberal and centrist parties.

Earlier this month, RE signed a joint declaration with three other Euro-blocs, representing the EU’s socialists, social democrats and greens. Entitled “In Defence of Democracy”, it warns that the “rise of the far-Right and radical parties in Europe is a threat to our common project, its values and to the civil liberties and fundamental rights of its citizens”. The declaration goes on to state that “we will never cooperate nor form a coalition with the far-Right and radical parties at any level.”

Renew Europe not only put its name to the declaration, but primly expressed its “regret” that the European People’s Party — the main centre-right bloc — had “failed to sign this important statement of unity against extremism”.

And yet less than two weeks later, the VVD — one of Renew Europe’s most prominent members — was ushering Wilders along the corridors of power. How can such blatant hypocrisy be tolerated? Perhaps, it won’t be. Over the weekend, François Bayrou — ally of Emmanuel Macron and a Renew Europe stalwart — said that the VVD “will have no place in the group we form”.

But can the Euro-libs afford to act on principle? The trouble is that the VVD isn’t the only liberal party to cooperate with the radical Right. For instance, in Finland there’s the RKP, which represents the country’s Swedish-speaking minority and is currently part of a coalition government that also includes the anti-immigrant Finns Party. Meanwhile, in Italy there’s Azione, which allied with populists in the Basilicata regional election last month. Then there’s the Czech ANO which, despite its membership of Renew Europe, is a populist party itself — and whose leader, Andrej BabiĆĄ, is close to Hungary’s Viktor OrbĂĄn.

If RE starts cleaning house, where will it end? It’s possible that it could just make an example of the Dutch liberals and leave it at that. But this limited action would still come at a cost. With the European elections coming up in June, Renew Europe is in a desperate battle to retain its status as the third-largest bloc in the European Parliament. The five MEPs that the VVD looks set to win could be of crucial importance. Without this delegation, RE could easily sink to fifth place.

That would be a blow that could destabilise the centrist alliance between RE and their centre-left and centre-right partners. The latter will be tempted to look further to the Right for new partners, potentially giving control over the parliament to a conservative-populist alliance. Given the stakes, the Euro-libs are unlikely to put principle before power. That, after all, is the liberal way.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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AC Harper
AC Harper
1 month ago

It would appear that “fear of the right” or “fear of populism” has been overegged by those that would prosper from reduced competition.
It may well be that ‘the right’, ‘the far right’, ‘the fascists’, might hold uncomfortable views to many, but the same could be said of the ‘liberal consensus’.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
1 month ago

Earlier this month, RE signed a joint declaration with three other Euro-blocs, representing the EU’s socialists, social democrats and greens. Entitled ‘In Defence of Democracy‘”
The notion that the political groupings most committed to enforcing political opinion orthodoxy are defending democracy is absurd.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
1 month ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

Daniel – you read this wrong. The correct tile was “In Defence of the Right Sort of Democracy”

Marko Bee
Marko Bee
1 month ago
Reply to  Daniel Lee

act.”

“Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” 
― George Orwell, 1984 

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
1 month ago

I had to chuckle. What’s wrong with ‘wrecking the liberal consensus’ ? After all it’s been such a boon for progress in the EU no? Go Gerry Wilders!

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

So what is his party doing putting the hard Right into office?
Oh, no; not the hard right. Whatever will we do, how will society survive without leftist hegemony? Perhaps the people who generated that “consensus” and their water carries could engage in the slightest introspection as to why the public is not satisfied. If politicians are capable of that.

David L
David L
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I think it’s time to unsubscribe

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 month ago

This type of essay is getting very tiresome. Who gets to determine which party is centre left or centre right? Anyone who thinks open borders is a good idea long ago abandoned the centre of anything. I’m sure the Nasi foot soldiers in Germany thought they were protecting democracy when they kicked our Jewish students and teachers.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 month ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Indeed they – the NSDAP foot soldiers – wanted to protect the democracy of the German Volk against the anti-democratic machinations of rich cosmopolitan Industrialists of a certain religious ethnicity subverting the democratic will of the people – against the George Soroses of their time in effect. That’s how they saw things at least.

Jae
Jae
1 month ago

I’m here as a “1 Month Free” subscriber because I’m trying to decide if I really want to subscribe. This article could tip the scales to No. What does Mr Franklin, an Associate Editor at Unherd no less, think “Populism” is? A dirty word obviously.

Mr Franklin, populism is your beloved Democracy at work. You’re labeling of everything “Populist” as Right-wing is a pathetic attempt to demonize those whose politics don’t align with the Left.

Even the title of this article is laughable. Europe has never had a “Liberal Consensus”. It was never Liberal, only in the minds of those who all agree with each other and march in lockstep. Otherwise you’re labeled as some sort of extremist as this author does here.

Dick Barrett
Dick Barrett
1 month ago

Ireland’s Fianna Fail are also in the Liberal RE group. They are a perfect fit for the neoliberal Brussels-worshipping group that RE (formerly ALDE) was until now, but they may soon have to share power with the left-populist Sinn Fein.

Paul O'Callaghan
Paul O'Callaghan
1 month ago
Reply to  Dick Barrett

d**k I agree with the first half of your comments regarding FF, but whatever makes you think that Sinn Fein will be in any position of influence after the next election? They are in for a right old hammering, as their traditional voter base feels betrayed on a number of grounds.

Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
1 month ago

Illiberal consensus dontcha mean?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago

Ok I’ll say it. What liberal consensus? Doesn’t seem like there’s much consensus in Europe on much of anything these days. I admit to not knowing a lot about how EU elections works, so maybe being the ‘third-largest bloc’ means something other than that there are two blocs with greater support, which leads me to question how much ‘consensus’ there is. Am I way off base here? Help an American out here.