On 15 March, the Dutch voted in their parliamentary elections in favour of the ruling Liberal party and against their own version of the alt-right. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) won 33 seats compared to insurgent candidate Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party’s (PVV) 20 seats. Although this triumph will act as a speed-bump for ethnic and economic nationalism, it is a temporary effect. The election was mostly about immigration, particularly of Muslims, and how to integrate them into Dutch society.
Now that they have won, centrist parties must learn that without incorporating some of the more legitimate and palatable concerns of voters concerned with immigration, they will be unable to maintain power. During the lead up to the election, Rutte warned of the need to integrate ethnic non-Dutch people to ensure every citizen shared the same basic secular and liberal values.
Rutte said everyone needed to know that the Netherlands wasn’t for people who “litter,” “spit,” “attack gay people”, or “shout at women in short skirts.” All of this was declared in a full-page advertisement which said people should “act normal or go away.”
By doing this, the VVD was able to steal some of the PVV’s rhetoric and, in turn, some of their voters. While such language from an establishment leader rattled the liberal and centrist press, it worked well and was copied by other parties. Finally, Rutte benefited from taking a firm stance on a visceral row with the Muslim-majority country, Turkey. The problem facing centrists is how to stop nativist parties that thrive on marginalising others without alienating increasing numbers of nativist voters.
Although the EU-Turkey deal caused seemingly endless troubles, everyone seems to agree on one thing: the deal worked. It managed to drastically bring down refugee numbers. For the new Maltese EU presidency, this seems justification enough to replicate it, just that this time the chosen partner is Libya.
With his new proposal, up for debate at the EU Council on 3 February, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is trying to tie up a deal that would make Libya one of the EU’s closest partners in migration control. However, the price of this partnership would be high. It would not only mean a final goodbye to Europe’s commitment to human rights, but it would create further tensions both inside and outside Europe.
The timing of the proposal makes sense, with Malta just assuming the rotating EU presidency, and the migration influx expected to start in the spring. In order to prevent what he calls a “new migration crisis”, Muscat claims Europe has to act quickly and decisively, with pragmatism taking precedence over idealism. In concrete terms, this means negotiating and funding a deal with Libya in which the Libyan coastguard, de facto dependent on whichever warring faction rules the coastline, would be responsible for turning around boats before they reach international waters. This is supposed to drive down numbers, and disrupt the business of smugglers. In return, reception centers would be opened in Libya, allowing asylum seekers to apply on the spot, with the lucky ones accepted receiving safe passage over the sea. Yet, what sounds reasonable in the beginning, is ultimately heavily flawed.