Political life in The Netherlands has been in crisis for the past fifteen years, yet the other day a new bottom seems to have been reached. A populist group of “concerned citizens” has collected sufficient signatures to enforce an advisory referendum on the Association Agreement between the European and Ukraine, to be held in March 2016. Dutch Parliament already ratified the Agreement earlier this year, yet the outcome of the referendum could force Parliament to revisit the issue. It is not obliged to follow the outcome of the voting, yet clearly the debates will be hot and populist politicians will have another hook on which to hang their simple solutions to complex problems. This time the hook is Ukraine, and its desire to join the European family.
Yet is the voting really about Ukraine?
Actually not. The majority of the voters in The Netherlands know little if anything about Ukraine, let alone about the agreement signed between the post-Maidan government and the European Union. Most have heard about the skirmishes in Kyiv between demonstrators and government forces, as a result of which “some people” died. But television sprays them night after night with horrific images of wars, bomb attacks and insurgencies, and the majority gave up long ago to make any sense of it. All they know is that in this globalizing world, the danger is coming closer day by day. Issues people never had to understand are suddenly on their doorstep, and citizens are asked to express their views – even if based on ignorance and without knowing the complexities on the ground.
In this case, the quest for a referendum originated from a strange combination of right-wing politicians and socialists, who happen to share the hesitations against the growing influence of Europe. The socialists see Europe as the powerhouse of world capitalism that will turn us all into little wheels in the engine of the rich and powerful. “Power to the people,” is their slogan, and in their view “Brussels” and “people” are two entities with often contrary goals and needs. More dangerous are the right-wing populists, the parties that thrive on people’s fears and anxieties and tell them that doomsday is around the corner if we allow the world to globalize further and allow foreigners to threaten the “true national culture” of the country. In France this group is personified by Le Pen, both father and daughter. And no matter how much daughter tries to take distance from her father, the wolf remains quite visible under her sheepskin. In The Netherlands the personification is the “Dutch Mozart”, parliamentarian , internationally well known because of his exuberant wave of white hair and his ever-radicalizing calls to halt the “Islamic threat” and the attack on “Judeo-Christian values”.
The radicalization of Geert Wilders is extremely worrisome, not only because of the fact that his discriminatory and degrading remarks are an insult to the very “Judeo-Christian values” that he claims to stand for, but also because Dutch politicians have allowed themselves to go down on the sliding slope of acceptance and seem to prefer to swallow his remarks out of fear of losing votes. This is a tendency that started back in 2002, when the radical and flamboyant Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated. His murder shocked the nation, but instead of saying that they condemned the killing but continued to disagree with Fortuyn’s views, almost all parties tumbled over each other to show that they too had a “little bit of Fortuyn” in their political program. The resulting hypocrisy deepened the distrust of people in the political parties, and the country has not recovered ever since. When two weeks ago, during a parliamentary session, Geert Wilders called the parliament – of which he himself is a member – a “fake parliament”, the Parliament Speaker remained mute and only several politicians said what should have been said: that Wilders has reached dangerous levels of pre-war fascistic politicking.
And thus without any honest explanation, more than 400,000 Dutchmen were convinced to vote for a referendum on the agreement with Ukraine. Why? Not because they are against Ukraine. In reality, they don’t care, and Ukraine’s war for national unity and a democratic and free country is for them a non-issue. They signed, because they are afraid about their own peaceful modest lives, because they believe the raving of Geert Wilders and the like, and because for them Syrian refugees, the upsurge of Islamic radicalism and the troubles in Ukraine are all in one and the same bag.
The saddest thing of all is, that for centuries The Netherlands was known as a safe haven for political and religious refugees, and that if one looks at the origins of the current “Dutch” probably not more than 10% are fully Dutch. The rest is a mixture of many races, and many cultures, and it is exactly that mix that has made the country so culturally rich. And one of those ethnic mixes is in fact the family Wilders itself, his wife being Hungarian – the country that in 1956 lost 350,000 of its citizens fleeing the Soviet occupation, many of whom settled in the hospitable country of The Netherlands.
Will the outcome of the referendum influence the position of Ukraine? In the short term probably not. The Dutch government will find a way around this, no doubt, but for populist politicians this will be again proof of the “non-democratic nature” of the country, and the neo-fascist rhetoric will go in higher gear.
However, the referendum not only sets a dangerous precedent, it is also proof of the fact that the aspirations of the Ukrainian people and of a growing number of European citizens are fundamentally contrary. While Ukraine wants to find its rightful place within the European family, a growing number of Europeans tend to share the rather fascist notion of “our own people first”. The globalization has resulted in a lot of anxiety and while people enjoy all the benefits of a globalized world – eating fresh fruits from Kenya or Peru in winter and lying on the beaches of Thailand instead of the North Sea – they seem to deny the fact that globalization also means that others have equal rights to these benefits.
Seventy-five years of communism has not only led to the greatest man-made disaster in the history of mankind, it has also led to a shocking ignorance in Western Europe, where for most of the people Europe used to end where communism began. Alas the extreme policies of the Kremlin confirm to them this old split between “us” and “them” and it will take a lot of time, energy and investments to make sure that Ukraine winds up on the right side of the divide.