The year 2016 has been scarred by a persistent contagion – the resurgence of far-right populism.
On March 15, the Dutch are going to the polls. An event that does not usually attract a lot of international attention is likely to be different this time.
The far-right and Islamophobic Geert Wilders, who wants to take the Netherlands out of the European Union, is leading in the polls. This sends a shiver through Europe’s spine: if Wilders wins, following the Brexit and the United States presidential elections, it could well be a trampoline for nationalist parties in the coming French and German elections.
If Wilders, the “man who invented Trump”, can be so popular, even in a country known for its tolerance and openness, even in a country with a solid economy, what does this mean for Europe as a whole?
In the tradition of philosophers such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Baruch Spinoza, the Netherlands has always been proud of its identity based on the values of tolerance and freedom.
In the specific Dutch context, this laid out the underpinnings of a “live-and-let-live” view on a wide range of issues, leading the country to assume a role at the forefront of the defending multiculturalism and broadening personal freedoms.
By the end of the 20th century, this view of tolerance – just let everybody do their thing – seemed deeply engraved in the Dutch character. And just after the turn of the millennium it all changed.
The Netherlands, at the time, was being governed by a broad coalition of social-democrats and liberals, and has enjoyed a period of great economic prosperity.
With the 2002 elections, Pim Fortuyn, an academic-turned-politician, gained an enormous following by doing two things: Attacking the politics of the broad coalition on the grounds it was overly bureaucratic and being out of touch with the ordinary people, and declaring the Islam to be of an inferior culture.
He obviously tapped into a vein of discontent with a government running the country in an unemotional and non-ideological way.
The populists across Europe haven't yet won in the ballot box - even if Wilders wins, it would only have a symbolic significance, as it is extremely unlikely other parties are willing to form a coalition with him.
Then various developments – both in the Netherlands and abroad – opened a can of worms. Fortuyn was murdered, as was the movie director and anti-Islamic provocateur Theo van Gogh two years later, in 2004. And the following year, the Dutch voted against the European constitution in a referendum – an outcome largely ignored by the Lisbon Treaty.
On the international front, the Dutch were confronted with the 2008 financial crisis, the eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis and the bloody attacks in Paris and Brussels by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) assailants happening close to the Netherlands.
This toxic cocktail of events fuelled the rise of Geert Wilders. He claimed ownership of Fortuyn’s legacy by adopting a more extreme posture about the so-called threats of Islam, and by expressing a formidable discontent towards the governing elites in both Brussels and The Hague.
He presents himself as the only politician defending the welfare state, the national identity and the border. He proposes doing so by closing the mosques, banning the Quran and taking the Netherlands out of the EU.
Paradoxically, one could say that, “thanks” to Wilders, the Netherlands remains loyal to its tradition of being at the forefront of international attention – although in a different way.
Considering his anti-Islamic, nationalistic and isolationistic agenda, Wilders can be seen as a pioneer of Trumpism.
And, beyond the peculiarities of each country and culture, Wilders’ project has a lot in common with other far-right and populist parties the EU: The National Front in France, the AfD in Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria and the Italian Lega Nord.
What they share, most of all, is a firm grip on the debate on national identity, immigration, European unity and economic policy.
The populists across Europe haven’t yet won in the ballot box – even if Wilders wins, it would only have a symbolic significance as it is extremely unlikely other parties are willing to form a coalition with him – but it already gives them a great boost. All across the continent, the political discussion is being conducted on populist terms.
This Dutch election campaign presents a striking example. Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the centre-right The People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), who promised voters he won’t form a coalition with Wilders after the elections, tried to prise a few Wilders’ voters away by writing an open letter urging people to “doe normaal”, act normal or get out.
The Christian-Democratic Appeal leader Sybrand van Haersma Buma thought he could do better on the nationalist front and proclaimed schoolchildren should start their day by singing the national anthem – according to him the most beautiful and oldest in the world.
True to form, populists claim to be the only ones understanding the identity, worries and needs of the people. They found an enemy, actually two – Islam and (EU) elites – to form an identity they fight to return to.
Nationalists and populists forced Europe to debate identity, tradition and culture. National governments and the European leaders until now either ignored or copied.
Even if complemented with good, or just sound governance, ignoring the debate will leave part of the electorate permanently unsatisfied. Copying the populists’ answers is accepting their means – as the Brexit example eloquently demonstrates.
That’s why the five possible scenarios for the future of the EU, presented by the President Jean-Claude Juncker last week, are largely beside the point. They aren’t right or wrong in themselves, but they don’t answer the questions of traditions, identity, and culture.
For now, it is up to the populist parties not only to ask these questions, but also to answer them.
But the future of Europe lies with its identity. Instead of being ashamed or afraid, those of us who do not agree with the answers the populists provide, we should have the courage to engage in this debate.
And to finally propose convincing alternatives to the ones Wilders and his populist friends want us to believe.
Silvia Mazzini is an assistant professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin.
Kees Jan van Kesteren studied history in Leiden, the Netherlands and Berlin, Germany, and works as a journalist and translator.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.