Paris Gourtsoyannis: Europe thinks again about its future

Of all the questions hanging over the SNP's renewed push for independence in the wake of the EU referendum, the one that could be the most defining has also largely been left unasked.

Dutch right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders (R) addresses a rally of German right-wing movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident)  in Dresden. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Dutch right-wing Party for Freedom (PVV) leader Geert Wilders (R) addresses a rally of German right-wing movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident) in Dresden. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

If Scottish Nationalists expect voters to break faith with the 300 year-old Union to chase a European destiny instead, what kind of Europe will Scotland be joining?

Up until now, in keeping with the political mood of Brexit and the US election, the answer to that question has cowered beneath dark clouds hanging over the continent.

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The rise of the far right in Germany, France and elsewhere has raised the prospect of a angry, fractured Europe of borders and confrontation, tipped down a populist helter skelter by the shock of Brexit but accelerating towards the bottom under its own momentum.

Next week, however, that could begin to change.

In the first of three defining elections for Europe over the next six months, the Netherlands goes to the polls, with voters giving real thought to handing the far-right a historic victory.

Geert Wilders, the leader of the Party for Freedom or PVV, is built for the era of paranoid, personality-driven politics. His bizarre silver bouffant is more outrageous than anything Donald Trump could achieve with a comb, and guarantees him instant recognition. Like much of his political persona, opponents speculate as to whether it is based on personal conviction rather than just an expedient political prop.

His views outstrip Trump’s, too. Wilders, who condemns all of Islam as hate-driven and totalitarian, wants a ban on Muslim immigration and a tax on women who wear headscarves. He has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf and claims Dutch women and homosexuals are under threat from “street terrorists”, as he calls young Moroccan men. It is the stuff of a deep, fanciful xenophobia.

Many question how Wilders, whose dislike of the EU rests primarily on his desire to close the country’s borders, has risen to such prominence in open, tolerant and liberal Netherlands. It’s a question that should trouble moderate, globalist Brexit supporters, for whom the Netherlands seems to be the reflection of what they imagine the UK’s best self to be.

It is a self-confident constitutional monarchy founded on the principles of Reformation humanist individualism. It appears unencumbered by loss of empire, enjoying good relations and trading with most of the world – and boasting one of the world’s biggest balance of trade surpluses.

But there is a conservatism at the heart of Dutch tolerance, with roots in its Calvinist heritage. The large windows that offer views through the distinctive brick terraces lining Amsterdam’s 17th century canals reflect both the transparency and conformity of a society that makes a virtue of having nothing to hide.

Dutch people are proud of their live-and-let-live society, but globally-minded friends from the Netherlands nonetheless admit to a concern at the way their culture has been changed by immigration. That has, so far, provided a understandable backdrop to Wilders’ rise.

Except the polls have begun to swing, and the PVV no longer looks a safe bet to come first. It remains on course to have its best ever election and become a leading force in the Binnenhof, the Dutch parliament, but with all but two small parties ruling out forming a coalition with Wilders, he will be locked out of power. After a sharp boost from a US election result that made the unthinkable thinkable, Dutch voters have taken a good look at Wilders, and are thinking again.

Increasingly, Europe’s other defining electoral contests are pointing the same way. The narrative emerging from France and Germany, which last year seemed at grave risk of a far-right breakout, is now one of a pro-European centrism reasserting itself in response to tough questions.

In France, Marine Le Pen still looks set to win a historic victory in the first round of presidential elections. But the collapse of the established left and right has instead opened up space for a candidate from the centre, Emmanuel Macron, to profit from the widespread disgust with established political forces.

Macron, likened to a young Tony Blair, straddles the divide between being pro-innovation and defending the French social model. He is also unapologetically pro-European, telling supporters: “Europe is us.” Polls suggest that if he makes it into the second round against Le Pen, Macron will be the next French president.

And in Germany, where so much of the media coverage has been dedicated to the anti-immigrant, eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the real political earthquake looks set to be delivered not by the far-right but by the centre-left. Since choosing the former European Parliament president Martin Schulz as its candidate, the SPD has threatened to out-poll Angela Merkel’s party. The AfD is on course to enter the Bundestag for the first time, but it has fallen back and talk of it holding the balance of power has diminished.

With Article 50 set to be triggered in a matter of weeks, the makeup of Brexit Europe matters to the UK. European politicians believe the UK is trying to divide the EU with an intense courtship of eastern countries such as Poland. But if pro-Europeans are in power in Paris and Berlin, those alliances will mean little. The UK already appears to be losing its only natural ally as Irish politicians question the ability to deliver an open border with Northern Ireland, where the swing towards Sinn Féin is being interpreted as a rejection of Brexit.

Europe faces an existential crisis and needs to reinvent itself to regain the confidence of its citizens. Failure to do so could give new energy to far-right eurosceptics.

But there is at least the outline of a different path for Europe emerging in places where the challenge seems greatest. Which future has taken hold by the time the UK finally leaves the EU – and Scotland, perhaps, is asked if it wants to stay – is about to be decided.