Populism and Euroscepticism in the Netherlands

Pim Fortuyn and the Dutch Nee-Campaign against the European Constitutional Treaty

Bachelor Thesis, 2006
42 Pages, Grade: 1,7


1. Introduction

The Netherlands has always been regarded as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of further integration within the European Union (EU). Not only were two of the most important treaties of the EU – the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties – signed there, but the Dutch political culture could also be described as being open-minded and pro-European. Among the Benelux countries, the Netherlands has been part of a bigger concept as it was at the heart of the European Economic Community (EEC) and among its founding members. In recent years, a more critical discourse has emerged in the Netherlands in regard to European integration. The success of the populist Pim Fortuyn as head of a clearly Eurosceptic agenda (Lijst Pim Fortuyn, LPF) in 2002 questioned the Dutch’s liberal attitude. The 2005 Nee-Campaign against the European Constitutional Treaty shows that there are Eurosceptic developments which might have an effect on other European member states as well.

This dissertation will have a closer look at populism and Euroscepticism in the Netherlands. It will start with a theoretical analysis of both concepts as they are hard to define. Talking about populism also includes the relationship between populism and democracies. Does populism threat or does it rather revive democracy? In order to understand Dutch populism this dissertation will have a look at the circumstances in which populism arose in the Netherlands: the Dutch consensual government. Further on the focus lies on the rise and fall of Pim Fortuyn and the implication on the government before, during, and after Fortuynism. This will be followed by a brief analysis which will examine if Fortuynism was right-wing or not. Then the focus will be on Euroscepticism and answer the question if it is populist. How does the Dutch referendum fit into that framework and does the Nee-Campaign have a future impact on the Netherlands’ role in Europe? After answering these questions, an analysis of the reasons for the result of the Nee-Campaign will follow. The conclusion will answer and reveal the research questions.

2. What is Populism?

2.1.1. Defining Populism

Defining populism has preoccupied most popular sociologists – Margaret Canovan, Ernesto Laclau and Paul Taggart – because the term itself has been applied to many different occurrences of populist movements. At the conference on defining the term ‘populism’, Sir Isaiah Berlin described the myth around the term ‘populism’ as ‘Cinderella Complex’ by expressing that

“there exists a shoe – the word ‘populism’ – for which somewhere exists a foot. There are all kinds of feet which it nearly fits, but we must not be trapped by these nearly fitting feet. The prince is always wandering about with the shoe; and somewhere, we feel sure, there awaits a limb called pure populism, its essence” (Allcock 1971, p.358).

What is populism then? How can the term be approached? From a democratic perspective, the term ‘populism’ itself is Janus faced and ambivalent. The literal translation from its Latin roots ‘populus’ is ‘the people’, which exhibits a clear link with the democratic idea. According to Taggart (2000, p.3) populism is the “commitment to the people” (sometimes used as ‘the ordinary people’ or ‘all people’), who expect populists to be “one of them” and share their way of life. Its suffix ‘ism’ usually represents an ideological potentiation like in liberal ism or social ism, that stands in contrast to the moderate character of today’s democracies.

Why is populism so hard to catch? That is because the term is used widely since it is a phenomenon that is omnipresent in modern politics. Susanne Falkenberg (see 1997) uses a bi-functionalist interpretation to understand populism, which means that it can be a phenomenon from the left and right, bottom up and top down. Often rural, populism can also be urban, though it is religious, hostile to science and technology, isolationist, antimilitarist and nostalgic. To understand populism, it is necessary to have its historic origins in mind. Canovan describes two main branches of populism and seven sub-variants. The term ‘populism’ was first used for a radical farmers’ movement in 1867 in the USA. As grassroots democracy of farmers or Frontiers, it became a mass movement from which the People’s Party emerged. Canovan also includes peasant movements, for instance, the Eastern European Green Rising and the intellectual agrarian socialism that occurred at about the same time in Russia concerning this group of agrarian populism. The Russian ‘narodnicestvo’ were intellectuals who idealised the small farmers in opposition to the tsarist absolutism (1850-1880). It was rather a top down movement compared to the American grassroots bottom up movement that romanticised the heartland and the past. For the fact that populist movements occurred in the past, this phenomenon can be taken for granted in politics. Political populism includes populist democracy that calls for referendums and participation, populist dictatorship like the Argentinean Peronism (1943-1976), reactionary populism like George Wallace’s variant and politicians’ populism that is described as broad, non-ideological coalition-building that draws on the unified appeal of ‘the people’ (see Canovan 1981, p.13). Populism varies “from the pre-industrial ‘peasant’ strain to the affluent industry-tolerating ‘farmer’ strain” (Ionescu and Gellner 1969, p.171). Because there are various interpretations the only common themes and therefore main characteristics of populism among all types are a resort to appeal to the people seeking to speak in the name of the majority and a distrust of elites.

Modern Western European populism is characterised by its anti-institutional element that has a fundamental inherent dilemma: on the one hand, its reaction against the institutions of representative politics and the tension between representation and constitutionalism is an important driving force for it (see Mény and Surel 2002), and on the other hand, populism invariably has to use those institutions itself to be successful. For populism to become a political movement it has to be structured against and through the processes of representative politics (see Taggart 2000, p.110). Parties are an inherent part of representative politics and therefore populism is predisposed to distrust them, although it has to use them (see ibid., p.99). Therefore, successful populists are forced to achieve what they dislike. Its anti-establishment attitude is the key element of populism and a massive loss of credibility threatens if the populist movement itself becomes part of the establishment (see Decker 2003). In the long run, the movement either becomes less populist, is riven with internal conflicts, or simply collapses. Any of these alternatives means that populism is determined to be self-limiting (see Taggart 2000, p.100). Therefore populism is short-lived and episodic rather than omnipresent.

What does populism arise from? Helmut Dubiel (see 1986) describes populism as the movement of the basis that is suitable for masses from every class. Populism is addressed to the anti-establishment by anti-intellectuals who feel that they are outside the centre of power. However, populism does not encourage class war or glorify violence, and it is easily corrupted by success. It is sympathetic towards small business and hostile to financiers. It tends to address the public instead of the elites. Its organisational effort is low for it wants to push political changes only into one specific direction. New populism in Western Europe is provoked by two key historical currents that tend to widen the gap between the people and the elites in a dichotomist way. One is the increasing trend towards globalisation, internationalisation, multinationalism and modernisation including European integration. Populism is past-directed and seeks to bring back ancient values into the contemporary world. Therefore populism emerges in societies that undergo modernisation (see Taggart 2000, pp.16f.). Populists try to respond to the challenges of globalisation by overemphasising plebiscitary components. The other trend is the basic consensus prevailing within the established party system. When power remains in the hands of the same people, the result is easily – although not inevitably – corruption. Therefore, all new populist parties point out that to some extent, their party systems are closed off from the real people and call them “corrupt unrepresentative cartels” (Taggart 2000, p.100). Looking into in the eye of the storm, one can see the decline of the welfare state which favours monetary inflation, cooperative organisation and state aid. Dissatisfaction with reforms is intensified and explanations are demanded (see Virta 2000). Populism can be seen as a reaction to dissatisfaction.

The organisation of populist movements differs from the mainstream parties. New populist parties are characterised by both centralised structures and by the pre-eminence of key-individuals (see Taggart 2003). A populist movement is dependent on its extraordinary individual leader who leads the most ordinary people (see Taggart 2000, p.1). Its leader immediately adapts himself to his environment like a chameleon, and fills the gap which exists between the people and the power bloc. Torcuato di Tella (1965) states that “populism is when elites with middleclass background (not from the traditional oligarchy) attempt to mobilise people from the underclass”. Therefore populists simplify and generalise: they use direct language, and give equally simple and direct political solutions to the problems of ordinary people (see Canovan 1999, pp.3ff.). According to Taggart (2000, p.109), populism is the embodiment of a “primal political reaction of the ruled against the rulers”. “With charismatic leadership followers follow because of who the leaders are, whereas in representative politics leaders are chosen on the basis of who they represent” (ibid., p.110). Hence when losing its leader the populist movement loses its popularity.

Populism as an ideology lacks core values. This stems from the importance of the idealised heartland within the community they favour where core values are derived from (see Taggart 2003, p.7). The heartland is a construction of the good life deduced retrospectively from a romanticised conception of life as it has been lived. It serves as the raw material from which values and a populist constituency are derived (see ibid, p.11). The importance of the heartland accounts for the inward-looking nature of populism. Populists feel a strong aversion to internationalism and cosmopolitanism. New populism criticises contemporary politics for its focus on (ethnic) minorities that are politically far over represented according to the populists (see Taggart 2000, p.110). Taggart (see ibid., p.96) points out that this aversion has been wrongfully associated with ethnical nationalism. Although it might tend to mild racism, populism is not necessarily right wing. It has to be distinguished from fascism that might also use populist rhetoric to attract the masses, but it goes much further than being a pure racist ideology. In fact populism can also be left wing like Peronism, or neither left nor right wing like the populism of the political centre of the Dutch populist Fortuyn that will be examined more closely later. Generally, contemporary European populism is rather central to right wing whereas Latin-American populism is rather left wing.

The emergence of populism is historically linked to a crisis of the dominant ideological discourse that is part of a more general social crisis. It can be the result of a fracture in the power bloc, in which a class needs – in order to assert its hegemony – to appeal to the people against the established ideology as a whole and by letting go the former crusted oligarchic power cartel (see Laclau 1977, pp.175f.). To turn the people against the power bloc populists do not need a detailed agenda. In liberal democratic systems, where political parties are the main actors in the process of representation, it does not surprise that in the propaganda of populists anti-party sentiments play a prominent role (see Scarrow and Poguntke 1996). Populists attract attention and achieve the voters’ dealignment from the established system by simply criticising it rather than offering a real alternative to it. Populists stress a moral outlook instead of a definite programme.

According to Falkenberg (see 1997) populism is a ‘pressure control valve’ in modernising societies. She sees causality between the limitation of social and economic resources that occurs in a welfare state between the parties that want to limit the access to those goods. Since employment, living space and social services are not provided in large numbers anymore and people find it unfair to give it to groups that are not originally part of their community. Di Tella (1965, p.52) observes that “differentiation occurs between social groups and their sense of grievance at the status quo”. Populists focus especially on two social groups: The educated who feel that they are unable to satisfy their aspirations and the uneducated mass whose low status and poor living conditions foster a sense of grievance (see Taggart 2000, pp.13f.). From this perspective one could describe populist parties as organisations with non-egalitarian fairness (see Falkenberg 1997).


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Populism and Euroscepticism in the Netherlands
Pim Fortuyn and the Dutch Nee-Campaign against the European Constitutional Treaty
University of Nottingham
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ISBN (Book)
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Populism, Euroscepticism, Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn, Lissabon Treaty
Quote paper
Katrin Schmidt (Author), 2006, Populism and Euroscepticism in the Netherlands, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/93999


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