Geert Wilders, the perma-tanned right-wing populist whose Party for Freedom (PVV) is currently topping the polls in the Dutch general election, will not be the next prime minister. That is one of the few outcomes one can predict with much confidence from a campaign in which 28 parties are competing for seats.

The latest poll-of-polls suggests a race to the line between the PVV, which has slipped in recent weeks below 17%, and the VVD headed by Mark Rutte, the current prime minister, on 16%.

The probability is that a complex coalition of at least four parties will emerge after weeks if not months of negotiations, combining the liberal VVD, Christian Democrats, D66 (pro-European liberals) and Greens. None of them is prepared to embrace Wilders, whose nationalist and often racist rhetoric has split the country.

What it means for the Brexit negotiations is less obvious. Wilders has long been an enthusiastic supporter of British exit from the EU, calling for the Netherlands to have its own referendum on membership. The other mainstream parties are torn between pro-British sympathy and a determination to preserve EU solidarity.

“We have to play our game very carefully,” says one former senior government minister. “Given our trade and financial links… we need to keep the flow of goods and ideas. We must make sure our Dutch people (in the UK) get a special status.

“But if we are too obviously in favour of trying to create a nice Brexit, it won’t work. We must remain together at 27: the EU is even more important to us than Great Britain.”

The Dutch election is the first test of the rise of right-wing populism in Europe in 2017. Wilders’ anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform – summed up in a one-page party programme – has set the agenda. Even though he will not be part of any future government, the size of his vote is likely to influence its actions and curb its room for manoeuvre.

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president have cast twin shadows across the campaign trail. Last year, both political earthquakes seemed at first to boost the popular support for Wilders. In recent weeks, however, he has been falling back in the polls as the consequences of both events became more obvious.

The main focus of his anti-immigration rhetoric has been anti-Islam: he referred to “Moroccan scum” in his campaign launch. But criticism of the EU has also focussed on open borders, and East European migrants taking “Dutch jobs”, similar to arguments made by Brexit campaigners in the UK.

That could raise the pressure on a future Dutch government to be sympathetic to Theresa May’s desire to curb freedom of movement within the EU, according to some senior officials. But Rutte said in January that the UK will pay a “huge price”, because restricting internal EU migration is not compatible with remaining in the single market.

Meanwhile Dutch diplomats are already planning their strategy for a “post-Brexit” world in the EU. The most popular scenario in the foreign ministry is for the Netherlands to forge a coalition of like-minded countries such as the Nordic states, the Baltic states, Ireland and Austria. But others argue that the Dutch have no choice but to cling as a loyal partner to Germany, above all in regulating behaviour within the eurozone.

“The UK leaving is a very sad fact,” says one senior diplomat. From the Dutch perspective, although the UK was a useful counterpoise to the Franco-German axis dominating EU decisions, London was not seen as a reliable partner. “I trust the Germans and the French more than the British,” the former government minister says.

by Quentin Peel | 22.02.2017

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

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