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The implosion of the Netherlands’ elite anti-elitist

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The Netherlands upstart anti-EU populist party is in tatters. Thierry Baudet, leader of the Forum for Democracy founded in 2016, has stepped down from a group dogged by fratricide and allegations of anti-Semitism among its youth ranks. 

It’s a significant event ahead of a general election due in March — one of the first electoral tests for an incumbent EU government since the coronavirus pandemic hit. It will be an important pointer to whether the Covid-19 crisis has given the European extreme right a boost.

Mr Baudet, 37, had been hailed as the acceptable face of his country’s nativist hard right after leading a successful referendum campaign against the EU-Ukraine association agreement in 2016. The FvD was born a year later. It won two seats in a general election that year and later secured the joint highest number of seats in the country’s upper house of parliament in 2019.

In a country where the extreme right had long been monopolised by the polarising figure of Geert Wilders, Mr Baudet’s brand of intellectualised nativism was something new. Many analysts saw it as a serious electoral threat to Mr Wilders and the country’s mainstream conservatives and liberals, including Mark Rutte, the prime minister since 2010.

The FvD’s ranks were made up of professionals, academics and journalists who vowed to disrupt the country’s “cartel” of parties. Mr Baudet made headlines in the Dutch press for diatribes against modern architecture and Muslim migration — and for posing naked on Instagram. 

But the FvD has also been plagued by accusations of racism among its members and allegations of Kremlin funding, denied by Mr Baudet. The party was also torn into two after a schism over funding between Mr Baudet and his co-founder last year.

Mr Baudet’s luck finally seemed to have run out this week when Dutch newspaper Het Parool published details of the FvD’s youth branch posting anti-Semitic and racist messages on Instagram. 

Mr Baudet announced he was stepping down as leader but later said he would still stand in the leadership contest. That sparked a fresh round of sniping from internal rivals. One senator claimed Mr Baudet told a dinner party of prospective MPs that the billionaire backer of liberal causes George Soros was responsible for Covid-19 in an effort to “take away our freedoms” (NOS). Mr Baudet has said he doesn’t recognise the comments.

Like other populist forces in Europe, Mr Baudet failed to make political inroads during the pandemic. Last month he stood outside the country’s parliament with a megaphone to denounce lockdown measures — but watching journalists seemed to outnumber actual protesters.

The FvD’s demise will be a boon for Mr Wilders and the brand of xenophobic populism that has seen him corner a consistent 10–15 per cent of the Dutch electorate. Even before Mr Baudet’s implosion, Mr Wilders had been polling second behind Mr Rutte’s ruling liberals. 

Three years after its inception, the FvD seems destined to go down as a flash in the pan rather than a truly disruptive force in Dutch politics. As authors Harm Ede Botje and Mischa Cohen have noted, Mr Baudet’s brand of elite anti-elitism appealed to a media growing tired of Mr Wilders, who has been an MP for 22 years. Now it seems as if the election will be a contest between two political veterans — Mr Rutte and Mr Wilders — with little room for the brash alt-right challenger.

Chart du jour: No bright spots for European tourism

Line chart of Annual change in number of nights spent in tourist accommodation (%) showing European tourism recovered somewhat during the summer

It has been a predictably grim year for tourism in Europe. While the lockdown-free summer months brought something of a rebound, the number of nights spent by holidaymakers in many European countries has fallen well below last year’s numbers. With much of Europe gripped by second lockdowns of varying severity, a recovery is unlikely before the end of the year.

Europe news round-up

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  • Ski resorts in the EU may be left out in the cold this year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told MPs on Thursday that she would “push for a vote in Europe” to close them. While some Alpine nations such as Italy have been receptive to a slopes ban this year, despite the further damage it would inflict on the tourism sector, others such as Austria have dug their poles in and refused. The European Commission has said piste policy is up to individual member states, and has urged them to co-ordinate. (FT)

  • The German audit watchdog has told prosecutors that EY may have acted criminally in its work on the collapsed payment company Wirecard. The report by Apas is the first time a government agency has said EY may have broken the law during its audits of Wirecard, which imploded this year after revealing a multiyear fraud. Separately, EY faced a barrage of criticism at a parliamentary hearing into Wirecard’s demise on Thursday. A partner at rival KPMG alleged substantial failings by EY. EY Germany has said it “vehemently rejects” the Apas suspicion that it acted criminally. It said that “based on our current state of knowledge, our colleagues conducted the audits professionally and in good faith”. (Handelsblatt/FT)

  • Italian doctors, heroes of the country’s pandemic first wave, are now in the crosshairs of conspiracy theories spreading across social media. The trend seems to correlate with a growing distrust of the government’s handling of the second coronavirus wave. Around 80 per cent of Italians say they are finding the country’s second lockdown harder than the first. (Politico)

  • The Centre for European Reform argues in a report that a deal between the EU and the UK on international co-operation looks unlikely. It thinks London could try to “divide and rule” EU states on international questions, a strategy the EU will be “wary” of. The paper analyses the EU’s portfolio of foreign policy agreements and how well they work — or not.

Coming up on Friday

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier will debrief MEPs and EU ambassadors on the state of play in