Why Populists Can’t Win in Europe’s Heartland

Elections will show if populism really can challenge the European project.

The Tiamo comes into dock in Duisburg, Germany, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Nothing cuts through Europe like the Rhine, and the river is Piet van Meel’s life.

Like the two generations before him, the 45-year-old Dutch barge captain works on it by day and sleeps on it by night. When he was 21, he kissed his future spouse on it. Now he and his wife, co-captain Miranda, are split over how to protect their livelihood from competition and secure their futures.

“Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians—they come here with diplomas they probably bought back home and they work as barge captains for much less money than us,” Van Meel said as he guided his vessel, the blue-and-white Tiamo, through the Rhine delta on a rainy night. He was inspired by U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign promise: “He says ‘America First,’ and I understand that. We should say ‘Netherlands First.’ Protectionism is good.”

Piet and Miranda van Meel.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Van Meel wants a Dutch exit from the European Union. Miranda, 44, supports more screening of migrants, but wants to remain in the seamless single market. “I want open borders for trade, not for people,” she said.

Flowing from the Alps to the North Sea and fought over for centuries, the Rhine is a symbol of Europe’s postwar integration, free flow of goods and the ultimate expression of economic togetherness, the euro.

That’s all at risk in an epic year of elections, starting in the Netherlands, followed by France and Germany—three founding members of the EU that united six decades ago to foster collective prosperity after World War II. The votes will pit the nativist populism that took Trump to the White House and pushed Britain toward Brexit against the drive for unity.

On a seven-day, 800-kilometer (500-mile) journey along Europe’s busiest waterway, the nationalist message being championed by the Dutch Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the Alternative for Germany resonated. Yet the heart of the EU they challenge still beats, and the legacy of war—and the peace the EU was formed to maintain—haven’t faded from memory.

In the medieval Dutch city of Dordrecht, Abraham Muller, who runs his own towage firm, said contracts on the Rhine are down 60 percent in the past decade.

“Four-hundred-ton gas turbines, generators, reactors, they’re now made mostly in China where labor is cheap,” said Muller, 57. A united, open Europe, though, remains “crucial,” he said, and he wouldn’t vote for Wilders’s Freedom Party as it pushes to place first in Wednesday’s election.

Piet van Meel and Miranda have been traveling the river for more than two decades. Their grandparents and parents were barge captains too. They start the engines at 5 a.m. and steer the Tiamo at a stately 10 kilometers per hour for 16 hours a day.

Cargoes are mostly beet pulp and other animal foods and this time they were carrying 1,000 tons of grey fertilizer pellets from Belgium. Loads are getting smaller, partly because of periods of low water, and earnings are down by more than half since 2008. To be allowed to run the barge without a costly crew, they shortened the ship’s length to 86 meters from 105 meters. Paying guests stay in the former crew quarters.

“Trump is a bit like Wilders, and we need a guy like that,” said Van Meel, his socked feet resting above the control panel.

Whatever their age and social background, many who live and work on the river voiced grievances over jobs, migration, sovereignty and security—and discontent with the euro and the EU. Equally, many were desperate to maintain the freedoms of the single market and defend integration.

In the small town of Papendrecht, across the river from Dordrecht, Wilders was a worry for Jan Matena, 46, co-owner of a ship-repair firm. The EU should take in refugees and send them back when the war in their country is over, he said.

“Ninety-five percent of our business is for Dutch companies, but we all depend on each other,” Matena said. “The ships we work on go to Germany, France and Switzerland.”

Boats docked in the historic center of Dordrecht, Netherlands.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

On the Rhine, borders are just lines drawn in the water. A life-blood of trade since Roman times, the river and its delta bind Switzerland to Rotterdam, Europe’s biggest seaport. About 330 million tons of goods pass along its course every year.

As the barge crosses from the Netherlands into Germany, it chugs past factories and plants from steel to chemicals in the industrial lands of the Lower Rhine.

Resistance to the populist message became stronger around the city of Duisburg, the world’s biggest inland port. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, whose support rose following Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for refugees, is trailing in the polls well behind the two parties that have always traded power.

Top left: Engineer Joerg Seedorfer waits to perform a dance routine with his troupe at a German women's carnival.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Dressed in the red, cream and gold uniform of a Prussian major, Joerg Seedorfer, 37, waits outside a giant marquee for his turn on stage at a traditional “women’s carnival.” An engineer for an industrial imaging company, he travelled to six European countries for work in the last two years.

“I’d like Europe to be even more united,” he said before a marching, bottom-wagging dance routine. “Veto powers are no good. Decisions should be taken on a majority basis so we can push ahead.”

The Tiamo sails through Cologne, Germany.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

About 100 kilometers upriver, the city of Koblenz hosted a who’s who of European populists in January. The rally featured Wilders, the AfD’s Frauke Petry and French far-right presidential candidate Le Pen. At the event, Le Pen predicted EU countries will soon “leave the prison of Europe.”

But Koblenz is no hotbed of populism. For former accountant Barbara Mueller, 68, hosting the meeting was “a catastrophe.” In September’s German election, she’ll vote for Social Democrat candidate Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament.

“Schulz is new and I like the fact he comes from Brussels, anything to do with the EU is positive for me,” Mueller said on a cobbled square in the city center.

Back on the Tiamo as it headed through the Rhine’s most scenic part, with quaint villages, medieval castles and hillside vineyards, Captain van Meel was adamant it’s time for countries to put their own people first.

Wilders has little chance of achieving power because all the other main parties have ruled out a coalition with him. “I won’t give up,” Van Meel said. “I’ll just keep voting for Wilders until he gets into power.”

Buildings sit on the edge of the River Rhine in Koblenz, Germany.
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

After five days on the barge came the town of Bingen am Rhein and a change of transport and country. Less than a two-hour car drive to the south lay Lauterbourg, the first on the Rhine after the border and France’s most-eastern town.

Le Pen’s anti-euro, anti-immigrant National Front came second in the region’s elections in 2015 with 36 percent of the vote. Nationally, surveys suggest she could win the first presidential round in April, though lose the run-off two weeks later.

One supporter was Jean-Louis Bord, 65, a former barge captain on the Rhine. He hated the open border up the road and the EU.

“France used to have the biggest inland fleet in Europe, now most of it is gone,” he said. “If you don’t put up barriers to protect jobs for the French, the jobs go. The EU is Germany, and the euro is too. We have to leave the EU because we’re French.”

Carole Frey, 25, a florist who will “probably” vote for Le Pen, also opposed the open border, especially after Islamic militants attacked Paris and Nice. “People come in and out and no one’s ever checked,” she said.

But this is also where EU ideals hold strong. Further up the Rhine is Strasbourg, home of the European Parliament.

Near the city’s port, Alfonse and Simone Steiner, both 81, were leaving mass at a small church by the Pont de l’Europe, the bridge that spans the Rhine to Germany. On the riverbank, a column of rock stands as a tribute to 29 members of the French Resistance network shot by the Gestapo in November 1944. Their bodies were thrown into the river.

“We need the EU, it helps to prevent another war,” said Alfonse, a former factory worker. “We were part of the last one,” Simone added. “We were both sent away as refugees when we were kids because the bombing was so heavy.”

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