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13th Aug 2022

Interview

Populism is 'nothing new', says Rotterdam mayor

  • Rotterdam mayor Aboutaleb (Photo: Congress of local and regional authorities)

Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb was in Brussels on Tuesday (7 March) to attend a mayor's summit on “tackling rising populism and euroscepticism”.

But Aboutaleb disagreed with the premise that populism was a relatively new phenomenon, and that it was something to be “at war” with.

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“I think this is something of all ages,” he told EUobserver in the margins of the summit, organised by local government network organisation Eurocities, in the Committee of the Regions building.

The main issue with populism, he said, was that classical political parties do not have a proper response.

Populists “shout big things” which they know themselves are “not feasible”, but populists do address a feeling that people have.

“We should be so honest not to discount that feeling, but enter into a conversation with people,” said Aboutaleb.

He also objected to the “classic one-liner” that there is a growing gap between politicians and citizens.

Aboutaleb noted that his municipality reaches out to citizens to get them involved in community projects, but that they don't always reach back. Not all citizens want to be involved in politics.

“I go out to meet the citizens, very often, and I meet citizens who want to become active, but also citizens who say: mayor, I'd rather not.”

He had a different analysis about euroscepticism.

Aboutaleb noted that euroscepticism has been increasing in recent years in Rotterdam, the Netherlands' second largest city of over 600,000 inhabitants.

“The port of Rotterdam is of immense importance, [responsible for] 100,000 jobs,” said Aboutaleb.

“Rotterdam benefits greatly from a large open market in Europe, because otherwise we cannot sell those products. But I also see that a large part of the trucks being driven in Rotterdam, are not driven by Dutch truck drivers. That is also a reality.”

“There is a macro reasoning which is plausible and correct, which is that we have achieved great progress with Europe.”

“If you zoom in, you see that globalisation and the big European market yielded winners and losers.”

He said the “classical political parties” in the Netherlands do not have the correct answer for those losers, although he also said he thought the leader of his Labour party Lodewijk Asscher “is delivering this message” in the campaign.

Aboutaleb said he is following the Dutch election campaign “from a distance”.

In the Netherlands, mayors are appointed instead of elected, so they are expected to remain neutral.

Aboutaleb's centre-left Labour party, has been in a pragmatic coalition with prime minister Mark Rutte's centre-right Liberal party since 2012. He has been out of party politics since 2009, when he became mayor of Rotterdam.

“A mayor should not be actively campaigning,” Aboutaleb told EUobserver on Tuesday (7 March) in an interview.

However, he is following the campaign “with some concern”, particularly in relation to the country's "governability" after the 15 March elections of the lower house of the Dutch parliament.

Polls show that at least four, or perhaps five parties, will be needed to form a majority.

“That means you would need an enormous coalition, which will be difficult to govern,” said Aboutaleb, although he noted that perhaps it was too soon to worry, since the polls may be wrong.

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