Geert Wilders, the flamboyant populist who built his political career out of bashing Muslims in Holland, has expanded his list of targets to include the many Central and Eastern Europeans who have moved to his country since the European Union expanded in 2004. Last week, he launched a website inviting readers to register their complaints about Slavs and all their perceived transgressions: everything from drinking too much and talking too loud to stealing jobs from native Dutch. “Do you have problems with people from Central and Eastern Europe? Have you lost your job to a Pole, Bulgarian, Romanian or other Eastern European? We want to know,” the site says. So far it has generated more than 40,000 responses.
Waldemar Skrobacki, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, describes Wilders as a “holdover from the old Europe, the Europe of national hatreds that drove the continent toward so many wars.” But Wilders is not a fossilized curiosity. He’s 48 years old, articulate and telegenic. His Freedom Party also props up Holland’s governing minority coalition, consisting of the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and the Christian Democratic Appeal. Together, the two parties command only 52 seats out of 150 in the Dutch lower house of parliament. So Prime Minister Mark Rutte made a deal with Wilders to secure the backing of his 24 MPs—although none holds a position in government.
Rutte refuses to distance his government from Wilders’s website, lamely arguing he can’t respond to other parties’ stunts. But while he relies on Wilders to keep his government afloat, Jan Techau, director of the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the prime minister’s paralysis is more fundamental. “He’s fearful that he will be perceived as too soft on these issues,” says Techau. “He does not subscribe to Wilders’s politics, but at the same time he finds it difficult to stand up against it with full force. The terms of the debate have changed. When you subscribe to the classic way of doing it, of open societies and embracing others, then you run the risk of being seen as politically weak, and maybe even as the one to be blamed for all the problems we have.”
This, says Techau, is a testament to how much impact Wilders has had in Holland in the last decade. “He has managed to dominate the political debate about what’s important, and what should be on the political agenda in Holland,” Techau says. Wilders “has undermined the natural openness and the natural liberal sentiments of the Dutch. The mood has changed. Where there was openness, there is now doubt. That is his biggest political success.”
Politicians and citizens from Poland and elsewhere are predictably upset. Polish media have urged Poles to boycott Dutch products and services, and have seized on a symbol—an all-black tulip—to express their anger. Ten ambassadors from Eastern and Central Europe penned an open letter to “Dutch society and its political leaders,” lamenting Wilders’s stand and urging other politicians to oppose it. “For centuries, the Netherlands and Dutch society used to be seen in our countries as a shining light for freedom and tolerance,” they wrote. Holland’s foreign minister met with the ambassadors and repeated the government’s line that the website is solely the Freedom Party’s responsibility.
The Netherlands does have a long history of welcoming migrants, but its xenophobic shift of late has been sharp. Wilders’s Freedom Party won 15.5 per cent of the vote in the 2010 election, up from 5.9 per cent in 2006. The party had been sagging in polls recently, stung by its support for government cutbacks. Willem Maas, Jean Monnet chair at York University and the author of Creating European Citizens, suspects Wilders launched this website as diversion. It’s worked. A recent poll shows a spike in his party’s popularity, giving it a projected 24 seats were an election held today, up from a projected 20 seats prior to the website’s launch.
Under normal economic circumstances, says Techau, Dutch voters would not be so receptive to Wilders’s message. “But we’re in times of crisis, and the fear level is high. He’s playing the time card. He thinks the longer this crisis lingers, the better. And he’s probably right.”