Posted on May 20, 2005

In the Footsteps of Fortuyn

Independent (London), May 20

He has spent months sleeping behind bars in a former army camp, travels in an armour-plated car and has up to six bodyguards. The Netherlands’ most controversial and vocal critic of Islam has been in hiding since receiving dozens of death threats, including one offering 72 virgins in paradise to any Muslim who beheads him.

But, to the alarm of many Dutch liberals, Geert Wilders is back, just in time for a referendum that has implications for the whole of Europe. Although for security reasons details are vague, Holland’s newest, anti-immigration populist will probably use his home town of Venlo to start a national tour promoting a “no” vote in the Dutch poll on the European constitution.

The referendum — the first in the Netherlands for 200 years — will take place on 1 June, just three days after a likely knife-edge vote in France. If both countries reject the treaty, it will become a dead letter.

Three years after Pim Fortuyn, the anti-immigration campaigner, was gunned down and six months after the murder of Theo Van Gogh, another outspoken critic of Islam, Mr Wilders wants race to dominate the campaign.

In an spacious meeting room in the heart of The Hague, the press conference to launch the comeback seems like any other low-key meeting in the Dutch parliament. Only the two bodyguards — the Wilders team calls them gorillas — hint at the fact that this is Holland’s best-protected man, staying by his side even in these secure surroundings. With his youthful features and white hair, Mr Wilders, 41, cuts an unusual figure, his hairdo probably styled on that of Bill Clinton but more reminiscent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

He is sitting in front of two large posters bearing his own image and in front of another banner with the name of his party: Groep Wilders. If ever there were a one-man band, this is it. Joining the group could get you on a death list, so potential supporters are invited to make anonymous donations instead. The press officer does not want to be named in print or to give out his mobile phone number.

Mr Wilders has spent much of the past few months sleeping in a barred room at Camp Zeist, the former army barracks which was used for the Lockerbie trial, seeing his wife only a couple of times a week. Although he is no longer sleeping behind bars, he says: “My security situation has not changed, not for the better anyway. But I am a politician. That is why I insisted on having a bus tour throughout every province of the Netherlands.”

Much of the cost of the event will be met from public funds with €40,000 (£27,500) coming from a €1m pot earmarked to the “yes” and “no” campaigns.

Some of his message would be familiar to British Eurosceptics. The EU, Mr Wilders says, is on the way to becoming an “inefficient superstate”, manipulated by “Brussels cliques”; the Wilders plan is to “reduce its talks by 90 per cent so we can reduce our contributions by 90 per cent”. His slogan “The Netherlands should stay” is artful; a statement with which no Dutch citizen could disagree, it suggests that the European constitution poses a sinister, but undefined, threat. Meanwhile it hints at his other main theme: the fear of being swamped by immigrants.

Mr Wilders has described Islam as a “backward” religion incompatible with democracy and split with his previous party, the VVD centre-right liberals, over their failure to oppose Turkish accession to the EU.

Though there is no non-white face at this press conference, the issue of race dominates proceedings. Asylum and immigration policy forms only a tiny part of the European constitution, and Turkish accession is not addressed, but Mr Wilders thinks they will be decisive.

“This referendum is about sovereignty and immigration”, he says. His argument is that the constitution apportions voting weight in part according to nation’s populations, thereby making Turkey potentially the most powerful nation in the EU.

Unlike the UK, the Netherlands has no opt out from justice and home affairs policies and will lose its veto in several areas. This, Mr Wilders says, means that the Dutch could be forced to give legal status to illegal immigrants — to adopt the “terrible policies” of countries such as Spain.

The argument is emotive, almost certainly incorrect and based on a scenario which is politically inconceivable. But simplistic messages work.

Mr Wilders wants to halt all immigration from non-Western countries completely for five years, set strict quotas for asylum-seekers, and to offer financial incentives for non-white immigrants to go home. “In Britain your Conservatives lost the election because they didn’t use immigration enough,” Mr Wilders tells The Independent.