In the footsteps of Fortuyn

Geert Wilders, the scourge of Dutch liberalism, is determined to make race the key issue in the EU referendum campaign. Stephen Castle meets a politician with a price on his head
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The Independent Online

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.

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.

How has a maverick such as Mr Wilders come to exercise such influence in a country once a model of tolerance and political correctness?

For years Holland was governed under the so-called "polder model" with differences submerged as consensual coalition government did deals with unions and other interest groups. While this delivered wealth it also denied voters real choice, a deficiency exploited by Mr Fortuyn, a maverick gay academic turned politician. Mr Fortuyn derided Islam as a backward religion for its demonisation of homosexuality and called for immigration to stop under the slogan "the Netherlands is full".

Three years ago this month Pim Fortuyn was shot dead outside a radio station by a white animal rights activist, his death sparking an extraordinary outpouring of public emotion.

After Fortuyn's assassination, his political party became the second largest force in Dutch politics, though it soon collapsed, leaderless, back into relative obscurity.

Then last year came another equally shocking murder - that of Theo Van Gogh, a descendant of the painter and a professional controversialist. The Dutch are renowned for their plain speaking but even by their standards, Mr Van Gogh's language was extreme. He once called Muslims "goat fuckers" in print. But it was his film Submission, chronicling the abuse of women under Islam, that provided the pretext for his grisly murder. This crime, committed in broad daylight in Amsterdam, provoked more repulsion, particularly when it was revealed that a letter explaining the murder had been impaled with knives on his chest.

Lousewies van der Laan, an MP for the liberal Democraten 66 (D66) Party, argues that beneath the surface social and economic changes have bred massive uncertainty. "People have had to get used to so many different aspects of globalisation. Five years ago police didn't carry guns. Now there have been two political murders. It all adds up to new insecurities," she argues.

While Dutch attitudes to multiculturalism have shifted, so too has enthusiasm for the EU. In Brussels officials hark back to the days when the Netherlands, one of the EU's six founders, was a solid proponent of European integration. Now its position at the negotiating table is unpredictable because its internal politics are so volatile. The Dutch resent their status as the highest net contributors per head to the EU. They have been infuriated by the row over the euro's rule book, the so-called stability and growth pact; while the Dutch obeyed the pact, the Germans and French ignored it and got away with it, giving the impression that large and small nations play by different rules.

How this will impact on the referendum remains unclear. The "no" campaign in the Netherlands is deeply fragmented. Most opponents of the constitution come from the far left and argue that the document enshrines free-market values that undermine the European social model. They want nothing to do with Mr Wilders.

The "yes" campaign has big problems too. The Socialist Party backs the constitution but is wary of being too closely identified with the campaign for fear of being associated with a losing endeavour. They do not want to be tarred with the same brush as Jan Peter Balkenende, the Christian Democrat Prime Minister. Last week the government released its first official poll predicting "no", with 40 per cent opposed to the constitution and 35 per cent in favour. This has spread alarm among ministers.

Ms Van der Laan, a prominent "yes" campaigner, points out that a large percentage of the electorate remains undecided. He says: "It is the first referendum in 200 years and everything that can go wrong with a referendum will go wrong. Rather than voting on the constitution people will vote on Turkey's entry to the EU, the Dutch contribution to the EU - which everyone knows ours is the highest per capita. They may also protest over the introduction of the euro, which, because the guilder was undervalued, created inflation, and register discontent with the government."

Sitting at a café table opposite the parliament, Bart Woord, takes a series of calls on his mobile phone, gleaning snippets of intelligence about Mr Wilders' tour. Today he plans to trail the maverick anti-immigration campaigner in a caravan, spreading the pro-European message. Mr Woord, the vice-president of the Jonge Democraten, describes Mr Wilders as a "polarising" influence "focusing on fear about the loss of sovereignty and fear that there are more immigrants". He adds: "We are worried that people will use the wrong arguments and say 'no'."

Mr Woord then pays his opponent an unexpected compliment, contrasting his willingness to tour the country - while under a death threat - to the apathy of many politicians advocating a "yes". "Sometimes," says Mr Woord, "I feel a little alone, a bit of a voice in the desert." Never has there been a more urgent case for the "yes" campaign to get out and make a case which has largely gone by default. With three weeks to go, the pro-Europeans have been warned that they have a lot of work yet to do to avert an upset in a country that once backed European integration by instinct.

Ms Van der Laan argues: "I hold the politicians of the past to blame. You have to explain what you are doing and why. You can't just write a constitution - you have to sell it. A lot of people want to teach a lesson to those arrogant politicians. On Europe, four decades of maintenance has not been done. This train was running for 40 years and now we are asking people to hop on board. Instead people are looking for the emergency break because they don't know where it is going."

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