“DEAFENING SILENCE” was the phrase chosen by Joseph Daul, chairman of the European Parliament’s biggest party. He was describing the Dutch government’s response to a controversial website set up by Geert Wilders’s far-right Freedom Party that solicits complaints about east and central Europeans living and working in the Netherlands. Mr Daul invited Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, to break his silence and explain his government’s position in front of the parliament.
Actually, “dismissive laughter” may have been a panfairer description of Mr Rutte’s reaction to the website. Less than a week after it was set up he was asked to distance himself from it. He refused, saying that his government could not react to every stunt pulled off by political parties.
But there is something that sets this particular party aside: it keeps Mr Rutte’s fragile government afloat in parliament, giving it a majority of a single vote. The Freedom Party’s backbench support for the minority coalition is detailed in a document accompanying the coalition agreement formed after 2010’s parliamentary election.
The finer details of this complicated construction have been lost on the ten ex-communist countries inside the European Union. This week ambassadors from the ten in The Hagueasked Mr Rutte and other Dutch party leaders to distance themselves from what they called a “deplorable” and “clearly discriminatory” initiative.
The website in question gives visitors an opportunity to report various types of nuisance, from noise to drunkeness, by migrants from these countries, as well as “loss of employment” suffered at their hands. As a carrier of a Polish passport resident in the Netherlands, I duly reported myself as having stolen a job, and can confirm that the site sends an efficient confirmation of receipt.
The Freedom Party promises to present the results of its efforts to the Dutch social welfare minister, and to ask for an adequate response from the government.
Once known exclusively for his fiery anti-Muslim rhetoric, Mr Wilders has started to diversify his populist repertoire. In recent months he has been foraying into various forms of Euroscepticism, including criticism of Greek bail-outs and a recent pandering to growing anti-Polish sentiment.
As he has previously done with immigrants from Turkey and Morocco, with his latest effort Mr Wilders builds on a number of justified grievances against a limited number of social ills brought by immigration. Such tactics, combined with his antiestablishment rhetoric, have previously proven a potent political recipe. In 2010’s election the Freedom Party took 15% of the vote, giving it a kingmaker position in parliament.
Mr Wilders’s message has begun to permeate mainstream politics. Even the usually moderate Christian Democrats have, since the last election, proclaimed the “failure of a multicultural experiment” and the “right of the Dutch people to feel at home in their own country.”
More importantly, it has also permeated Dutch policymaking. In exchange for Mr Wilders’s support for its harsh budget cuts, the government has agreed to stricter immigration policies and a number of symbolic anti-Muslim measures, such as a ban on wearing the niqab.
But Mr Wilders has also been losing support in the polls. A fall of about 2.6% may not seem much, but a for a movement that had grown used to steady growth it has become a cause for nervousness. (This may help explain the decision to create the controversial website.)
But this droop in the polls may have more to do with personality than policy. Mr Wilders’s views remain popular, as shown by the steady rise in support for the left-wing Socialist Party, whose leader, Emile Roemer, insisted this week that he fully “understood the sentiment” behind the Freedom Party’s website. The two parties look set to join battle to win the populist vote. Some 49% of Dutch voters say they would in principle be ready to vote for one of the two parties.
For a long while members of the Dutch political establishment have tolerated Mr Wilders’s wayward populism, wanting to show that they are listening to voters who feel like they are on the losing side of the globalisation debate, or that they have been left to their own devices in neglected immigrant neighbourhoods.
But there is a thin line between the desire to demonstrate openness to all voices and the tacit endorsement of unabashed hate-mongering and discrimination. No matter Mr Rutte’s personal feelings about the website, if he fails to speak out the broader European public will make up its mind on which side he stands.