Stephen Castle meets a politician with a price on his head
20 May 2005
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
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.
Country after country eschews
elections because they would let in the fundamentalists
committed to full sharia and jihad,
and outlawing democracy for ever. Turkey,
Algeria and Egypt are among those countries which dare
not let their electors speak.
Alfred Sherman - The Coming Confrontations With Islam
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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