Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders is riding high ahead of this month’s European Parliament elections, hoping to destroy from within what he calls the “monster of Brussels.”
Despite an unprecedented backlash after he called for “fewer Moroccans” in the Netherlands, his Party for Freedom (PVV) looks set to make gains in the May 22 vote, including extra clout and cash by joining a pan-European populist alliance.
The platinum-haired Wilders in November announced “the start of the liberation of Europe” from the European Union after forming a partnership with French far-right party National Front (FN).
Like the FN’s leader Marine Le Pen, Wilders wants to take his country out of the EU and to abandon the euro.
“Wilders is hunting for power in Europe. He wants to be part of a broader movement and wants more influence in the European Parliament,” says Adriaan Schout, senior researcher at the Clingendael Institute for International Relations.
The latest Ipsos opinion poll on May 1 ranked Wilders’ PVV third in the Netherlands, just below the ruling coalition partner People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the pro-Europe D66.
But the carefully-coiffed politician’s campaign, based almost solely on anti-Islamic, anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months.
His controversial statement after local government elections in March vowing “fewer Moroccans” led to an exodus of several high-ranking party supporters — including the head of his parliamentary group in Brussels, Laurence Stassen.
“For serious people in the PVV it was tipping point and a reason to leave — including for his European Parliamentary leader Stassen,” Schout told AFP.
Despite thousands filing police complaints of racism against Wilders, his anti-EU and anti-immigration call still appeals to many disillusioned with crisis-driven budget cuts blamed on Brussels.
And while he has been giving extensive interviews, including to pro-Kremlin media, blaming the Ukraine crisis on the European Union, the virulently pro-Israel Wilders has also been accused of gross opportunism.
In a 2009 interview with Haaretz, Wilders described Israel as “the first line of defense” against the spread of Islam and suggested that in a two-state solution Jordan should be the Palestinian homeland.
The Dutch Centre for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) on Wednesday said he was “betraying his principles” by cooperating with Le Pen, who struggles to distance herself from her convicted anti-Semite father Jean-Marie.
“Wilders always said he wouldn’t cooperate with the extreme-right and now it’s happening,” CIDI director Esther Voet said.
Despite Wilders’ fawning approaches to Nigel Farage, his UK Independence Party (UKIP) and Scandinavian eurosceptic parties have said they would not work with Wilders because of his association with Le Pen.
In order to form a far-right anti-European bloc, Wilders and Le Pen would have to find like-minded politicians in at least a quarter of the EU’s 28 member states and see 25 members elected to the now trimmed-down 751-seat European Parliament.
So far Wilders reportedly wants Italy’s Northern League, Austria’s FPO, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Slovakia’s SNS and the Swedish Democrats on board.
If they become an official European political group, they would benefit from subsidies, offices, a communication budget, seats on committees and speaking time in parliament proportional to their number.
But Wilders’ cooperation with extreme-right parties could hold its own dangers, said Cas Mudde, professor at the University of Georgia in the United States.
“Longer-term he could be held responsible for the actions of his (right-wing) European brothers and sisters,” Mudde told AFP.
Even if Wilders makes inroads in the May 22 ballot, his direct involvement in European politics will remain limited.
The Netherlands this time only has 27 seats in the European Parliament and with the PVV expected to gain around five seats, it will remain junior to the mightier National Front.
“Indirectly though he’ll have a far greater impact,” said political analyst Andre Krouwel, because of his ability to create doubt and division within bigger parties.
“He’s using it on national level. It is likely to happen on European level as well,” Krouwel said.