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Surrounded by colonial history, Wilders campaigns against migration before EU vote

Surrounded by colonial history, Wilders campaigns against migration before EU vote

by host

THE HAGUE — Geert Wilders usually prefers to do his campaigning on social media.

But on the last day before voters choose the new European Parliament, the polarising Dutch politician ventured out in real life to meet a gaggle of reporters and voters by a market stand selling pickled herring in The Hague.

Surrounded by bodyguards who shadow him 24/7, only a handful of voters managed to snag selfies and handshakes with Wilders, who has pulled the Netherlands to the right with his anti-immigration politics and is weeks away from setting up a government.

One young man did manage to film himself standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Wilders. He yelled “Go Geert, go Viktor!” — in reference to another leader of the European right, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The young man refused to be identified but claimed he was Hungarian himself.

Wilders, wearing a dark suit, his signature blond hair glinting in the sunshine, told TV news teams that voters should head to the polls on Thursday.

“If you sit on your couch, Frans Timmermans will become the largest,” he said, referring to the former European climate chief who returned to The Hague last year to become leader of the merged GreenLeft and Labor parties.

However, Timmermans isn’t even on the ballot. And Wilders’ top candidate in the European election, local and provincial councillor Sebastiaan Stöteler, has rarely appeared in the media over the last few weeks.

Although Stöteler joined Wilders for Wednesday’s appearance, the rest of the campaign has been totally focused on the 60-year-old leader — even though his spot at the bottom of his party’s slate betrays his lack of desire to become a European lawmaker.

Change the EU from within

Wilders led his Freedom Party (PVV) to its first victory in Dutch national elections in November and has since been building a new coalition with center-right VVD, centrist New Social Contract, and farmer-populist BBB.

Even though Wilders dropped his idea for a Brexit-style EU membership referendum long ago, he vowed “to change the EU from within,” including bringing the “strictest migration policy the Netherlands has ever seen” to the bloc-wide level.

“Other parties like the Freedom Party are growing. From France to Belgium, Austria to Italy. If you can put that together and steer this EU oil tanker onto a different course, you’d have much more influence inside than out,” Wilders said at his campaign stop.

Geert Wilders has pulled the Netherlands to the right with his anti-immigration politics. | Nick Gammon/Getty Images

The Freedom Party currently has no seats in the European Parliament, but recent polls suggest that the party — of which Wilders is the sole member — could claim nine out of 31 Dutch seats.

The Wilders coalition could take shape before the end of the month — and once formed it will push for big concessions from the EU’s 26 other countries: an opt-out on migration agreements; looser rules on nitrogen emissions; and a €1.6 billion cut in the Dutch contribution to the EU budget.

Asked whether the next Dutch government will be all take, and no give, Stöteler told POLITICO: “We’re giving plenty. We have the port of Rotterdam, we have our agriculture. You can’t pretend we’re only asking.”

Multiculture all around

In the Netherlands, nothing is ever far away — including the multicultural results of the migration that Wilders has campaigned against. As he and Stöteler were speaking, customers walked in and out of a nearby Surinamese supermarket and a halal butcher’s shop. Some of them, unable to see Wilders in the scrum of cameras, asked reporters what was going on.

And as the PVV leaders ended their campaign appearance, outgoing liberal Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf began a speech not far away to mark 151 years since the arrival of the first slave ship from India to Suriname, which was then a Dutch colony.

Dijkgraaf thanked the Hindustani Surinamese community members gathered across the street for the “lively and living stories” of their ancestors. Music to introduce the gathering formed a backdrop for Wilders’ talk only minutes earlier.

“Last year, I also stood here to commemorate the 150th year. And this is my second time,” Dijkgraaf said as Wilders left the Hobbema Square: “As a mathematician, I would say: you can connect two points with a line. So, I hope that, from now onwards, this will become a fixed tradition.”

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