Amsterdam, Netherlands - Europe's financial crisis is helping Dutch politician Geert Wilders drill his anti-euro, anti-Islamic platform deeper into the mainstream.
The bleached-blonde Freedom Party leader brought down the government on April 21 when he refused to support budget cuts proposed by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Now Wilders, who rose to international prominence in 2008 with his movie denouncing Islam, plans to turn September's elections into a vote on Dutch attitudes about Europe and the single currency.
As the euro area faces up to recession and the highest unemployment in 14 years, and bailout fatigue builds even in northern countries such as the Netherlands, Wilders finds himself riding the crest of a wave of opposition to austerity.
"Wilders suddenly feels that he's on the right side of history," Jan Techau, director of the Brussels-based European Center of Endowment for International Peace, said in an April 25 interview. "The crisis has given everybody a very good vent to let things out."
Wilders, 48, whose latest book was released yesterday in New York, is at the nexus of a European movement. Marine Le Pen's anti-euro, anti-immigrant National Front Party got a record 17.9 percent of the vote on April 22 in the first round of France's presidential election. At least two parties with similar views are poised to enter parliament in Greece after the May 6 ballot.
Wilders won about 1.5 million Dutch votes to place third at the last election in 2010. His platform included a call to curb the influence of Islam in the Netherlands, home to 850,000 Muslims out of a population of about 16.3 million, according to the latest available figures from 2006.
After the election, Wilders helped Rutte's Liberal minority administration pass laws. That was until last month when Wilders balked at plans for higher health-care contributions and reforms affecting the age of eligibility for state pensions.
Wilders said the Netherlands should decide budget policy, not lawmakers in Brussels. While Rutte managed to push through budget measures to meet the European Union's April 30 deadline without Wilders's support, his government fell and new elections were called for Sept. 12.
The latest poll, taken April 27 after the caretaker government and opposition agreed on austerity measures, suggested Wilders's Freedom Party would drop to 17 seats from the 24 seats it won in the 150-member parliament in the 2010 elections. Almost half of respondents to a Dutch poll said Wilders was to blame for the failed budget talks, according to a poll released April 22 by Maurice de Hond and No Ties BV.
Investors demanded 79 basis points of extra yield to lend to the Netherlands for 10 years than to Germany on April 23 after Rutte's government collapsed, the highest premium in more than three years, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The gap was 57 basis points as of 9:51 a.m. London time today. Both Germany and the Netherlands are rated AAA by Standard & Poor's and Moody's Investors Service.
"The basic instinct of Wilders has always been anti-EU and anti-euro, even though his main, big aura of anti-Islam leads many people to overlook this," Shada Islam, an analyst at the Friends of Europe policy-advisory group in Brussels, said in an interview. "He's thus able to attract a bigger swath of voters who might otherwise be repelled by his xenophobia."
Wilders, born in 1963 in the southern Dutch city of Venlo, started his political career as a member of the City Council of Utrecht in 1997, joining parliament for Rutte's Liberal Party in 1998. He left in 2004 to found his own political organization and campaign against immigrants and Muslim culture.
He was acquitted last year by an Amsterdam court of charges that he made remarks defaming Muslims. Wilders had called the Koran "fascist" and compared it to Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. In his 2008 film "Fitna," he called upon Muslims to rip out "hate-preaching" verses from the Koran. The movie led to protests in Islamic-majority countries, including Indonesia and Pakistan, and prompted calls for a boycott of Dutch products.
His latest book, "Marked for Death: Islam's War Against the West and Me," is being published by Washington-based Regnery Publishing Inc.
While he talked more about Islam than the EU at previous elections, Wilders makes no secret of his intentions for the national vote that's scheduled for September.
"The elections will become one big referendum about Brussels, the European Union, our own sovereignty and the preservation of it," he said during an April 24 speech in parliament. "Either we choose for the Netherlands, or we give in to bureaucrats from Brussels."
Neither Wilders nor the press department of the Freedom Party responded to e-mails and phone calls seeking comment.
The $800 billion Dutch economy, the fifth largest in the euro area, entered its second recession in three years during the second half of last year. House prices have fallen more than 10 percent since 2008. While unemployment is less than half the euro-area average, it rose to 5 percent in March from 4.1 percent last June, according to Eurostat.
Unemployment among non-western European foreigners living in the Netherlands was about 13 percent in 2011, compared with 4 percent for native Dutch citizens, according to figures provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics, or CBS.
Standard & Poor's changed its outlook on the Netherlands on Jan. 13 to negative, saying it sees at least a one-in-three chance that the country will lose its top grade in 2012 or 2013 should the economy deteriorate further.
ABN Amro Takeover
"We're having an enormous financial meltdown, an existential crisis in the European Union," said Ewald Engelen, professor of financial geography at the University of Amsterdam. "We have had takeovers of big banks and the break-up of them, and now we simply don't know anymore."
ABN Amro Holding NV, the country's biggest bank, was acquired in 2007 for almost 72 billion euros ($95 billion) by three competitors, a year before Europe and the U.S. were engulfed in a financial crisis.
Dutch sea-faring prowess and trading instincts built the nation into one of the biggest mercantile powers of the 17th century, with ships plying trade routes to Southeast Asia, the South African Cape and New Amsterdam, now Manhattan, to source goods from spices to tobacco. The Netherlands remains the euro- area's second biggest exporter after eastern neighbor Germany, and is home to Rotterdam, Europe's biggest port.
The discovery in 1959 of Slochteren, the biggest mainland gas field in Europe and what was to become the largest generator of revenue in Dutch history, helped fuel the liberal attitudes of the 1970s, when Amsterdam became known for its tolerance of cannabis consumption in cafes and prostitution.
The Netherlands is no longer perceived "as a progressive nation that always was a step ahead on a lot of issues," said Henk te Velde, a professor of Dutch history at Leiden University. "That's over and I don't think it will return quickly. We've become more inward looking."
Wilders is seeking to present himself "as the one who defends pensioners and the poor against this horrible Europe and its austerity demands," said Andre Krouwel, an associate professor of political science at VU University in Amsterdam.
It's a political balancing act he may be unable to repeat, as having forced the collapse of one government, parties will be unwilling to grant him the same power again, said Kees Aarts, a professor of political science at the University of Twente.
Whatever the outcome of the next election, the Netherlands that was "fundamentally self-assured with itself, its wealth and its tolerance, is the Holland of the past," said Techau of the European Center of Endowment for International Peace.
"The rise of Wilders is testimony to the high level of fear in Western societies," Techau said. "Either the EU is going to have a big wave of reforms or we're going to have a big wave of protests."