Is anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders a champion of freedom of speech? "He deserves the Sakharov prize," says his Freedom Party, the PVV. "An insult" counters the Labour Party.
Wearing an orange tie, the leader of the PVV in the European Parliament, Barry Madlener, is waiting in one of the parliament's corridors for Radio Netherlands Worldwide's monthly radio debate to begin. Christian Democrat MEP Wim van de Camp, standing next to him, is becoming impatient. “Shall we start without him then?” “Him” is Labour MEP Thijs Berman, the third participant. As it turns out, he is still jogging in a park in Strasbourg.
To kill time, Mr Madlener, whispering, tells me he has a scoop which will “stun” his opponents. Mr Berman finally shows up, running, still in jogging outfit. People raise their eyebrows. “Daft Dutch.”
The studio engineer counts down and the recording begins. Berman and Madlener still chat about Holland's victory in the semi-finals in the World Cup, which they watched together in a bar in Strasbourg. The PVV MEP then reveals his scoop.
“Today we're going to nominate our party leader, Geert Wilders, for the Sakharov prize.” His opponents are stunned with disbelief. Van de Camp considers it inappropriate. Berman is furious. “An insult.”
The prize, named after the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, is awarded annually by the European Parliament to individuals and organisations that have contributed significantly to freedom of speech. Previous recipients of the Sakharov Prize include Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Last year it went to the Russian human rights organisation Memorial.
Berman: “It's outrageous to abuse Sakharov's name, a man who was exiled for years. You want to compare that man with Geert Wilders? Wilders who wants to achieve the opposite of everything Sakharov fought for?
Madlener deflects Berman's attack. “It is precisely Islam's ideology which represses freedom of speech, and Geert fights that ideology. He is even risking his life.”
Only Van de Camp remains cool-headed. Introducing some nuance, he argues that the PVV is free to put Wilders forward. “But Geert is extremely selective when it comes to freedom of speech. “Wilders is extremely tolerant towards Israel, and needlessly disparaging towards Muslims.”
One hour after the radio debate, the news spreads across Strasbourg. Tweets and emails sent by MEPs from across Europe all say more or less the same thing: “Is this a bad joke?”
Is the PVV trying to provoke people?
Madlener: "Absolutely not."
Berman: "Of course they are! For the umpteenth time."
Listen to the complete “Who is afraid of Brussels” debate led by Europe correspondent Tijn Sadée.
© Radio Netherlands Worldwide