When a country threatens to ban Dutch tulips, you know something is wrong. That’s just what's happening now, as Poland and other Eastern European countries express their anger about a Dutch website.
Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party has set up a website calling for Dutch people to anonymously register their complaints about workers from Eastern Europe. The site is widely seen as discriminatory, but Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has repeatedly refused to condemn it.
It's is a familiar pattern; Geert Wilders has made a name for himself through similar provocations, usually aimed at Muslims but including immigrants of all kinds. When Wilders provokes, other politicians react. The most outspoken reactions usually come from parties on the left of the political spectrum, but parties in the centre and on the right have also been known to voice their disapproval.
Since becoming prime minister, Mark Rutte has rarely reacted to these provocations, for two reasons. As the country’s leader, he is expected to rise above politics. At the same time, he does not want to alienate a political partner; Geert Wilders provides parliamentary support for the current governing coalition.
Why no outcry about Socialist website?
The Dutch Socialist Party set up a similar website back in 2005 when the EU opened the borders to Eastern European workers. The site did not lead to an outcry, as the current Freedom Party site has.
The Socialist Party site asked people to report ‘fraudulent competition in the labour market caused by the inflow of workers from Poland and Eastern Europe.’
But the Freedom Party site is more negative, and is seen as stigmatizing Eastern Europeans as it also calls on people to register complaints about what it calls 'drunk and loutish behaviour' from middle and eastern Europeans.
And complaints can be anonymous on the Freedom Party site. That was not the case with the Socialist Party site, which is no longer online.
This coalition construction, featuring a minority government depending on support from Geert Wilders’ party in parliament, is confusing even for the Dutch. Many people in the Netherlands think that Geert Wilders is a member of the current government. Abroad, that impression is even stronger.
Mark Rutte knew this was a risk when he formed this governing construction, and he promised to distance himself from Wilders’ radical views if necessary.
He has rarely done so. Since he took office, Rutte’s strongest statement distancing himself from Wilders only came about under questioning from the press, and a few days after the fact. In August, when Wilders called mosques "hate palaces", Rutte eventually said he had gone too far, calling it "a terrible statement".
But on other occasions, the prime minister has refused to comment.
Mr Rutte is trying to do the same thing now. This time, however, his strategy is not working. For one thing, the current controversy does not affect far away Muslim governments. This time, it’s about fellow Europeans.
The ambassadors from ten eastern European countries have written an open letter to the Dutch people and the country’s political leaders asking the country to "distance itself from this reprehensible initiative."
In addition, if Eastern Europe isn't happy with the Netherlands, it could negatively affect the billions of euros in trade between the two.
The Netherlands is one of the largest foreign investors in Poland;Dutch businesses have invested 23 billion euros there over the last 19 years. It has also recently been shown that workers from Eastern Europe contribute to the Dutch economy; one report claimed Polish workers alone pay more than one billion euros in taxes.
In addition, the Netherlands looks to Eastern Europe for support on EU decisions. The Netherlands is trying to negotiate a lower net contribution to the EU, and needs support from Eastern Europe to do so.
Geert Wilders himself may regret alienating Eastern Europe. He agreed to support this governing coalition on the condition that immigration from non-western countries would be cut in half within four years. To achieve this, the Netherlands needs all the support it can get in the EU.
The EU is adopting new regulations for family reunification, for instance, a subject discussed on Wednesday in the Dutch parliament. And Immigration Minister Gerd Leers will himself pay a visit to Poland later this month.
The Poles have been importing more and more Dutch tulips over the years. So much so, that the theme at this year’s world-famous outdoor flower exhibition, the Keukenhof, is ‘Poland, the heart of Europe’. But right now in Poland, thanks to the Freedom Party, a protest poster is spreading rapidly, showing a black tulip with a stripe through it and the words "the Tulip is fake".
After weighing his options, Prime Minister Mark Rutte may decide it’s time to take a stand.