Twenty years ago, VVD politician Frits Bolkestein said it is impossible for immigrants to integrate while maintaining their cultural identity. Back then, the prominent conservative was severely criticised. Now, Mr Bolkestein is seen as a forerunner of anti-Islam Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders. But the former VVD leader and European Commissioner does not share his ‘successor’s’ views.
Frits Bolkestein - former leader of the VVD
* MP on and off between 1978 and 1998, leader of the conservative VVD in the last nine years.
* Deputy Minister of Economic Affairs from 1982 until 1986
* Minister of Defence from 1988 until 1989
* European Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services from 1999 until 2004
recently published book: The intellectual temptation, dangerous ideas in politics.
The 78-year-old statesman may look a little frail, but he still works full time. In his office overlooking the river Amstel, he reflects on the commotion his comments caused in the early 1990s.
“I mainly objected to the Dutch government’s slogan ‘Integration while keeping your cultural identity’. I thought it was ridiculous: if you integrate, you lose part of your identity. I said immigrants have to conform to the essential values of the Dutch culture."
These values are: freedom of religion, the separation of church and state, freedom of speech and sexual equality. Looking back, the comments were not all that shocking, says the former VVD leader. “Nevertheless, it caused a lot of commotion, but maybe it was necessary.”
Now, former VVD member Geert Wilders is winning votes for his Freedom Party, which he set up in 2006 with extreme views on immigration and Islam. Mr Bolkestein is sometimes called his mentor, but says he does not share his views. “Wilders says things that are just not right and I think he totally exaggerates.”
Mr Bolkestein once suggested in a leaked private conversation that orthodox Jews should consider moving to Israel or the United States, because of the anti-Semitism among Moroccans. Mr Wilders says the opposite; it is the Moroccans that should leave the Netherlands.
Recently, Mr Bolkestein wrote a book about ‘dangerous ideas in politics’. The book explains how rash ideas that have not been tested in practice can lead to chaos, abuses and worse. Nevertheless, Mr Bolkestein does not think Mr Wilders’ ideas have much influence outside his supporters. Mr Wilders provides the current minority government with support in parliament, but does not actually have any executive power. “There is little chance that Moroccans will be deported en masse,” he says resolutely.
Mr Wilders repeatedly claims the Netherlands is in danger of being overrun by a “tsunami of Islamists”. But, says Mr Bolkestein, he is wrong. Birthrates among immigrants are falling fast. For instance, Turkish women are already having fewer children than Dutch women. Mr Bolkestein also stresses that Muslim women are doing well at university, clearly showing they are catching up with their Dutch counterparts.
There are still big problems concerning integration, however, such as the high unemployment and crime rates among immigrant youths as well as anti-Semitism and homophobia.
Mr Bolkestein disagrees with the recent introduction of a burqa ban, an idea championed by Geert Wilders. The Netherlands is the third European country to introduce such a ban after France and Belgium. “A ban makes martyrs of the few burqa wearers there are in the Netherlands. You should avoid that,” he says, knowing all too well that it was his own party that proposed the ban.