The Dutch government has launched a damage-limitation campaign to try to counter what it fears is the disastrous international impact of the Islam-bashing populist Geert Wilders.
Wilders, whose success in June’s general election catapulted him into the role of kingmaker in attempts to form a new coalition government, is to travel to New York to take part in protests on 11 September against the proposed Muslim community centre near Ground Zero.
Maxime Verhagen, the acting foreign minister and Christian Democrats’ leader, has voiced fears that Wilders’s speech in New York will tarnish Dutch reputations. He has also taken the unusual step of circulating confidential orders to Dutch diplomats around the world on how to answer questions about Wilders’s influence in a new government and on the fallout for Muslims in the Netherlands.
With characteristic robustness, Wilders has told Verhagen to mind his own business. He clearly intends to grab attention with a tub-thumping exercise in Islamophobia in New York. “Good feeling. Important speech. No one will stop me. No mosque at Ground Zero,” he tweeted after booking a flight to New York. “Stop Islam, defend freedom” is his rallying cry.
The tensions over 9/11 and New York come as Wilders savours his growing clout at home. His Freedom party is running at 31% in the most recent opinion poll, ahead of all other contenders, and he has spent most of this week at a secret location with Verhagen and Mark Rutte, the liberals’ leader, haggling over the terms for a new coalition government.
Wilders, whose party almost tripled its seats, from nine to 24, in the June election, is not joining the new cabinet. Instead, he will prop up a rightwing coalition of liberals and Christian Democrats in return for pledges of a tough new crackdown on immigration and other policy concessions. If the talks succeed, Wilders will be in the enviable position of wielding power while abjuring responsibility.