Opinion: Fear of foreigners

POSTED: 06/30/11 12:31 PM

Vice Prime Minister Maxime Verhagen made some tantalizing statements yesterday during a symposium organized by the CDA’s Scientific Bureau and the Center for European Studies in The Hague. Verhagen said that the Dutch fear for foreign influences is “understandable” and “justified.” At the same time he has some harsh criticism in store for the Freedom Party and Geert Wilders, the supporters of his minority VVD-CDA cabinet.

Here are some quotes from Verhagen’s speech. “What will our country look like in the future? Will the Netherlands still remain the Netherlands when so many foreigners join us? Will my neighborhood remain my neighborhood if another church is closed and a mosque is built? Why do the newcomers not adapt to us? I don’t bother them and I don’t want to be bothered by them either. They are not stealing the job of my son, are they? Everything has become so expensive in the Netherlands; will my pension be cut on top of everything? And what about the groceries I buy: what can I still eat and what should I leave alone of those foreign products and that foreign disease is now also in our vegetables and meat? Should we not drop all that foreign stuff and aren’t we – literally – better off fighting our own battles? Foreign countries only cost money and they bring us little else but problems. Europe: I know that a lot of money goes there, but I don’t see anything coming back from it. Why is Brussels bothering us anyway? Yes, I see that another country goes bankrupt and then they give them even more money. Since when are we a charity?”

With this rather lengthy introduction, Verhagen characterized the unrest among Dutch citizens. The Freedom Party capitalized on these sentiments during the last elections. Verhagen said that the mainstream political parties, his own CDA included, have long considered these opinions as the wrong reactions to a fast changing world, thinking that everything would turn out okay in the end.

But yesterday, Verhagen turned away from that position. “This discomfort is understandable. It is no longer obvious that our children will have better lives than we do. The cohesion in towns and villages has disappeared through the arrival of individualism, immigrants from all over the world and a more complex society. The traditional bonds of church, party and association no longer exists. In (the province of) Brabant 237 of the 287 churches will disappear within the next ten years. The philosophical compass that we took from our homes has made place for a freedom that more often alarms than it sets us free.”

Verhagen then went on to say that the concerns people have are justified. But how to deal with those concerns? That’s where Verhagen splits from populist politicians like Geert Wilders. “The uncertainty of people is the breeding ground for populism. Their concerns are not populist; but the answers of certain leaders who want to benefit from them are. They want to become popular, while the socially desirable answers of other leaders have enlarged the incomprehension towards so-called profiteers from The Hague.”

Verhagen had some harsh words for Geert Wilders about the position of the Netherlands in the world. “The Freedom Party wants to create a so-called heartland – a Netherlands with a fence around it. But it is prospectless, negative and an illusion to think that a fence around the Netherlands will solve everything and that we are able to hide behind the dykes. We cannot afford to occupy ourselves with just the hospital, the street and the school. Europe, the euro, an open economy, trade and the free flow of capital and people are crucial.”

A strong Netherlands, Verhagen argued, is a Netherlands that is focused on the world. “This was true in the Golden Age and it is true now. The easy call of the Freedom Party to voters to depict foreign countries as creepy, dangerous and profiteering is incorrect, shortsighted and bad for our economy and our society. The Netherlands will become stronger through Europe and by fighting abroad together with our allies for the values we share.”

Verhagen’s speech, especially where he talks about the concerns of the Dutch electorate, will be subject to much debate. It seems to fit an old CDA-strategy like a glove. On the one hand it reaches out to concerned citizens, and on the other hand it whacks the party that has answered the call to do something about those concerns – the Freedom Party.

Is Verhagen then a closet-Freedom Party supporter? Or is it the same old song, dressed up a different way, to make voters believe that everything will turn out okay as soon as they return to their old nest?


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