By Johnny Cotton, Toby Sterling, Bart H. Meijer
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -Far-right populist Geert Wilders wants to be the Netherlands’ next prime minister and would focus his efforts on curbing immigration, he said following a landmark election win that will have repercussions in the Netherlands and beyond.
Wilders’ win sent a warning shot to mainstream parties across Europe ahead of European Parliament elections next June, which will likely be fought on the same issues as the Dutch election: immigration, cost of living and climate change.
“We’ve had it with the old politicians,” voter Herman Borcher said in the eastern town of Enschede, summing up the mood.
A fan of former U.S. President Donald Trump and Hungary’s eurosceptic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Wilders is openly anti-Islam, and anti-EU and said “the Netherlands will be returned to the Dutch.”
But his most radical ideas – and in particular any plans to take the country out of the EU or ban the Koran – will be rejected by other parties he must work with in order to form a coalition government, meaning he will have to compromise.
That has not stopped fellow populists across the continent from welcoming his win as showing that “a new Europe is possible.”
Beating all predictions, Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) won 37 seats out of 150 on Wednesday, well ahead of 25 for a joint Labour/Green ticket and 24 for the conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) of outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Coalition talks are expected to take months.
“I would be very happy to become the Dutch prime minister, of course,” Wilders told party members who welcomed him with champagne and cake, adding that he was willing to negotiate.
“We are eager to do that, because it gives us a lot of responsibilities, this huge win at the Dutch elections, and we really want to live up to it.”
Wilders said he was in favour of a referendum on whether the Netherlands should leave the EU.
“But the first thing is a significant restriction on asylum and immigration,” Wilders said. “We don’t do that for ourselves, we do that for all Dutch people who voted for us”.
Net migration to the Netherlands doubled in 2022 from a year earlier to around 223,000 people, data from Statistics Netherlands shows. Some 64% of immigrants last year had a European background, with a quarter of arrivals having a background in Ukraine.
Rene Cuperus, a senior research fellow at global affairs think-tank the Clingendael Institute said 80% of the Dutch were in favour of EU membership and an exit was not in the cards, nor was Wilders’ idea of banning the Koran likely to materialise.
“It’s not an anti-Islam vote. It’s not an anti EU vote. No, it’s more a middle finger against the establishment in The Hague,” Cuperus said, referring to the city where the government is based.
“It’s an anti-establishment signal … to really warn the established parties to fix the housing market crisis and to fix migration.”
But French and German ministers signalled there were still reasons to be concerned.
“The high level of support for anti-European forces in the Netherlands is bitter,” Germany’s EU Minister Anna Luehrmann said. “All pro-Europeans must now work to ensure that this does not happen again in the European elections.”
Wilders opposes Kyiv’s bid to join the EU and has repeatedly said the Netherlands should stop providing arms to Ukraine.
Islamic and Moroccan organisations, and other rights groups, expressed concerns about Wilders’ victory in a country where Muslims make up about 5% of the population.
“We have great concerns about the future of Islam and Muslims in the Netherlands,” said Muhsin Koktas, of Dutch Muslim organisation CMO.
All eyes will now turn to Wilders’ potential government partners who had expressed serious doubts about working with him during the campaign, but were now less outspoken after his win.
On Friday, party leaders will meet to decide on an ‘explorer’, a political outsider who will hear from each party what possibilities they see and prefer in coalition talks.
(Reporting by Bart Meijer, Charlotte van Campenhout, Anthony Deutsch, Johnny Cotton, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam, Petra Wischgoll in Enschede; Additional reporting by Alvise Armellini, Dominique Vidalon, Sudip Kar-Gupta; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Toby Chopra)