Can Europe Make It?

Populist snapshots: this week’s exchange in the European Parliament

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An excerpt from the debate on discriminatory internet sites and government reactions (March 13, 2012, Strasbourg), followed by commentary on the political language.

Marley Morris Auke Zijlstra Ria Oomen-Ruijten
3 March 2014

This article looks at the rhetoric of members of the PVV (Partij Voor de Vrijheid) in the European Parliament. The PVV, led by Geert Wilders, is a Dutch party that in the past has been most associated with its strict anti-Islam stance. Since bringing down the coalition government in 2012, followed by a poor performance in general elections later that year, Wilders has focused his attention on criticising the EU. Wilders recently commissioned a disputed report by British firm Capital Economics citing the economic benefits of the Netherlands exiting the European Union. He has paired up with Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National in France, ahead of the European Parliament elections, intending to form a united front to bring down “this monster called Europe”. This article shines a light on how the PVV’s MEPs have interacted with other politicians in debates in the European Parliament.

The debate

In 2012, the PVV launched a website, “Hotline for Reporting Central and Eastern Europeans”, encouraging people in the Netherlands to anonymously comment about their negative experiences involving Eastern Europeans, highlighting things like noise pollution, drunkenness, and losing out on jobs. After widespread condemnation, the European Parliament decided to hold a debate to discuss the website. Auke Zijlstra, a PVV MEP, gave his opinion at the debate:

 

Auke Zijlstra (member state: the Netherlands, party: PVV, European political group: non-attached):


Madam President, eight years ago, no fewer than 12 countries joined the European Union. Everyone knew then only too well that those countries were not ready to join. The ambition was to create not a stable EU, but, first and foremost, a large EU. The accession requirements were simply relaxed.

The consequence of that is that already, three hundred thousand people from Central and Eastern Europe have moved to the Netherlands. The reality is that the sheer numbers of these people are causing major problems in terms of housing, employment, education and social security. Unfortunately, this has also been accompanied by a large increase in crime and a massive burden on our society.

Yes, Madam President, this is the reality, one we have found out about through the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV)’s website, which has already received more than a hundred thousand complaints...

 

Ria Oomen-Ruijten (member state: the Netherlands, party: Christian Democratic Appeal, European political group: European People’s Party):

Madam President, a question: does the honourable member know what Poland’s growth figures are and would it not be a splendid thing if the Netherlands achieved such a high level of growth, too? And do you know any people in your neighbourhood who can say that they have never had a Polish worker provide a service for them? Can you confirm that?

And is it not the case that the Netherlands has achieved its prosperity because it has been an open country? Is it not the case,

Madam President, that the Polish workers are making an important contribution to our open economy and that those same Polish workers are paying taxes and social security contributions and that, therefore, under law, they are also accruing rights, and that they are not entitled to benefits. You know that. You ought to know it.

 

Auke Zijlstra:

Ms Oomen-Ruijten, your assertion that Central and Eastern Europeans have no entitlement to benefits is blatant nonsense.
At present, a total of over 12 000 of these people in the Netherlands are in receipt of benefits and that is a tenfold increase on a few years ago.

Why has the Netherlands become rich, you ask? The Netherlands has become rich thanks to hard-working Dutch people, the Dutch men and women who have put their country on the map. You are now leaving these very Dutch people in the lurch by talking only about the impact of individual migrant workers and by failing to discuss the problems I have raised here, ones which councillors in big cities have also witnessed, namely, in the fields of housing, employment, education and social security.

Commentary 

In the above exchange, rather than responding directly to concerns about the PVV’s website, Zijlstra frames the debate by opening the speech with a story of EU enlargement from his perspective. Zijlstra portrays European leaders as reckless and irresponsible. He responds to the controversy about the PVV’s website by embedding the incident in a wider narrative about the enlargement of the European Union and the strain immigration has put on the Netherlands’ welfare system.

Zijlstra explains the PVV’s website in the context of his story of EU failure. Listing the number of complaints the website has received suggests the mass appeal behind his message.

Oomen-Ruijten reframes the issue as a question of economic growth: does Polish immigration help or hinder the Dutch economy?

Zijlstra responds to the question by identifying economic growth with “hard- working Dutch people”. As with Geert Wilders’ line “Henk and Ingrid are paying for Mohammad and Fatima”, this phrase puts Zijlstra on the side of “ordinary people”. Zijlstra explains the PVV’s website in the context of his story of EU failure. Listing the number of complaints the website has received suggests the mass appeal behind his message.

By accusing Oomen-Ruijten of “leaving these very Dutch people in the lurch”, Zijlstra brands her as an uncaring elitist. And by referencing “housing, employment, education and social security”, he identifies his party with these bread and butter issues, making Oomen-Ruijten appear out of touch.

For the full Counterpoint feature in the series on populist rhetoric leading up to the European elections, including recommendations for how to respond to Ziljstra’s rhetoric, please see here.

 

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