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Mark Rutte's cabinet in the shadow of Geert Wilders

Mark Rutte has taken the reins as the new Dutch prime minister. His centre-right government has a challenging task ahead, not least because of the man who is making it all possible, Geert Wilders.

By John Tyler and Marcel Decraene

Mr Wilders' Freedom Party isn't officially part of the new cabinet - they're supporting the government from parliament - but they've got an agenda and they're not afraid to push it. In this case, the issue being pushed is Wilders' ambition to combat the spread of Islam and, even as Mark Rutte was sworn in as prime minister, one of the senior figures in the Freedom Party, MEP Barry Madlener, said this cabinet's policies are meant to do just that.

Prime Minister Rutte disagrees.

"I’m not focused on Islam. Which explains why the PVV [Wilders’ Freedom Party, ed.] is not in government. We hold different views about the nature of Islam. But they have every right to present their arguments.”

Influence
Mr Rutte and his governing partners have agreed to disagree about their interpretation of immigration policy. But the policy itself has been agreed upon, and Geert Wilders helped write a lot of what is going to be implemented.

His influence on the coalition's plans can be seen in particular in the new, much stricter immigration and integration policy. For example, family reunification will become more difficult, new Dutch passports will become conditional, and holders of double nationality can more easily lose their Dutch citizenship.

Doors slightly open
Christian Democrat Gerd Leers, former mayor of the southern city of Maastricht, is the man charged with putting this immigration policy into force. Known for his hard-line approach, Mr Leers says he wants his policy to be tough, but with heart. He says he doesn't want to close the door completely.

"Let’s flesh out this coalition agreement in the next few years and let's come up with a better idea of what's going on. Because in the long run, we need good people in this country. They will come here, and they are welcome.”

Tense relation
Mr Leers met with Geert Wilders before he was appointed as government minister. He insists the meeting was routine, and that he made it clear to Mr Wilders that he alone is responsible for immigration policy. Mr Wilders, for his part, says he trusts that Mr Leers will implement the government's policy, and that immigration from Muslim countries will be cut by half in the next four years.

But the relationship between the two men is sure to be tense as Mr Leers has been one of Wilders' main critics in the past. He once called the Freedom Party leader the "embodiment of common internet muck-rakers."

NATO mission
Another minister who will have to take account of Mr Wilders’ influence is Hans Hillen, the new defence minister. Although Dutch soldiers have recently withdrawn from the NATO mission in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan, the Dutch military may still agree to participate in a similar mission in the future.

But, if the Netherlands, thanks to Geert Wilders, gains a reputation as being anti-Islamic, this could have direct consequences for the safety of Dutch soldiers taking part in international missions in Muslim countries.

The Mr Hillen says Dutch diplomats have to work even harder to explain the country's good intentions:

"It will be our task to present an image - in the way we express ourselves and the way we show ourselves to the world, whether it’s the Islamic world or otherwise – that we’re doing a good job and that we do this job responsibly and that this cabinet isn’t biased or prejudiced in any way against Islam.”

The Netherlands has turned a corner, and a politician who considers Islam a dangerous ideology is now close to the centre of power. Every member of Mark Rutte's new cabinet is by now all too aware of the challenges that will come along with this change.

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