Geert Wilders’ far-right Freedom Party is not only forging ahead in the Netherlands, it’s also making a name for itself in Europe. Last summer the party made its debut in the European parliament, with just one aim: to do away with the parliament itself.
She’s the sort of politician who’s good at churning out one-liners. “The European Union is as bad as the former Soviet Union,” for example. The 39-year-old Freedom Party MEP Laurence Stassen has a self-assured spring in her step and is well aware of the effect she has on her male fans. There have been plenty of comments on her physical charms from visitors to right-wing Dutch shockblog website GeenStijl. “They’re mostly kids,” laughs Ms Stassen. “It’s all part of it, now I’m a public figure.”
After the Freedom Party’s resounding success in the June 2009 European elections, she got a phone call from party leader Geert Wilders asking her to give up her job as a local TV presenter and pack her bags for Brussels.
The Freedom Party made its European Parliament debut with as many seats as the senior coalition partner in The Hague, the Christian Democrats. It was a noisy entrance with an entirely negative message. “If we get the chance we’ll do away with this parliament as soon as we can,” says Ms Stassen, who describes the EU Parliament as wasteful and unnecessary. “Economic cooperation in Europe, ok. But they’ve turned it into a monstrous, uncontrollable project.”
“Stop Islamisation” is the slogan that has been scoring for the Freedom Party in the Netherlands for the past few years, and now too in the run-up to the general election on 9 June. But in Europe, Mr Wilders’ party takes a different line. ‘Islamisation’ only gets a mention when Turkey’s EU candidacy is on the agenda. The party is horrified at the idea of “an Islamic country” in Europe.
But the rest of the Freedom Party MPs in Strasbourg keep their guns trained on “untransparent Europe,” as Ms Stassen calls it. “It’s a rule and legislation factory and the taxpayers haven’t a clue what’s being done with their money. That’s a situation we want to end.”
To a certain extent, the Dutch political establishment has got used to the Wilders effect. But the leaders of the major European parties still feel extremely uncomfortable when the Freedom Party pipes up. There’s a lot of irritation at the fact that unlike any other party in parliament, the Freedom Party MPs insist on demonstratively sitting at a table adorned with little Dutch flags.
“It’s a negative, populist party,” says Martin Schulz, leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament. “The Freedom Party exploits the European Parliament, this multicultural institution, merely to incite hatred.”
During a plenary session in Strasbourg on 9 March, Mr Schulz clashed bitterly with Freedom party MEP Daniël van der Stoep over European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s expenses claims. “700,000 euros a year in expenses, that’s nearly 2000 euros a day,” Mr Van der Stoep calculated for his audience of MEPs.
“Fascist,” came the furious response from Mr Schulz, directed at the Freedom Party MEPs. “Schulz has his eyes on better jobs in the future, so he’s standing up for Barroso,” says Mr Van der Stoep, “but it’s completely ridiculous to call me a fascist. And in a discussion about expenses claims too.”
Mr Schulz was quick to defend himself. “I didn’t call Van der Stoep a fascist, but the British politician who supported him. He called me ‘Führer’, and it was only then I called him a fascist.”
This embarrassing incident is illustrative of relations within the European Parliament, says Laurence Stassen. “Anyone who voices any criticism of Europe is immediately snubbed by the Europhiles.”
Ms Stassen has been playing MEP for nearly a year now, yet she’d like nothing better than to call off the whole game. Isn’t that an unworkable situation? “To dismantle something you have to know it well, be right on top of it. In any case in the coming years I’m going to do my very best to achieve it.”