Since the political earthquake one year ago, when the voters of France and the Netherlands voted No to the European Union’s constitutional treaty, most of the headlines have focused on the chaotic state of French politics. Yesterday was a reminder the Dutch are also undergoing an extraordinary period of national soul-searching in which attitudes to the EU, to immigration, and to religious tolerance and fundamentalism are all called into question.
The revelation that Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch member of parliament, and an outspoken campaigner for Muslim women’s rights, had lied in her original application for asylum in the Netherlands, has split the country right across traditional party lines. The television programme that exposed her came from a leftwing broadcasting company, but the first challenge in parliament came from a rightwing politician.
Ms Hirsi Ali has become a symbol for Dutch resistance to Muslim fundamentalism, since the murder of Theo van Gogh, a film director, for making a film based on her script about Muslim discrimination against women. She has been subject to round-the-clock police protection ever since.
Yet it was Rita Verdonk, the immigration minister and a leading member of Ms Hirsi Ali’s own VVD liberal party, who announced that she would lose her Dutch passport – to the consternation of many other party members. Ms Verdonk has a tough image as an enforcer of immigration laws, through which she hopes to win the party leadership for next year’s elections.
Newspapers have expressed both support for strict enforcement of the immigration laws, and consternation at the damage to the Netherlands’ reputation as the most tolerant country in Europe. “It is ironic, to say the least, that Ms Hirsi Ali has decided to leave the Netherlands for the US, and join a conservative organisation like the American Enterprise Institute, in order to be able to exercise her free speech,” one European diplomat said yesterday.
“I am flabbergasted and confused,” said Dick Leurdyck, an international relations analyst at the Clingendael Institute. “I do not understand any more what is going on.”
The backlash against a liberal immigration policy also seems to have affected the Dutch debate over EU enlargement, seen by both the government and parliamentarians as a big factor behind last year’s No vote in the referendum.
“A lot of parliamentarians are now extremely hesitant about this [enlargement],” Mr Leurdyck said. “Two years ago we would have been extremely forward-looking. Now we say let us give it more time.”
Some MPs have suggested that even ratification of the accession treaty for Romania and Bulgaria to join the EU might be in doubt, given the criticisms expressed by the European Commission yesterday about their state of readiness. But even if those two states win approval, there is much more doubt about enlargements to bring the countries of former Yugoslavia, and Turkey, into the union.
The direct connection between the divisive debate over Islam, and the parallel one over EU enlargement, most affects public attitudes to Turkey, although Turkish EU membership is still at least 10 years away. There are some 300,000 Turkish immigrants already living in the Netherlands, and enlargement politicians have raised fears of a new wave of migrants if EU membership becomes a reality.
Turkey is not on the immediate agenda. Dutch tolerance and multiculturalism is. Yet the Hirsi Ali debate may cause Dutch voters to challenge the backlash against Muslim immigration. The decision of Ms Verdonk was strongly attacked in the Dutch parliament yesterday, including by supporters of the government coalition. “I reject the notion that just because we have one minister who is very strict on immigration, the whole country has changed,” said Lousewies van der Laan, parliamentary leader of the D66 liberal party, the coalition’s smallest. “We haven’t all gone bonkers here. I still feel the Netherlands is a beacon of tolerance, even if we have gone through a very difficult period.”