“Do you want more or fewer Moroccans in this city and in the Netherlands?” Geert Wilders, the Netherlands’ premier anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim demagogue, asked a crowd in the Hague in 2014. “Fewer, fewer!” they chanted.
“I’ll take care of that,” he promised.
This remarks led to Wilders’s being arrested and put on trial in March for inciting anti-minority discrimination. On Friday, Dutch judges found him guilty of incitement, though the judge chose not to punish it with a fine. Wilders was entirely acquitted on a count of committing hate speech, a separate charge under Dutch law.
Here’s what’s amazing about the whole thing: Wilders’s political party, the Party for Freedom (PVV), is leading the polls for the Dutch elections in 2016. It won this widespread support because of, not despite, the kind of provocative rhetoric that landed Wilders in legal trouble. The most recent polling suggests Wilders’s trial has helped, rather than hurt, the party’s standing.
If there’s a more potent symbol of the crisis the far right’s rise has created in Europe’s allegedly tolerant societies, it’s hard to think of what it might be.
Europeans see hate speech very differently than Americans do
The Netherlands, like many European countries, takes a different approach to free speech than the United States. In general, it’s more willing to curtail speech in the name of the public good — see, for example, the UK’s famously strict libel laws, which make it far easier to win lawsuits against media outlets.
Hate speech is a particularly sharp difference. While Americans tend to see it as a necessary price of free speech, European nations are acutely sensitive to the risks posed by demagogues who attack minorities. They are, as a result, much more willing to punish people like Wilders who pledge to “organize” a reduction in the number of Moroccans living in their country.
Europe’s hate speech laws are a symbol of its post–World War II reckoning — a kind of legal backup for the pledge to never again fall prey to hatred and ethnic division.
The problem is that many Europeans are making clear they prefer the exact opposite. Anti-immigrant demagogues — especially those with explicit or implicit anti-Muslim leanings — are drawing growing levels of support in countries across the continent, and stand legitimate chances of winning national elections in both France and the Netherlands.
In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has started building a wall to keep out immigrants and holding migrants in detention camps, where guards have been filmed flinging food at them as if they were zoo animals. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League, led by a politician who has attacked the pope for calling for dialogue with Muslims, is polling at more than three times its 2013 level, making it the country’s third most popular party. And in Finland, the Finns Party — which wants to dramatically slash immigration numbers and keep out many non-Europeans — is part of the government. Its leader, Timo Soini, is the country’s foreign minister.
This kind of politics, a direct backlash to the 2015 refugee crisis and decades of nonwhite, non-Christian immigration, isn’t the kind of thing you can stop by punishing one person. Attempting to put the leaders of these movements on trial won’t stop the anti-immigrant sentiment that’s fueling their rise.
In the Dutch case, the criminalization approach has arguably made things worse. Peter Kanne, a Dutch pollster at I&O Research, told the New York Times that the PVV’s polling numbers in the 2017 legislative election have gone up because of its leader’s trial.
“What you see is that the trial of Geert Wilders is working to his benefit,” Kanne told the Times’s Nina Siegel. “I don’t know if this will be a long-term effect, and we can’t tell if it will still be this way in one or two months.”
The problem, quite simply, is that a lot of Dutch people share Wilders’s beliefs. They agree that Muslim immigration is a threat to their national identity and that Islam is hostile to “Dutch values” like feminism and LGBTQ equality. They think the country really does need to slash immigration rates from Muslim countries, like Morocco, and they don’t like the law telling them that their opinions should be banned.
“Three PVV hating judges ... convict me and half of the Netherlands,” Wilders tweeted after the verdict, capturing the mood of his supporters.
Now, this doesn’t mean the PVV is going to be running the government come March. There are enough popular parties in the Netherlands that the PVV is very unlikely to win an outright majority of parliamentary seats, which it needs to form a government. That means it needs to form a coalition with at least one other party to lead — and other parties, wary of Wilders’s anti-Muslim message, may choose to band together and exclude his party from government.
Regardless, it’s striking that someone who quite literally ran afoul of hate speech laws has a plausible chance of being the country’s next prime minister. It shows that the values Europe claims to cherish — so much so that it has attempted to criminalize speech transgressing them — are under direct assault.
And it’s not clear if anyone has a good solution.