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Dutch politician’s attack on the Slavs reminiscent of Europe’s darker days

If you woke up in Rotterdam or Warsaw this morning, there's a good chance you opened your local paper to be confronted with a big black tulip. Once again, Holland's most famous floral export is at the centre of an international battle – this time, entirely the result of one man.

For the past several years, the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders has been Europe's ultimate single-issue politician: He likens Muslim immigrants to Nazis, and he wants them to leave. Amid the bitter mood of intolerance that dominated the early years of the economic crisis, this was enough to launch his Party For Freedom (PVV) into third-place status, but now there are signs that Dutch voters are getting tired of the blond-maned firebrand's distinct flavour of xenophobia.

In an apparent bit to win back lost support, Mr. Wilders has launched himself back onto the front pages this week – and has triggered a major international incident – by abandoning single-issue politics entirely. He has boldly struck out with a website that targets a second immigrant group: the Slavs.

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"Reporting Central and Eastern Europeans," his party's new site, urges residents of the Netherlands to report their Romanian, Bulgarian, Slovakian and (especially) Polish neighbours to the authorities, and offers forms with which to do so. It accuses these migrants of "many problems, nuisance, pollution, displacement" and the stealing of Dutch jobs, and features headlines claiming that Europe's Slavs are criminal threats. As with his earlier attacks on Muslims, the site uses images and rhetoric reminiscent of darker periods in Europe's history.

Polish leaders launched complaints with the EU, but the Warsaw media went straight to the stem of the issue, publishing big signs reading Tulipan To Lipa – "The Tulip is a Fraud," and urging Poles to boycott the great variety of Dutch products and services. Slovakian and Bulgarian media denounced the racist "virus" that they saw overtaking Dutch politics and society as an " odour from Amsterdam."

Central European countries are mainly members of the European Union, which means their citizens have the legal right to live and work, without any paperwork, in any of the 27 EU countries – as do Dutch citizens. When hundreds of thousands of Poles moved to Britain and Ireland after they joined the EU in 2004, they were generally welcomed – the young, industrious easterners proved popular with both employers and customers and were generally well accepted.

But Mr. Wilders is attempting to appeal to a rather different mood, one partly born of rising unemployment and partly of a new strain of nativist politics in northwestern Europe, one that has seen right-wing racist parties win parliamentary seats in Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands.

The campaign seems to have struck a nerve in the Netherlands. "A black tulip is the blackest possible PR for the Netherlands," the conservative Amsterdam daily Trouw wrote this morning, before blasting Prime Minister Mark Rutte for failing to condemn Mr. Wilders. The liberal daily NRC Handelsblad published an open letter to Mr. Rutte: "We hope that our government will decide to clearly distance itself from this despicable website after all."

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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