Europe

Far-right scents opportunity in euro crisis

Guilders
Image caption Polls suggest that most Dutch people would welcome the return of the guilder

Across Europe far-right political parties are capitalising on the eurozone crisis.

From the toe of Italy to the Nordic straits they are seeing an opportunity in the widespread discontent with economic austerity and shaping their rhetoric to offer an option that is increasingly being viewed as a viable alternative to the struggling status quo.

According to one political analyst the revelation within the ranks of the European far-right goes something like this: anti-immigration talk has only limited appeal, but tap into people's fears and frustrations by linking that to a more popular and palatable anti-European message and the political spectrum is your oyster.

Andre Krouwel is based in Amsterdam. He's been monitoring the rise of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands and says the crisis provides a perfect feeding ground.

"Most people vote on bread and butter issues. So what you need is an economic crisis, like now, so people feel like their euro is threatened, their jobs are threatened," he says.

"So now you can say: 'This whole left-wing project of Europeanisation was wrong, you're basically paying the price for those lazy Greeks and Italians who are not actually working.'"

The Dutch example is a particularly interesting one. The PVV is only six years old, and yet it has seen a dramatic rise in public support, so much so that it is now the second most popular party in the polls.

Leader Geert Wilders is an astute and ambitious political animal. Earlier this year he was hauled before the courts accused of inciting racial hatred and discrimination after making a film that was highly critical (to put it mildly) of the Koran.

Image caption Mainstream politicians in the Dutch parliament are losing ground to parties like Wilders' PVV

He won his case, beefed up his security personnel and returned to business as normal at the Dutch parliament in the Binnenhof, albeit with an even bigger fanbase.

What Mr Wilders does so well is position himself as a man of the people, a populist who knows what the public want and how to present himself as the man who can provide it. Other far-right leaders are watching and learning by his example.

Glory days

On the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty, I was in the city that lent its name to the document.

Speaking to stall-holders at the Maastricht festive market, the anti-European sentiment was almost as strong as the particularly potent mulled wine.

One stall-holder, Frankie, took time out from his toffee apples to show me a newspaper headline accompanied by a photo of a pint of beer.

"Look, since we have had the euro the price of beer has doubled. When we had the guilder life was good, I could buy things and people had the money to buy things from me," he says.

"Now when you go to the pub it's too expensive to even buy a beer for your friends. Life was better when we had the guilder."

Front-page evidence that Geert Wilders knows how to sell his political brand. His PVV party has recently adopted what could prove to be a make or break policy.

They have called for a referendum on returning to the old currency. It is a bold move but one that is attracting widespread public support. In a recent survey more than 58% of those polled said they wanted to go back to the guilder.

'No longer my country'

Geert Tomlow has been friends with the PVV leader for years and was himself a member of the Freedom Party until he was kicked out after calling for a more democratic party structure. He explains why voters are turning to the party:

"The feeling is that this is not my country any more. I have a foreign coin, I see foreign people. That's the emotion and that's what Wilders is saying: 'Come to me, I'm daddy!'''

"People in Holland are fed up. If you are a normal Dutch person, every year you pay more tax and for that tax every year you get less and less and less.

"And all around you we have a hundred thousand people who get housing and all kinds of favours, and it costs us, we don't get anything for it. And that's stupid, people are fed up with it, we don't want it."

But the anti-European sentiment does not sit well with the leading Dutch Liberal Party (VVD) that prides itself on playing an active and often leading role in European affairs, especially financial ones.

The Finance Minister Jan Kees de Jager has dismissed the idea of abandoning the euro. As far as he is concerned the Freedom Party has no say on the matter:

"On eurozone matters Geert Wilders is in opposition. And while an opposition party can have dissenting opinions in a free country, they do not have any influence over the eurozone policy of this government."

Total collapse?

Image caption Wilders' PVV party is doing well in the opinion polls

The problem is, it is not quite as simple as that. As the second most popular party in the country, the governing coalition relies on the PVV's support in some areas. Which makes Geert Wilders a disproportionately powerful player.

Many now believe the Freedom Party's threat to boycott the next round of proposed cuts could result in the total collapse of the Dutch government. Ex-PVV member Geert Tomlow thinks it is a distinct possibility - and that Geert Wilders is the man who can make it happen.

"Two telephone calls and the government is down. They are always on a very thin lifeline," Mr Tomlow says.

"For him it's a gamble and a case of finding the right moment and thinking: 'Now I throw in a little boom and the government splits.' He has the government in his hands at the moment."

So as voters seek shelter from the eurozone crisis, market turmoil and political disarray are creating a perfect storm for the far-right. And as the political landscape opens up, the outsiders are being invited in from the cold.

More on this story