Geert Wilders sees European elections chance
It is easy to forget sitting in an elegant meeting room in the Dutch parliament that, to many people, Geert Wilders is an outcast, a politician beyond the mainstream. And then there are the reminders.
For reasons of security, the curtains have to be closed during the interview and Mr Wilders recounts how a magazine has placed him in fourth position on an al-Qaeda hit list. It is to underline that he has been more outspoken about Islam that almost any other European politician.
But Geert Wilders senses this is his moment, that the next six months may deliver his best chance to become a European player and not just an agitator. All his energies are focused on the European elections in May. For the forthcoming campaign he has already announced an anti-establishment alliance with Marine Le Pen's National Front in France. Both leaders are currently ahead in many polls. Their dream is that European voters, seething with discontent, will deliver a massive protest vote against Brussels and the political establishment.
I asked Geert Wilders whether he wanted to bring down the European Union. "Yes, as a matter of fact I do," he replied, "in a way that I would like the Netherlands to leave the European Union."
He believes that democracy can only exist in a nation state and Europe is not a nation state so he wants to bring down Europe and restore the nation state and democracy. So he finds himself campaigning for a parliament that he wishes to undermine. He takes issue with my word "undermine" as being too negative but concedes he wants nothing to do with institutions like the European Commission. He does not want to reform the EU but to replace it with nation states set free from the shackles of Brussels.
So why should people vote for him? I ask. "To fight against the European monster," he says, which, in his view, "only wants more power". His hope is that his alliance will become one of the biggest parties in Europe next May and that this will signal a new reality in European politics. It would be very surprising, however, if these anti-establishment parties got more than 30% of the votes in the European elections and there are many divisions between them.
I point out to Mr Wilders that Nigel Farage, the leading eurosceptic in the UK, has shunned his new alliance. He expresses his respect for Mr Farage and hopes that after the elections things will change. I point out it is because the UKIP leader thinks his party might be extreme. He answers that he has been ahead in the Dutch polls for over half a year and that the Netherlands is a tolerant country, so it follows that he cannot be extreme.
At the centre of his campaign will be immigration. His message to those Bulgarians and Romanians planning to take advantage of the freedom to travel and work anywhere in the EU after 1 January is to "stay home". He thinks it crazy that when his country has more than 700,000 unemployed, outsiders are being invited in to work.
The day before I visited Mr Wilders he had proposed a resolution that the government should not allow workers from Romania and Bulgaria to enter the Netherlands from 1 January. Some 80% of the MPs in the Lower House had voted against the resolution but he maintained that polls showed that 80% of the Dutch electorate wanted the restrictions to continue. He dismissed UK Prime Minister David Cameron's moves as "too little too late". "People will come anyway," he said. He wants them to be prevented from working whilst there is an economic crisis. If, in the months ahead, many people do migrate from Bulgaria and Romania, this may prove his strongest card at the polls.
Geert Wilders is a conviction politician. He says he will continue to say what he believes to be right and he will never break. He repeats his criticism of Islam. Yes, he says, the majority of Muslims in the UK and the Netherlands are "law-abiding people whose concern is to have a good life, a good education for their children and a good job and I have nothing against them" but "yes, I believe Islam is a fascist ideology... and yes I believe there is no place for Islam in our continent".
I say that many people would say his comments could stoke up tensions between communities. "I'm staying away from anything," he says "that has to do with stirring up anything."
His critics denounce him as a xenophobe and a nationalist. He replies that he is a patriot. In the past he has proved a magnet for the discontented. At the last election in the Netherlands, however, he fared poorly. This time round he is calculating that a sluggish economy, resentment at bailing out other eurozone countries and disillusionment with the European project will turn voters his way. In the months ahead, European officials will denounce him as a wrecker, a politician who is bent on tearing up more than 50 years of European achievements. Political leaders in Europe are gearing up to raise the stakes in these elections. They will cast them as about the future of the continent.