Dutch burka ban represents failed attempt to ‘declaw’ far-right

Netherlands’ Council of State condemns ban as unnecessary and unconstitutional

Liberal Party leader Mark Rutte had promised a burqa ban to persuade his far-right nemesis Geert Wilders to support a minority Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images

Liberal Party leader Mark Rutte had promised a burqa ban to persuade his far-right nemesis Geert Wilders to support a minority Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government. Photograph: Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images

 

There was a time when the Council of State in the Netherlands – founded in 1531 to advise governments and ensure their policies were in line with the common good – was listened to by the main political parties. In an increasingly polarised society, that’s no longer the case.

Potentially the most divisive example in recent years has been the so-called burka ban, where the government acknowledges that between only 200 and 400 out of a population of 17 million wear the burka or the niqab – but where a ban on face coverings in public comes into effect on August 1st.

The Council of State was uncharacteristically blunt about the decision, describing it as unnecessary, implying an urgency which does not exist, and warning that it “risks infringing the constitutional right to freedom of religion”. Yet nobody is listening.

That’s because the ban had its origins in what appeared back in 2010 to be a cunning plan by prime minister and Liberal Party leader Mark Rutte to persuade his far-right nemesis Geert Wilders to support a minority Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government.

The problem is that – just as the Council of State warned – the ban alienates the country’s Islamic community

The ban was the price of Wilders’s support from the opposition benches. But, ironically, the government collapsed in May 2012 when Wilders pulled the plug by refusing to support a €15 billion austerity programme aimed at meeting the EU’s deficit target.

So, Wilders was no longer onside – but a controversial social change whose consequences were, and remain, unpredictable had been set in motion in the name of political expediency.

It was an early example of a strategy to “declaw” Wilders by any means possible, which has characterised an ill-tempered battle – mainly between Wilders and Rutte – over the increasingly influential right-leaning middle ground in Dutch politics.

Right-wing rhetoric

That strategy saw the PM criticised, even within his own party, for his right-wing rhetoric during the 2017 general election. Such misgivings evaporated, however, when he formed his third consecutive government – again excluding Wilders, despite now heading the country’s second-largest party.

Its origins largely forgotten, the Partial Ban on Face-Covering Clothing Act passed the lower house of parliament in 2016 and the upper house, the Senate, in June 2018, in a form not quite as prohibitive as in other EU countries, such as France, Belgium and Denmark.

It applies in all public buildings – schools, hospitals and universities – as well as on public transport, but not, crucially, on the street. Crash helmets and ski masks will also be banned, but not headscarves where the face is visible. Infringements carry a €400 fine.

How will it be implemented? Amsterdam’s mayor, Femka Halsema, says the ban is “not a priority”. Transport workers are asking if they will really be expected to ask commuters in packed trains to remove their face coverings, detain them if they refuse, and then call the police. Will the police respond, and what happens if they don’t?

However, there is a far more politically insidious aspect to the introduction of this questionable ban.

It was given voice without a hint of subtlety by the Freedom Party’s leader in the senate, Marjolein Faber-Van de Klashorst, when she declared: “This is just the first step. The next step will be to close all the mosques in the Netherlands.”

The problem is that – just as the Council of State warned – the ban alienates the country’s Islamic community at a time when not alone has the right not been “declawed” by Rutte’s containment strategy, but is very much in the ascendant.

New wunderkind

Wilders has been joined in the political firmament of the right by a new wunderkind, Thierry Baudet (36), founder of the anti-immigrant Forum for Democracy, who famously describes other politicians as “essentially brain-dead”, while he himself is “the most important intellectual in the Netherlands”.

Baudet wants two things. He wants a place in the public eye and he wants to win. Politics can give him both

Such braggadocio would be laughable but for the fact that last month Baudet’s party won more seats in the provincial elections to the Senate than Rutte’s Liberals, previously the largest party. They came from zero to win 13 in the 75-seat upper house.

Politico now predicts Baudet will win five seats in the European elections next month, the same as the Liberals, but with a marginally bigger share of the vote (15.71 per cent as against 15.36 per cent), pushing the 2014 winners, the Christian Democrats, into a lacklustre fourth.

“Baudet wants two things,” maintains one commentator. “He wants a place in the public eye and he wants to win. Politics can give him both. But at what cost, especially if he and Wilders form an alliance?”

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