Dutch party vote paves way for right-wing cabinet

Christian Dems and Geert Wilders’s party to support minority cabinet led by pro-business party; new gov’t plans to ban burkas, tighten immigration.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
October 3, 2010 01:29
Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders AP 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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AMSTERDAM – The Christian Democrat party has voted to cooperate with an anti-Islam party, removing another hurdle to forming a conservative Dutch government.

The Christian Democrats plan to join a minority cabinet led by the pro-business VVD party, and with tacit support from Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam Freedom Party.

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The trio have announced a blueprint to curtail immigration and make major spending cuts.

At a convention on Saturday in Arnhem, a majority of 5,000 members of the party, known as the CDA, voted in favor of a resolution to work with the Freedom Party, but there was significant opposition.

CDA parliament members will make a final decision this week, with two lawmakers possibly still opposed.

The new government, that could be formed as early as next week, is planning to ban face-covering burkas and slash immigration, Wilders said at the end of the week.

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While Wilders has the toughest anti-immigrant views, both the VVD and Christian Democrats pledged before the elections to crack down on new arrivals, and the last Christian Democrat-led government also wanted to ban burkas.

The policy blueprint unveiled Thursday came after months of closed-doors negotiations following inconclusive June 9 national elections.

Rutte's VVD party emerged as the largest party, but Wilders’s Freedom Party rose from nine seats to 24, underscoring a further shift from the Netherlands' long-held image as a bastion of tolerance that welcomes newcomers.

Wilders said he hoped that by toughening immigration regulations, the new government would slash the number of asylum seekers getting into the Netherlands by one quarter and reduce by half what he called “non-Western immigrants.”

The government said it plans to make it harder for immigrants already living in the Netherlands to bring other family members here and also would make it tougher for unskilled immigrants with little chance of finding work to move to the country.

“We are taking unprecedented measures to rein in immigration,” Wilders said.

Those immigrants who do get in will have to pay for their own integration courses and could be kicked out if they do not complete them.

Wilders is scheduled to go on trial in Amsterdam on Monday, on hate speech charges linked to his outspoken criticism of Islam, which he describes as a violent political ideology.

Dutch governments in the past have said they planned to ban full-face veils such as burkas, but have never pushed the policy into law.

On Friday, more than 100 people protesting the outlawing of squatting at unused buildings in the Netherlands clashed with police in Amsterdam’s historic center, throwing stones, setting fires and erecting barricades.

Police said early on Saturday that 11 protesters had been arrested, and two policemen, three police horses and an unknown number of demonstrators had suffered minor injuries.

Local television station AT5 broadcast footage of police with batons battling squatters in narrow streets and allies, with the protesters throwing rocks and setting off fireworks.

AT5 published a photo of one young woman with a mohawk haircut being escorted away by a police officer while bleeding from a head wound.

Squatting is the latest pillar of the country’s liberal institutions – such as legal prostitution and cafes that openly sell marijuana – to be abolished or curtailed as the Dutch become more conservative and rethink the boundaries of their famed tolerance.

In Amsterdam, the epicenter of the movement known in Dutch as “kraken,” or “breaking,” several hundred squatters demonstrated peacefully during the day against the new law that makes their way of life punishable by up to one year in prison.

By nightfall, some began throwing rocks at police and overturning cars.

Police attempted to disperse large groups on two streets.

By mid-evening, an Associated Press eyewitness saw squatters using metal fences and piles of bicycles to block one of the city’s bridges amid a haze of tear gas. An AP photographer saw police using bulldozers and water cannons in an attempt to clear the streets lining the city’s ancient canals of such barricades and to quell fires set in piles of rubbish.

“Of course we’re going to resist – resisting is part of what we do,” said a young English-speaking woman at a “squat,” or occupied building, next to the Amstel River, ahead of Friday’s protest. She identified herself only as Lilo.

Most squatters decline to give their full names, both for philosophical reasons and to avoid trouble with police or immigration authorities.

A study published this year by Amsterdam’s Free University estimated the number of squatters at roughly 1,500 in the Dutch capital, a city of 750,000.

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan says he plans to gradually empty the city’s remaining 200 squats.

“Here and there squatting definitely causes problems for a neighborhood,” he said, but until now it has been seen mostly as a civil dispute between owners and occupants.

Beginning on Friday, building owners can argue that squatters are breaking the law, the mayor said. That would “bring us to take action, where in the past we might not have done anything.”

City officials said no major evictions are expected on Friday, however.

Amsterdam and other Dutch cities remain unusually liberal, even by European standards, but they have gradually moved away from their free-for-all attitudes.

Prostitution is legal but has become more regulated, and Amsterdam has shuttered one-third of its brothels. The number of marijuana cafes is declining amid new restrictions to distance them from schools.

Squatting gained public sympathy after World War II, during a time of severe housing shortages and anger at real estate speculators. A Supreme Court ruling in 1971 found that entering an unused building was not trespassing. The thinking was that it was humane, or at least pragmatic, not to evict poor or homeless people living in an unused building.

Yet that view changed as the Netherlands grew more prosperous and more sympathetic to business – and today the sentiment often runs against the squatters’ anti-establishment world view.

“Once squatting was maybe a romantic thing for people to do, but now they have children and jobs. Things have changed,” Amsterdam city councilman Frank van Dalen said.

These days, most squatters are migrants from Eastern and Southern Europe “who want a cheap place to live,” he said.

Van Dalen is a member of the pro-business VVD party, which has been a vocal opponent of both squatting and immigration.

The VVD will lead the next Dutch coalition government, which may take office as early as this week.

Backed by the anti-Islam Freedom Party of Geert Wilders, the new administration is likely to further tighten restrictions on immigration – particularly from Muslim countries.

At the squatted building on the Amstel, a former Fire Department office, the squatters – most from other countries – argue against the perception that they just want a parasitic lifestyle.

“The people who are willing to come to a foreign city, with no place to live – to me these are very valuable people, brave people,” said Marek Griks, a Polish man who drives a cab part-time and lives at a different squat with his daughter.

He says squatters bring a positive and creative impulse to Amsterdam.

A man from Eastern Europe with dreadlocks known as “Muppet” said squatting will continue long after the ban. In his six years in Amsterdam, he has stayed as little as 16 hours in one squat and as long as 2 1/2 years in another.

“I think everything is going to change. It’s going to become more of a political struggle again.

Not about living for free,” he said.

Historically, squatting has provided an alternative to mainstream Dutch lifestyles and acted as a wellspring for leftist activism.

It reached a peak on April 30, 1980, the day of Queen Beatrix’s accession to the throne.

Thousands of squatters and sympathizers fought riot police throughout Amsterdam, trying to disrupt her coronation. Their motto: “No housing, no crowning.”

The economic boom of the 1990s saw an expansion of construction and signaled the beginning of the movement’s end. For the past decade, Amsterdam has been emptying squatted buildings at an ever-accelerating pace.

Property owners have also found their own ways to combat squatting, letting “anti-squatters” move into buildings they planned to leave empty in exchange for extremely low rents and ironclad guarantees to leave when asked.

Still, affordable housing remains a huge problem. Van Dalen says the city now plans to convert unused office buildings into low-rent housing. Asked if that wasn’t what squatters have always demanded, he said no.

“There’s a crucial difference between low-rent and free,” he noted.

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