AP Interview: Dutch lawmaker insists on 'de-Islamization'

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Geert Wilders, the Dutch anti-Islam lawmaker who is at the vanguard of a wave of European far-right populists aiming to take power at elections this year, vowed Thursday to push ahead with his platform to "de-Islamisize" the Netherlands — despite lawyers saying it could breach the Dutch constitution — and to quit the European Union.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Wilders insisted that his plans, which include closing the country's borders to asylum seekers and migrants from Islamic countries, shutting all mosques and banning the Quran, are legal.

And he hinted he could even seek to change the constitution, if necessary.

"A constitution is not something that is (set) in stone and can never be changed," Wilders said. "It's alive as a society is alive and we are now being threatened by mass immigration and Islamisization and what I see as the toxic combination of mass immigration from Islamic countries and at the same time a total lack of demanding for people to assimilate and to integrate."

After decades of immigration, around 5 percent of the Dutch adult population is Muslim, according to the Central Bureau for Statistics.

Changing the Dutch constitution is a convoluted process that involves — among other legislative steps — getting approval of a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament.

Wilders' Party for Freedom, or PVV, is riding high in polls less than a month before parliamentary elections set for March 15, but has slipped in recent weeks as the vote nears.

He is the first of Europe's right-wing populists to go to the voters in a critical year for what he describes as the "Patriotic Spring" on the continent. Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front, is among the top contenders in her country's April-May presidential vote. In September, Frauke Petry's four-year-old Alternative for Germany party hopes to enter the German parliament in a national election, riding sentiment against German Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming policy toward refugees.

Those votes all follow the election last year of President Donald Trump to the White House.

Wilders, who has often been described as the "Dutch Trump," said he didn't believe his popularity was suffering, as some observers have speculated, from the turmoil engulfing the Trump administration.

"I don't think that the problems of Mr. Trump would make people not vote for me so much," he said. Rather, he believes that his political isolation in the Netherlands' political landscape may be costing him support.

Mainstream parties, most recently and notably the right-wing party of two-term Prime Minister Mark Rutte, have ruled out working with Wilders because of his strident anti-Islam platform.

Rutte has often clashed with Wilders, while at the same time moving to the right in an attempt to woo PVV voters. Last week, he called Wilders "totally tasteless" for tweeting a photo-shopped picture of an opposition lawmaker at a demonstration of Islamic radicals.

Wilders said: "If there would be any effect which I'm going to fight in the next few weeks — it ... would more be that for instance our prime minister is saying to the people 'if you vote on that party it's a lost vote because they will never govern, we will never govern with them.'

"So people more or less might be afraid to vote for us because they know, 'hey what will happen to my vote?'"

Wilders has been close to power before. In Rutte's first administration, the PVV wasn't part of the ruling minority coalition, but propped it up on important votes. But Wilders effectively torpedoed that Cabinet by walking away from tough negotiations on an austerity package.

Since then, the PVV has been in opposition and currently has 12 lawmakers in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament. Wilders spoke to the AP in his party's meeting room in the heavily guarded parliamentary complex in The Hague, its rear wall dominated by a giant red, white and blue Dutch tricolor and the party's logo.

The popularity of the anti-immigrant, anti-Islam party in this nation of 17 million is part of the ongoing erosion of the country's long-held reputation as a free-wheeling beacon of tolerance.

"I don't want to get rid of the typical Dutch tolerance," Wilders said. "But it's cultural suicide that we, at the end of the day, keep on being tolerant to the intolerant. That should stop as soon as possible."

Another thing he wants to stop is Dutch membership of the European Union, saying he wants to take back his country's sovereignty, just as Britain did last year with its Brexit vote.

"I don't want a wall being built around the Netherlands. If we would leave the European Union first and for all we would be autonomous and sovereign again," he said.

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