New Dutch PM under fire over ministers' 'racist' remarks

At his first weekly press conference, Schoof denied there was discord within cabinet relationships (Sem van der Wal)
At his first weekly press conference, Schoof denied there was discord within cabinet relationships (Sem van der Wal)

Newly-minted Prime Minister Dick Schoof faced a baptism of fire at the opening of the Dutch parliament over remarks by two cabinet ministers about a conspiracy theory with neo-Nazi roots.

Schoof was inaugurated on Tuesday with pomp and fanfare to head a coalition government dominated by far-right leader Geert Wilders and his anti-immigration Freedom Party, the PVV.

Two days later, the new Dutch premier's first lower house debate spiralled into chaos when not only the opposition, but Wilders himself aimed his arrows at Schoof, his own choice for the top job.

No amount of preparation could ready Schoof, a veteran career civil servant, for his first appearance within the bear pit of Dutch parliamentary politics, marked by interruptions and sniping on X, formally known as Twitter.

At the centre of the controversy are two cabinet ministers from Wilders's PVV: new Asylum and Migration Minister Marjolein Faber and Foreign Trade and Development Aid Minister Reinette Klever.

Both have in the past spoken about the so-called "omvolking" -- the Dutch term for the "great replacement" theory that supposes that Europe's white population is being deliberately replaced by immigrants.

While both ministers have "distanced themselves" from the term, they maintained that there was a "worrying demographic development" in the Netherlands, where the ruling coalition now wants to implement the "strictest immigration policy ever."

- Isolated -

But Schoof reiterated during the debate: "I repeat, this government is against discrimination, racism and exclusion."

The Dutch left-wing opposition accused Schoof of tolerating those who have made "conspiratorial" and "racist" remarks -- which also included criticising the wearing of veils -- within his ministerial team.

Wilders himself then launched a virulent attack on Schoof for not defending his ministers for "being made out as racists", calling Schoof's response "weak."

Schoof, not aligned to any party and who has been appointed by a four-party coalition of the PVV, the Liberal VVD, the farmer-friendly BBB and the new centre-right NSC, appeared isolated on all sides.

Yet on Friday at his first weekly press conference, Schoof denied there was discord within cabinet relationships.

"I repeat what I said. This government is for all Dutch people. It's against racism, discrimination or any conspiracy theories."

At the same time, Schoof reiterated he had "full confidence in his ministers."

Leiden politics professor Ruud Koole told AFP the first debate was a litmus test to see how far the PVV's junior coalition parties would go to normalise extreme views within Wilders' party.

"It turns out very far," he said.

"The statements made in the past by PVV ministers about the 'great replacement' have been swept under the carpet," Koole said.

"All three the other coalition parties have accepted to have the 'great replacement' rephrased as a 'demographic phenomenon'," he said.

- 'Disgusting' -

Wilders, who claimed a stunning victory in last year's parliamentary elections, continues to lead his party as an MP.

He gave up on ambitions to become Dutch prime minister after other coalition parties threatened to withdraw because of his anti-Islam and eurosceptic views.

Wilders said he wanted to limit immigration to the Netherlands "as much as possible", but he has indeed called the "great replacement" theory "disgusting".

But during the debate, he aimed his barbs at Schoof for not defending his party's ministers.

Wilders's outburst was immediately criticised by the junior coalition partner leaders of the VVD and the NSC on X.

"I was particularly struck by how defensive Wilders was and how he tried in a frantic and authoritarian way to deny the racism that his party clearly propagates in various ways," said Sarah Bracke, sociology professor at the University of Amsterdam.

"It is intellectually and politically untenable to continue to deny that the ideas at the heart of the PVV, and also of this government, are not racist, or that it would be enough to no longer mention the term 'great replacement' to make extremist and racist ideas disappear," she told AFP.

"If Mr Wilders continues to criticise his prime minister, this could lead to Schoof's resignation," added Leiden University's Koole.

"But we are not there yet," he said.