Guy Vehofstadt, leader of the liberal ALDE group, said yesterday (13 March) that the recent verbal attacks by French President Nicolas Sarkozy on immigrants and the Schengen agreement were worse than the silence of the Dutch government over the discriminatory website of the Dutch Freedom party (PVV).
Speaking in the European Parliament during a debate on the PVV website (see background), Verhofstadt called on all parties in the Dutch government to distance themselves from the site's content and to condemn the attempt to incite intolerance and hatred against fellow Europeans.
Much of the debate focused on Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who has so far refused to take a stand against the PVV website after European Parliament President Martin Schulz asked him to do so during the 1-2 March EU summit.
Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, also took aim at the recent statements by Sarkozy, who has turned to anti-immigration rhetoric in his electoral campaign against Socialist challenger FrançoisHollande.
"To say that half of the immigrants should leave France, to attack halal food, and at the same time, attack his partners with regard to Schengen … This campaign, with a president using a similar language, this is something never seen before," Verhofstadt said, drawing applause in Parliament. "Who is actually the candidate of the far right? Marine Le Pen or Nicolas Sarkozy."
Marine Le Len, leader of the National Front, is assured a place on the ballot on the 22 April first-round election in France. Yesterday, Le Pen announced she had collected the 500 signatures from elected officials required under the constitution to appear on the ballot.
Largely because of the lack of signatures, Le Pen's campaign had not really started.
Joseph Daul, the French leader of the centre-right EPP group who sat next to Verhofstadt during his speech, appeared visibly uneasy. As leader of the major group in the European Parliament, Daul had started the debate over the PVV website with strong statements against the passivity of the Dutch authorities to allow such a site to instigate hatred and make immigrants vulnerable.
"May I remind you that Nicolas Sarkozy has not included the National Front in his government," Daul said.
The Socialist and the Green groups strongly attacked Rutte and condemned the xenophobic website, but refrained from attacks against the French president.
Many of the speakers during the debate were from the Netherlands. Among them was Green MEP MarijeCornelissen, who accused the Dutch government of "stoking up bad blood and bad feeling", such as blocking the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the free-movement Schengen zone.
Rutte is the only EU leader opposing Bulgaria and Romania's accession to Schengen, on the grounds that these countries cannot be trusted to keep the EU common borders because of corruption. But a more important reason appears to be that Rutte has committed to PVV to uphold the veto.
Denmark's EU Minister Nicolai Wammen, representing the rotating EU presidency, commented that "freedom of speech doesn't mean the freedom to say anything about anyone".
A resolution, to be voted today, makes an "urgent appeal to Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to distance himself from the deplorable website".
MEPs contend that the PVV website contravenes the European Convention on Human Rights and breaches personal data protection rules.
MEP Auke Zijlstra from the PVV party accused the "Brussels elite" of "importing criminality from Eastern Europe", through the EU's principle of the free movement of people.