Dutch prime minister, populist leader clash in Europe debate

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Dutch prime minister clashed Wednesday with the leader of a right-wing populist party over immigration and whether the Netherlands should remain in the European Union in a debate on the eve of European Parliament elections.

The debate in Amsterdam between center-right Prime Minister Mark Rutte and populist Thierry Baudet touched on key battlegrounds in four days of voting across the 28-nation EU. The elections kick off Thursday in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Baudet said he backs a referendum on the Netherlands leaving the EU, wants to halt immigration at Dutch borders and supports right-wing nationalists Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

“The immigration we get here from Africa and the Mideast is completely contrary to our culture, our values, our way of life, tolerance, love of women and so on,” Baudet said. “That has to stop and it will not happen at the European level.”

Baudet’s Forum for Democracy won provincial elections in March, propelling the young party into the Dutch political mainstream. He now wants to extend his influence to the European Parliament.

Pre-vote polls suggested the parties led by Rutte and Baudet were running neck and neck, and predicted each will win five of the 26 seats up for grabs for Dutch candidates.

Rutte said leaving the EU would weaken the Netherlands and insisted that remaining in the bloc is the best way of tackling the migrant crisis.

“We cannot, as the Netherlands, solve the migration problem on our own,” Rutte told Baudet in the nationally televised debate.

Baudet, who expressed admiration for U.S. President Donald Trump, also questioned what he called Europe’s “obsession” with Russia and stood by questions he has raised in the past about the independence of the investigation into the 2014 downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine that killed 298 people including 196 Dutch citizens. Members of a Joint Investigation Team, or JIT, have said the missile installation that blew the flight out of the sky came originally from a Russian base.

“Ukraine, one of the possible perpetrators of this situation, is also a prosecutor in this JIT,” Baudet said. Rutte called the comment “the low point of the debate.”

The Netherlands is a trading nation that profits from Europe’s open borders. However, it also is a large contributor to EU coffers and many the nation of 17 million people are wary of expanding the bloc’s powers. In 2005, Dutch voters rejected a proposed EU constitution in a referendum.

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