THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The leaders of the top four political parties heading into Dutch parliamentary elections clashed Sunday over the country's future in Europe in their first face-to-face debate, foreshadowing what is expected to be the key issue of the campaign.
The nationally televised, prime-time debate featured former conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Socialist Party leader Emile Roemer, who is shaping up as Rutte's main opponent, along with anti-Islam lawmaker Geert Wilders and center-left Labor Party leader Diederik Samson.
Rutte's Liberal Party and Roemer's Socialist Party are running virtually neck-and-neck in polls before the Sept. 12 vote for the 150 seats in Dutch parliament's legislative Second Chamber, setting up the possibility of a socialist-led government in one of Europe's key wealthy northern nations.
Wilders wants to leave the 27-nation bloc and reject the euro in favor of the guilder, while Rutte is pro-European and insists on bringing the country's budget deficit back within EU limits next year.
"The Netherlands is a trading nation and that is why I fight in Europe for a strong market and a strong currency — for Dutch jobs, in the Dutch interest," said Rutte, who is a key ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Europe.
Wilders boasted that his party is the only Dutch political group prepared to "say absolutely no to Brussels. We have to become the boss of our own country."
Roemer wants to remain in the EU, but is calling for more time to bring down debt.
He made waves here and in Brussels recently by saying that if he becomes the next prime minister, Dutch fines for not meeting tough EU deficit limits would be paid "over my dead body."
Wilders, a right-wing populist who is seen losing voters to left-wing populist Roemer, immediately opened the attack on him, calling the socialist leader "the biggest Dutch Europhile."
Roemer said he wants the European Union to "get back to what it was intended for — cooperation, and that is totally different to playing the boss from Brussels."
It was Wilders who brought down Rutte's government in March by walking out of talks on an austerity package aimed at reining in Dutch debt. Wilders' Freedom Party was not formally part of Rutte's minority coalition, but had agreed to support it on key votes in return for concessions on slashing immigration.
Wilders' walkout appears to have cost him support. He won 24 seats at the last elections in June 2010, but polls now show him winning around 15 and many political leaders are wary of enlisting his support after he torpedoed the last government.
Rutte accused Wilders of "putting his party's interests ahead of the national interest."
Labor leader Samson, whose party is shown losing almost one third of the 30 seats it won in 2010, said political leaders should stop bickering and work together.
"Shall we stop fighting one another ... and get together to bring the Netherlands out of this crisis?" he said.