From the towering offices of Rotterdam's port authority, you can watch the never-ending stream of barges begin their river journeys to the Rhine and points across Europe, carrying everything from Chinese microwave ovens to iron ore from Brazil.

Rotterdam boasts Europe's biggest port, which depends on the globalised economy for its success and 130,000 jobs. Yet this North Sea gateway to the world is also the birthplace of an anti-globalization, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam movement that is on course to place first in Dutch elections on March 15.

The appeal of its current leader, the peroxide blond Geert Wilders, seems a paradox even in the age of U.S. President Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, the nationalist leading the polls in France. For centuries the Netherlands has been a byword for liberalism, religious tolerance and openness to trade. The economy is strong and egalitarian compared to most of the world. Yet Wilders has tapped into deep fears among many low-skilled workers over their jobs in a world of rapid technological change -- even those who depend on global trade pioneered by the Dutch.

"Robotisation is taking our jobs,'' said Niek Stam, leader of the FNV Havens labor union that represents the stevedores loading and unloading cargo at Rotterdam's port. "Dockers won't vote for Wilders because they're racist -- they aren't. They'll vote for him because they're angry."

Advertisement

Stam doesn't think Wilders has any real solutions to offer voters, but the city of 600,000 people, nearly half from a non-Dutch background and an estimated 13 per cent Muslim, is in many ways the home of populism in the country. It's where Wilders's forerunner Pim Fortuyn rose to prominence before he was murdered in 2002.

Rotterdam encapsulates the tension that's helped foster the current political climate. A significant part of that is caused by concerns over immigration in an open city that has sucked in migrants, transforming neighborhoods. It's also about a changing 21st-century workforce in which those who learned their trade in the 20th are the hard hit.

There's less need for burly men with basic education to do the heavy and inherently dangerous work of the stevedores. There's more demand for IT staff able to maintain the digital revolution that's speeding the port bureaucracy, and to operate the so-called robots. For those losing their jobs, it can be hard to know whom, or what, to blame.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, speaks during a Europe of Nations and Freedom meeting in Koblenz, Germany, in January. Photo / Bloomberg
Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, speaks during a Europe of Nations and Freedom meeting in Koblenz, Germany, in January. Photo / Bloomberg

Wilders, 53, and the Freedom Party he leads say they know where to point the finger. They call for the Netherlands to harden its borders, drop the euro and exit the European Union. Wilders, who lives under 24-hour police guard, wants to ban Muslim immigration, mosques and the Quran, which he described as Islam's "Mein Kampf." He recently called Dutch citizens of Moroccan descent "scum.''

While the party is polling less than 20 percent, the fragmented nature of Dutch politics means it's on course to win the most parliamentary seats, albeit with less of a popular endorsement than Trump or Le Pen.

From his headquarters overlooking river traffic, Port of Rotterdam chief Allard Castelein is puzzled by the support for populist messages, given the city's status and success over 400 years. Wilders's drastic measures can only jeopardize jobs rather than defend them.

"I don't think protectionism of any kind will contribute to the economic or social welfare of the country," Castelein said, noting the nation draws more than US$25 billion, an estimated 3.5 per cent of its economic output, from the port. "As a port we could never have achieved all this without global trade. We need to supply 350 to 500 million Europeans, not 16 million Dutch people."

The job-destroying potential of automation and the digital economy is gaining attention elsewhere as well.

The European Parliament this month voted through a draft resolution for the EU to regulate robots. Benoit Hamon, France's Socialist Party presidential candidate, is demanding they be taxed, a call echoed this month by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said in an interview last week that rapid advances in automation will threaten half of the world's jobs.

Automated guided vehicles operate at the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Photo / Bloomberg
Automated guided vehicles operate at the Port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Photo / Bloomberg

Two automated terminals at the Maasvlakte 2 harbour complex in Rotterdam began operation in 2015, with ships being unloaded remotely from control rooms and containers moving around the port on driverless trucks. Last year, Stam led the port's first strike in 13 years to prevent any job losses that might occur from the new technology.

"People for open markets say this is the fourth or fifth industrial revolution and that the previous ones brought wealth,'' Stam said. "But robots don't buy cars; they don't shop; they don't contribute to pensions or the health care system.'' Too, globalization's boom years are over now; every automated process will cannibalize the job of a human.

In the 1970s, Rotterdam was the world's largest port, with 25,000 stevedores. Now 7,000 handle more than four times the metric tons of cargo, there, Stam said, estimating that another 600 of those jobs are on the line from legislation closing all Dutch coal-fired power plants.

Stam said none of this would be helped by Wilders's focus on Muslims or the EU, blaming automation and competition from less expensive ports in Poland. That's only half true, said port chief Castelein: At 90,000, direct employment by the port is the same as it was in 2007.

"For containers, we used to have middle-aged men operating a crane," Castelein said. "Now you'll find a control room with 22-year-old women, with perfect eye-hand coordination, doing it.'' That's an opportunity for those with the qualifications but hard on older male workers, he said.

The port has depended on the opening of borders since at least the 17th century, expanding on the backs of Dutch traders who sold goods from around the world to ever more Europeans. The biggest growth came with the Marshall Plan in the 1940s, when Germany's reconstruction was supplied through Rotterdam, said Steven Lak, chairman of Deltalinqs, which represents 700 companies that work with or at the port.

Port of Rotterdam chief Allard Castelein is puzzled by the support for populist messages, given the city's status and success over 400 years. Photo / Bloomberg
Port of Rotterdam chief Allard Castelein is puzzled by the support for populist messages, given the city's status and success over 400 years. Photo / Bloomberg

Rotterdam had been blitzed during the German invasion of the Netherlands. Not using German ports was in part political, said Lak. The Netherlands was among the EU's six founders and as tariffs and border controls loosened and the bloc's membership grew to 28 over the next half a century, Rotterdam gained. "Volume begets volume, as we say in this business,'' said Lak.

The port is no longer the world's largest -- Chinese counterparts grew even faster and overtook in 2004 -- and Rotterdam probably won't catch up. Scenarios for business growth through 2030 have been revised down 20 per cent. By 2040, only the most optimistic scenario doesn't assume a decline. And none of the port's projections include a Dutch exit from the EU, or sudden bout of global protectionism.

Castelein said he'd been able to meet all the main parties fighting the election to push the case for trade and open borders, except for Wilders and his Freedom Party.

It's unlikely Wilders can make it into government even if he wins because other large parties have said they wouldn't form a coalition with him. What's certain is that the powers-that-be are facing a potential kicking again at the ballot box while the anti-immigrant agenda has begun to sway government policy.

"It will be the same as in America,'' said Henk Boes, who has worked in a glass bottling factory in a Rotterdam suburb for the past 46 years. It's now about to be shut by U.S. owner Owens-Illinois Inc. "I'll vote against the establishment.'' Boes is choosing between Wilders and the 50 Plus party, both of which support lowering the pension age and protecting jobs.

Rotterdam's tradition with anti-immigrant groups predates Wilders. Fortuyn, whose gay flamboyance made him a very Dutch style of populist, created the Livable Rotterdam party. It won the most seats on the city council in 2002. He also formed a party for the national elections, The Pim Fortuyn List, but was killed before the vote. That group ultimately faded away, to be replaced by Wilders and his party.

Today, Livable Rotterdam member Maarten Struijvenberg, the city's councilor for employment and the economy, says he's focused on threats to jobs from both automization and immigration. The problem for the parties in power is that voters no longer think they are willing or able to address either problem, he says.

To defenders of a more open country, such as the liberal Democrats 66 party legislator Stientje van Veldhoven, all this represents traditional nationalism complete with nostalgia for a simpler past. That past just didn't include large Muslim communities to challenge famously liberal Dutch values, or automation to destroy blue collar jobs.

"Nationalism,'' said van Veldhoven, "just looks a little different in the Netherlands.''