Where there was harmony, now there is discord. Where there was faith, now there is doubt. Where tranquillity was the national norm, a new anxiety stalks the land. In Holland, that byword for flat, tedious stability, politics has grown hot and turbulent. As if the mass resignation of its government last month was not enough, now the Netherlands is contemplating the fallout from its first political assassination since the 17th century. And, as with so many ideological killings, the aftershocks are rippling out beyond Holland - touching all Europe, even affecting the continent's place in the wider world.
The Dutch can at least comfort themselves that they passed the first test set by Monday's murder of the flamboyant, anti-immigration candidate Pim Fortuyn. To postpone next week's elections would have handed an instant victory to the assassin, proving that political violence works. Instead, Holland's leaders have united to demonstrate that democracy cannot be derailed.
But it has been spooked. The De Volkskrant newspaper was surely right to declare that "Holland has lost its innocence": no longer will Dutch politicians travel by bus and train, with no greater protection between them and the voters than a handshake.
But more than the logistics of Dutch politics will change. Fortuyn's death could grant him a posthumous victory, triggering a sharp shift to the right. One high-ranking figure in the Dutch Labour party predicts a huge sympathy vote, sending the Pim Fortuyn List to parliament in massive numbers: "People will say, here was someone who dared speak the truth and he has been silenced." Previously undecided voters will switch, he fears, giving Pim's army between 30 and 40% next Wednesday.
They might even emerge as Holland's largest single party - packed entirely with political novices. The prime ministership would fall to Fortuyn's little-known black deputy, heading an avowedly anti-immigration coalition. A constitutional crisis could beckon: Queen Beatrix is thought reluctant to nominate such a man to head her government.
The rest of Europe can only watch this spectacle and tremble. Once again, the continent has heard the alarm sound with terrifying volume. The loudest and most obvious warning is of a far right stronger and more energized than at any time in half a century. Jean Marie Le Pen's six million votes in France, placed alongside both Jörg Haider in Austria and the commanding position of ultra-rightists in Belgium and Denmark, were already demanding attention. Now they cannot be ignored.
Admittedly, Fortuyn's politics came with a different hue: his calls for gay rights, legalized drugs and prostitution and for the integration of migrants already settled in Holland made him more of a libertarian than a conventional racist. "More than anything, he was an anti-establishment politician," says left liberal MEP Louseweis Van der Laan. Which brings us to what might be the real warning for Europe. Fortuyn's success, like Le Pen's, is the latest in a string of voter rebellions against a cozy, consensual elitist politics from which citizens feel entirely shut out. First it was the Danish No vote in a referendum on a single currency. Next came the Irish vote against the Nice treaty on EU enlargement. Haider, Le Pen and Fortuyn have all been bearers of the same message: voters kicking against a system which they are convinced is not listening. On this logic, the bald, effete former Marxist was admired not for his declaration that Islam was "backward" but for daring to break open the closed shop of Dutch politics. His willingness to break a taboo, and talk about race, showed he was, like the voters, outside the club.
This represents a challenge to Europe's nations and their 15-member union. Individually they need to take a hard look at a political model which has bred such discontent. Is it possible that proportional representation causes double trouble - first giving far right parties a platform and status they would struggle to win under first-past-the-post, and next producing coalition governments which meld rival parties into a soggy, establishment consensus? PR does seem to ensure the worst of both worlds: letting extremists in, but making ordinary voters feel left out.
For the European Union, the problem exists on 15 times the scale. Opposition to the EU's ever closer union is a favorite theme for many of the continent's extremist parties, a handy way of conveying opposition to their national elite. The democratic deficit, whereby the EU makes decisions too many Europeans feel are out of their hands, explained the Danish and Irish referendum vote, and may have helped Le Pen, too. The current EU answer is Giscard d'Estaing's constitutional convention. It is a worthy exercise, but its members need to think even more radically and urgently - with the latest events in France and Holland serving as the rocket under their collective backside.
Europe's leaders need to watch out for another threat, too. The next great project is enlargement, with 10 new member states set to join the union on January 1, 2004. Until now that issue has glided through almost unnoticed. How easy it would be now for a populist candidate to rail against the prospect of hundreds of millions of foreigners "flooding" into the EU, each one carrying an EU passport and an entitlement to live and work anywhere. You can already write the headlines warning of an "invasion of Romanian squeegee merchants". If enlargement is to be saved, its defenders need to get their retaliation in first. And that means now.
Meanwhile, our friends in George Bush's Washington are seeing this spectacle unfold and, with it, every one of their anti-European prejudices confirmed. Ultra-conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer ruefully noted last week how Europe - after a brief, 50-year break - was now reverting to type, becoming once more the continent that gave fascism and bigotry to the world. The Le Pen result proved everything Americans like him had already suspected: that the French were always no-good racists - wartime guilt just made them bottle it up. Now, Krauthammer charged, Europe was feeling the "exhilaration of release" as five decades of pent-up racism and anti- semitism was at last allowed to course through the bloodstream.
For US conservatives, this has a wider import. It means that Europe can be written off, its protestations ignored. If the EU complains about Israel, say, then Americans know what to say: what do you expect from a continent rediscovering its passion for anti-semitic hatred? To the objection that much of the European right targets Muslims rather than Jews, Americans will answer that, with fascists, the real enemy is always the Jews. (In Le Pen's case, though not Fortuyn's, they have a point.)
Each new advance for the European far right gives Bush's America another reason to distance itself from the continent. It also throws down a challenge to the European Union, and to every nation that allowed this menace to breed in its midst. The death of Fortuyn has done all three. Like so many assassin's bullets, this was truly a shot heard around the world.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002