A good price for betrayal
Rutte IV: the principle and the paradox + 12 Days of Christmas
FINALLY, A NEW GOVERNMENT in the Netherlands. Billions to be spent on housing, tough targets to curb greenhouse gas emissions, two new nuclear power stations - and one new mantra. The coalition deal, ratified by parliament on Wednesday after nine months of faltering negotiations, is titled: Omzien naar elkaar en vooruitkijken naar de toekomst. Looking after each other and looking to the future. What took them so long?
Frankly, the terms of the deal don’t look like prime minister Mark Rutte’s kind of thing. He must be worried, but preferred to look on the bright side. Their new agenda had inspired political rivals to bury their differences: the incoming cabinet was imbued with new “elan,” he said - a new impetus.
That would be long overdue, given the public mood and prevailing scepticism. An “opinion panel” assembled by EenVandaag, NPO’s flagship news and current affairs programme, found confidence in politics “as a whole” had fallen to an all-time low. "The Netherlands is saying: now, let’s see you get to work, let’s see something first," acknowledged Rutte - Nederland zegt nu ook: ja joh, zak erin, laat het eerst maar zien, we hebben weinig vertrouwen.
This was a time for modesty too, added D66 leader Sigrid Kaag. After all, the same cabinet incumbents had done none of these things in the past. Her comment was a familiar refrain from the D66 leader, a kind of meta-commentary by which Kaag alluded to her previous statements, notably her corruscating attack on how Dutch politics is done at the annual HJ Schoo lecture in September. More on this below.
Johan Remekes, the informateur who mediated the concluding round of coalition talks, described the new administration as a “missionary” cabinet - een missionair kabinet. The process to combine the centre-right VVD, liberal (in a “third way” kind of way) D66, right-ist CDA and ChristienUnie had sorely “tested the patience of society” - heeft het geduld van de samenleving danig op de proef gesteld.
No doubt the curious admixture of humility with missionary zeal is intentional. Voters like to see politicians cut down to size, wherever they are. Yet the composition of Rutte IV, the prime minister’s fourth coalition, also represents a triumph for its leading protagonists.
The alliance between Rutte and Kaag, albeit fractious, reflects the pattern of voting on March 17, when the country as a whole moved rightwards but support also surged for D66.
If the coalition deal signalled a destination, a direction of travel for the Netherlands, then the place we are in seemed an unlikely point of departure
The new coalition excludes both the nationalistic fringe in the right corner, and the dwindling parliamentary ranks of the PvdA labour party and the Greens on the Left. Which may well be what voters in the Netherlands wanted, when they rejected the kind of radical shift that subsequently unfolded in Germany, as I reported here.
Six months after the Dutch poll, on September 26, Germans voted for change - leftwards - motivated in part by the deep anxiety of younger generations about the climate emergency. The Netherlands, on balance, didn’t ask for that (notwithstanding a signal of dissent in the D66 surge). But what the Netherlands has got, as promised by Rutte IV, looks much bolder and greener and more mainstream social-democratic than the Right-of-centre parties expected.
Even, perhaps, a little bit more German.
Top of the new government’s wishlist is the housing crisis: 15,000 emergency homes, and a pledge to build 100,000 new homes per year. The minimum wage will go up by 7.5 per cent. Reforms to welfare and education include free childcare for working families, higher salaries for primary school teachers, and new allowances (one universal, another means-tested) for students.
More ambitious still is a raft of EU Green Deal-compliant measures slated to cost €35 billion over 10 years. The election result was a disappointment for Groenelinks, the Dutch Greens. Rutte himself is deeply implausible on climate policy. And still, much of the green agenda from D66 has survived in the coalition deal.
More nuclear power is coming, a geopolitical play to reduce dependence on imported gas (from Russia). A big chunk of cash (also known as a borrowing spree, but allegedly only short-term) has been agreed to tackle de stikstofcrisis, the problem of nitrogen emissions from fertiliser. Financing will be ramped up for climate entrepreneurs.
All that, and taxes will go down.
How we got here
’Tis the season of good cheer. After the long wait for any kind of new policies, I’m ready to take them at face value for now. Will the fractured parliamentary opposition of 15 other parties find enough in the new policy mix to fall into line during the busy legislative seasons ahead? Will the Senate - where the coalition lacks a majority - be minded to cooperate? These are good questions for another day.
Even so, storm clouds were gathering over the heads of the protagonists - boven de hoofden van de hoofdrolspelers pakken zich sombere wolken samen, argued Hans van Soest in Parool. Behind the smiles on the faces of the party leaders, Rutte IV looks like an alliance that no one seemed to want - weer een coalitie die niemand lijkt te willen.
Now their work has been cut out. Omzien naar elkaar en vooruitkijken naar de toekomst is a document that runs to more than 50 pages. If those policies are the direction of travel, the place where the Netherlands is going, then it feels reasonable to point out - a fair comment, not a partisan one - that this is a strange place to start from.
If left-wing parties were still at the table, Kaag might never have secured a big-spending, climate-conscious, socially liberal agreement as her price for betraying Labour and the Greens
Reviewing “seven crucial moments” in the longest ever talks to form a Dutch cabinet, the Volkskrant compiled a photo essay of inconvenient truths - at least one captured in awkward moments by an eager press photographer. That long and winding road is worth a second glance, with the benefit of hindsight.
The price and the principle
The saga begins on election night, with Rutte perched on the arm of a sofa in a wood-panelled stateroom and Kaag standing on a table circled by advisers. Both hold their arms in the air in celebration: Rutte is on track to become the longest-serving European head of state after Viktor Orban in Hungary, Kaag’s new leadership of D66 brings the party’s best result yet.
Just eight days later, on March 26, a “scout” - appointed by Kaag to sound out potential pacts with rival parties - is photographed in the car park of the Binnenhof, government offices. Rushing home after unexpectedly testing positive for Covid-19, Kajsa Ollengron (D66) carried a sheaf of papers on which can be read: Positie Omtzigt, functie elders.
“Position Omtzigt, function elsewhere” referred to Pieter Omtzigt, an independent-minded CDA member - and highest polling candidate on the party’s list on March 17. Omtzigt exposed the government’s racial profiling of child benefit applicants in the Belastingdienst scandal. Who might want to move, or remove, the outspoken backbencher? A political whodunnit is brewing, wrote Volkskrant reporters Avinash Bhikhie and Natalie Righton - er ontspint zich een politieke whodunnit op het Binnenhof: wie heeft dat geopperd?
Rutte, of course, can’t remember any discussion about Omtzigt’s future. Then he can. But before Rutte remembers talking with other party leaders about Omtzigt, he denies it in parliament.
Blades and bloodlust
So began the night of the long knives in parliament, from April 1, spilling into the early hours of April 2. In a vote of no confidence, opposition parties turn unanimously against the prime minister.
Sensing weakness, even his coalition partners retreat: “This is where our ways part,” Kaag tells Rutte - hier scheiden onze wegen. D66 and CDA abstain from the opposition motion, then table and vote for a milder motion of censure.
Geert Wilders, the flambouyant PVV freedom party leader, tells Kaag that she has “de facto beheaded” the prime minister: U heeft Mark Rutte de facto onthoofd. A VVD source quoted by the Volkskrant describes the scene as “pure bloodlust” - het was pure bloeddorst.
Precariously, with no solid majority support in parliament, Rutte is vulnerable. He vows to fight on: Ik ga door. Emerging from the parliamentary bloodbath, he suffers another unexpected attack. The very next day, Easter weekend, comes de steek in de rug - a stab in the back. Gert-Jan Segers, leader of ChristienUnie, says that his party won’t join a cabinet led by Rutte: “Too much has happened” - Er is gewoon te veel gebeurd, Segers tells him.
With friends like these, surely this is the moment that could have brought the so-called Teflon prime minister down. Instead, as the Easter weekend progresses, other parties lose their nerve. The CDA and D66 stop short of refusing to serve with Rutte, who has no obvious successor in the VVD rank and file. Perhaps “sensing opportunity”, PvdA and Groenlinks won’t rule out joining a coalition. Segers is out on a limb, wrote Bhikhie and Righton: “ChristenUnie seems to have sidelined itself”.
Panic subsides. April is the cooling-off period. Herman Tjeenk Willink, a retired veteran Labour party senator is appointed as a new informateur. Controversy is diffused, spreading from a personal focus on a dishonest prime minister to bigger questions about a shady culture of backroom deals where other ministers and parties are equally damned.
Kaag told critics that “something had to be done” - a deal with Rutte hinged on concessions from VVD and CDA to swallow D66 priorities on social and climate issues
On April 21, an RTL news bulletin reports the minutes of ministerial meetings where incumbents from CDA, D66 and Christen Unie also discussed how to handle difficult MPs. Rutte, no longer the main culprit, is “only a representative” - first among equals - of the old administrative culture - alleen Rutte een representant is van de oude bestuurscultuur, reported the Volkskrant. Tjeenk Willink agreed: the issue is governance, culture, a flawed system more than any individual, he says, helpfully.
By early May, the prime minister has recovered his usual wit and guile. Press reports that the VVD will betray any principle to stay in power are way off the mark, he laughingly tells journalists. Lest observers jump to the wrong conclusion about his cheerful lunch with PvdA leader Lilianne Ploumen, or coffee with Jesse Klaver of GroenLinks, Rutte insists that his party “will negotiate with the knife between our teeth” - wij zullen met het mes tussen de tanden onderhandelen.
The big freeze
The last two of the Volkskrant’s seven crucial moments are not specific moments at all. By the May recess, the incrementally warmer dynamics between parties have frozen yet again. On June 1, finance minister and CDA leader Wopke Hoekstra rules out any alliance with the left-wing parties, PvdA and Groenelinks. Ploumen and Klaver have pledged that neither would join a coalition without the other.
Summer is in view. Frustrated by the stasis, another new informateur - Mariëtte Hamer, a former trade unionist also from Labour - orders the two largest parties, VVD and D66, to draft a policy document during the summer recess. The left-wing parties are encouraged, while Hoekstra is away on holiday. But by the time the party leaders are back at their desks, this nascent goodwill has evaporated.
Rutte and Hoekstra revert to their previous position, ruling out any power-sharing deal with either, let alone both, of the left-wing parties. Hamer, exasperated, accuses the parties of preferring self-interest to the national interest.
In September, on the eve of a new parliamentary session, Kaag seizes the occasion of the annual HJ Schoo lecture, a seasonal fixture in the political calendar, to accuse her peers - and Rutte in particular - of dangerous complacency (watch the video, in Dutch). Kaag's language is provocative, as I reported here, begging more questions than she can answer about the stalled coalition talks.
A seasoned diplomat, she is taken aback by the reactions to her speech and promptly adopts a more mollifying tone. Within weeks, Kaag is forced to resign as foreign minister amid criticism in parliament of the chaotic airlifting from Kabul of Afghan nationals employed by the Dutch embassy and development agencies.
An uneasy quiet ensues. Other party leaders brief the press about their growing appetite to attempt a minority coalition. At some point, Kaag abandons her hopes for a cabinet including Labour and the Greens: “Something had to be done,” she said.
The price of her betrayal is that the right-wing coalition partners adopt social and climate policies from D66. Plouen and Klaver, already bitter and amazed by the twists and turns - verbitterd en verwonderd, reported Bjikhie and Righton in the Volkskrant of August 31 - are out in the cold. Kaag’s pact with the rightwing left them dumbfounded - zijn met stomheid geslagen.
The big reveal
Long story short, the winding road to Rutte IV was a hazardous path, beset by near-fatal accidents, ambushes and shameless contradictions.
It's ultimate surprise, amid the double-speak and treachery, after all the U-turns and clumsy ambushes, is surely that a broadly progressive policy agenda has been cut out for Rutte IV.
Had Plouen and Klaver been seated at the table, it’s arguable that Labour and the Greens might never have secured the terms in Omzien naar elkaar en vooruitkijken naar de toekomst. Its big-spending, climate-conscious, socially liberal plan was the price exacted by D66 for betraying them.
As for the new cabinet’s “elan” - the fresh impetus and renewed vigour - it’s hard to refuse cynicism. Rutte has promised a fresh start with every new administration. Last week, he did so again. Speaking with the same freshness and unblinking gaze, Rutte looked purposeful and pleased.
As pleased, recalled Hans van Soest in Parool, as he seemed in 2012 when Rutte struck a power-sharing deal with PvdA. Or as pleased as he might have been in 2017, four years ago, when his parliamentary support wobbled and Rutte turned pleadingly to the same three parties that - finally - have rallied behind him in Rutte IV.
FOR 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS
Coming next week - unlocked and free-to-air - 12 of the best 2nd Opinion posts from 2021: from The Making of Mark Rutte to The Sigrid Kaag Moment, via the Corona-riots, the Dutch Narco-state and Culture Wars-in-Translation, with a special detour to mark Bob Dylan’s 80th birthday…
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