By Dutch Ambassador, Rob Zaagman
The nine deputy ministers are all new. The gender balance in the government is fifty-fifty and two government members have an immigration background.
On 10 January 2022, the members of the new government of the Netherlands were sworn in by HM King Willem-Alexander. It is the fourth consecutive government under Prime Minister Mark Rutte (Rutte-IV). The new coalition consists of the same four parties which made up Rutte-III, with a slightly bigger total mandate: 78 seats out of 150 (up from 76). Ruttes conservative liberal VVD (akin to Venstre) remained by far the largest with 34 seats, but D66 (very much like Radikale Venstre) made a leap from 19 to 24 seats. The other two coalition partners are the christian-democrats of CDA and the orthodox Christian Union.
The new government has twenty ministers and nine deputy ministers. Only five of the ministers also served as such in the previous government and only Mark Rutte returned to his former position. The nine deputy ministers are all new. The gender balance in the government is fifty-fifty and two government members have an immigration background. Some do not have a traditional political background. A medical doctor became minister for health. The minster for higher education and science is a professor in theoretical physics. The minister for the interior is a former military officer – she served in Afghanistan.
The general elections had taken place on 17 March 2021, which means that the formation of the new coalition took 299 days – a record in Dutch democratic political history. Why did it take so long?
First, there is a strong preference in the Netherlands for a government which commands a majority in Dutch parliament. A minority government would constitutionally be possible, but that feels uncomfortable and unstable. The elections resulted in 17 parliamentary parties (another record), the biggest getting only 23% of the vote. So, a coalition has to be formed, which takes time, as each political party has its own priorities and views. Some differences can be bridged, others cannot. D66 wanted to include some progressive parties, while VVD and CDA wanted to prevent what they felt would be too progressive a coalition. And initially the Christian Union did not want to continue in government.
After quite some time the “old four” remained as the only option. The subsequent negotiations on the coalition agreement did have their own difficult patches, as there are fundamental differences of opinion between parties on some, mainly ethical issues. It was agreed that there would be no common position on these issues in the coalition agreement and if they came up in parliament, each coalition party could follow its own course.
A coalition agreement sets out the priorities and objectives of the government. It also serves to avoid misunderstandings and to remind coalition partners of their promises. (A former prime minister once called them “solidified mistrust.”) They are much longer and more detailed than the understanding paper between the Danish Social-Democrat party and its støttepartier. So it is not surprising that they take quite some time to be worked out and agreed upon.
The government programme
The coalition agreement of Rutte-IV runs to 42 pages of substance. I will give a short overview and then highlight some areas of relevance to the Danish-Dutch relationship.
The coalition parties agree that their main focus will be on:
• Combating climate change and tackling the nitrogen crisis;
• Building new affordable housing;
• Improving healthcare;
• Investing extra in domestic security and countering subversion (use by the underworld of the 'upper world' for criminal activities);
• Increasing equality of opportunity and combating discrimination;
• Improving livelihood security by tackling labour market imbalances and combating poverty and debt;
• Investing in future prosperity through education and innovation and a good business climate for entrepreneurs and companies.
The new government’s domestic investment plans – particularly in the areas of climate transition, digitalisation, housing, education, and defence – are quite substantial.
Dutch policy and Danish-Dutch partnership
Some policy areas in the coalition agreement are of relevance to the Danish-Dutch partnership. A few highlights.
First off, climate change is the great challenge for the foreseeable future. The new government increases the Dutch ambitions in addressing this existential issue. The reduction target for greenhouse gases from the existing Climate Act will be scaled up from 49% to 55% in 2030. Binding agreements will be made with the largest CO2 emitters.
A newly established minister for climate and energy will direct policy and a Climate and Transition Fund. Over the next ten years, the government will allocate 35 billion euros (280 bn. DKK) via this Fund to the construction of energy infrastructure (heat, hydrogen and electricity networks), green industrial policy and making mobility and the built environment more sustainable. Approval procedures for large projects in the field of energy infrastructure will be accelerated.
Greening of the energy supply. Renewable energy sources that will be actively promoted: offshore wind, roof-based solar, geothermal, green gas and aquathermal energy. (From this perspective, the Danish initiative to construct so-called energy islands in the North Sea is of great interest.) The production and import of hydrogen will be scaled up. Two new nuclear power stations will be constructed. The one existing nuclear power station will be kept in service longer.
Secondly, sustainable agriculture. As we are celebrating 500 years of Dutch-Danish agricultural relations, this is a salient topic. There are a number or objectives under this heading but let me highlight one in particular. A National Program for Rural Areas will make agriculture more sustainable. An investment fund for lowering nitrogen levels will provide 25 billion euros up to and including 2035, of which 20 billion euros must have been spent by 2030. An important part of the job for the new minister for nature and nitrogen.
Third, the European Union, which is essential to both the Netherlands and Denmark. The new coalition agreement contains a shift in policy on a couple of interesting issues.
There is an increased willingness to consider a reform of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and to opening the door for more investments in European economies. The Dutch government accepts that modernisation of the SGP is necessary. But the Netherlands will continue to emphasize the necessity of maintaining debt sustainability and economic reforms. This also means that the cooperation among the “frugal four” (sparebanden) will remain very important for the Netherlands.
Rutte IV wants the EU to have more influence on the world stage which requires more decisive foreign policy decision-making. Rutte-III advocated the abolition of the veto of member states over the imposition of sanctions. Rutte IV thinks the veto should also be abolished in some other foreign-policy decisions, e.g. regarding civilian missions or human rights violations. It also wants the EU to use its economic power strategically, including by imposing sanctions that can be extraterritorial. Finally, the Netherlands is prepared to investigate the need for a European Security Council.
The other side of the EU geostrategic coin is economic resilience. The EU must get rid of undesirable dependencies (energy, chips, semiconductors etc), protect its technological knowledge and ensure a level playing field for European businesses.
If necessary, The Hague will look to likeminded states like Denmark to form leading groups.
If the 'Conference on the Future of Europe', where European institutions and citizens talk about a better functioning of the Union, leads to proposals that require an amendment to the EU treaties, the Dutch government will not block this.
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