In July, the fourth Rutte cabinet fell after the four-party coalition could not agree on tightening immigration policy. That cabinet had only been in office for a year and a half and it took a formation period of almost a year to arrive at a new government. To the outside world, Dutch politics may look stable because Mark Rutte -as our longest serving prime minister- has been setting the political face of our country for years, but in practice, Rutte's cabinets have gone from crisis to crisis, and major issues have been left to languish for years or taken up without the right decisiveness. It has led to alienation between citizens and politics, between the region and the Randstad (the administrative and economic heart of the Netherlands) and to even greater fragmentation in politics. The current parliament has as many as 21 political groups (out of a total of 150 MPs). On 22 November, the Netherlands goes to the polls again. There is one certainty: Mark Rutte is no longer on the ballot paper.
The legacy of four Rutte cabinets
With the departure of Mark Rutte, the Netherlands is losing a pragmatic prime minister who held the country together during difficult crises (including COVID-19). But he is also the man who, when asked about his vision or the vision of his cabinet, invariably replied: ‘for vision, please consult an optician’. Certainly the first Rutte cabinets took drastic budget measures. Partly this was done by introducing more free market liberalisation and decentralising government tasks and partly by cuts that were spread over a long period of time so that the pain will be felt for years to come. Public services have been hit hard and the decentralisation of social policy to the municipalities was accompanied by so many budget reductions that the municipalities are unable to perform these tasks properly. Many parties promise restoration of some of the lost provisions in the upcoming elections, but everyone also knows that cuts will have to be made again.
The lack of vision and long-term policy of the Rutte cabinets, combined with rapid cabinet crises and lengthy formation periods, have meant that major issues in the Netherlands have been put on hold for far too long. For years, the government has been trying to repair the damage caused by blatant fraud policies in which parents who applied for allowances were wrongly suspected of fraud, leaving them in dire financial and social straits. Repairing the earthquake damage caused by years of gas drilling in the northern provinces of Groningen and Drenthe has also been dragging on for years. Meanwhile, the Netherlands, like other European countries, is facing a nitrogen crisis. Using European agreements as an argument, the government tried to solve the nitrogen problems partly by a large-scale reduction in the number of farms in the Netherlands. It led to stiff resistance from farmers and the emergence of the new BoerBurgerBeweging (FarmerCitizenMovement) party, which became the largest party out of nowhere in the recent provincial elections. Meanwhile, the BoerBurgerBeweging (BBB) has been outstripped in the opinion polls by another newcomer: the party New Social Contract (NSC) of former Christian Democrat MP Pieter Omtzigt.
The last Rutte cabinet fell over migration issues. The government failed to manage the reception and flow of rapidly growing immigration. Plans to take a tougher approach led to major conflicts within the cabinet and just before the summer holidays, Rutte had to offer the resignation of his fourth cabinet to King Willem-Alexander.
Big coalition needed for big problems
The Netherlands is used to coalition governments, but the implosion of the traditional political middle has led to the emergence of ever new parties. For a long time, these were mainly right-wing to far-right populist parties, but with the arrival of BBB and NSC, new conservative middle parties are now emerging. On the left this year, the social democratic Labour Party and the green party GroenLinks combined forces under the leadership of former euro commissioner Frans Timmermans. All these parties were under the illusion of becoming the biggest and thus delivering the prime minister. But chances are high that the VVD (of Rutte) will become the largest again after all. His successor Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius will thus have the chance to become the first female prime minister; of a cabinet with at least four parties that will now have to find a solution to the major problems that have remained unresolved.
What can Europe expect from the Netherlands-after-Rutte?
How the Netherlands will position itself in Europe depends on the outcome of Frans (Mr. Green Deal) Timmermans at the elections. If his fusion party enters the coalition, it will lead to a pro-Europe course, focused on greening and sustainability. If a right-wing coalition emerges, the Netherlands will focus more on security and migration restrictions because of domestic pressure. And if the new middle parties win, the focus will be mainly on the domestic front: restoring confidence in politics. And what does that mean for the European elections in June 2024? That is still very far away from a Dutch perspective.