Columnist Wouter Bos distinguishes two schools of thought among journalists about Rutte’s second cabinet, which he helped to build. One, it’s a complete shambles, and two, its consensus-driven policies are ambitious and admirable.
One. We are four months into the new cabinet and already it’s clear things can’t go on this way. The cabinet is facing its fourth crisis in as many months. The upheaval over the healthcare premium a few days after the elections showed a misplaced confidence in people’s willingness to accept badly thought out plans.
Then came the resignation of a junior minister whose past conduct hadn’t been checked properly. This was followed by the ineptitude of minister Blok who failed to come up with a cohesive housing plan which resulted in the alienation of such social and political allies as the housing corporations and the CDA.
And now there’s crisis number four: the cabinet has produced a lacklustre austerity package of €4bn which cannot count on a majority, neither politically nor socially. And so it has to go begging, cap in hand. As if social partners and the opposition all want the same thing. As if they would have any inclination whatsoever to help out the cabinet every time it’s in trouble. This cabinet is causing chaos and that is the last thing the country needs.
Rutte and Samsom’s colossal tactical blunder of not ensuring a majority in the senate beforehand is now rebounding on them. The pride of the coalition builders in the fastest cabinet formation has been shown to be an empty boast. Opposition parties, led by the CDA, pointed out they didn’t want to be trotted out every time the cabinet needed support for something or other. Meanwhile consumers keep their hands on their wallets in the face of all this insecurity, and so the crisis deepens.
Two. Rutte’s second cabinet has been faced with a lot of problems in its first four months. The upheaval about the healthcare premium and the Verdaas expense account problem were solved without damaging the good relationship between the coalition parties. With the housing accord, the cabinet not only closed the files on a question that had divided the parties for decades, it also showed a willingness – after some initial hesitation- to renegotiate the government accord in order to achieve a broader social and political base.
Difficult budget negotiations in Europe were concluded successfully without having to sacrifice the Dutch discount or the regained Dutch standing in Europe. And last week the cabinet did an absolutely unique thing by announcing, one day after the publication of the official CPB figures, that the already steep cutbacks agreed upon during the formation would be topped by another 25 percent.
This is the sort of derring-do our country has been without for too long. The Balkenende/Bos cabinet spent three months bickering over a similar move while Rutte I took seven weeks in the Catshuis, then fell apart and was put together again via the Kunduz accord. This cabinet did it in a day, and in perfect harmony.
The fact that the cabinet needs to find a majority for their plans is unavoidable. And perhaps in the present circumstances, this is a blessing in disguise: at the moment a dictate for a government accord would be too rigid when it’s a broadly-based consensus we need. The fact that the government wants to involve the crisis-ridden unions in a revitalisation of the polder model may be naïve but it’s certainly ambitious and admirable. If it works, this cabinet will go down in history.
I’m not going to say one school of thought is right and the other isn’t. What fascinates me is that the same journalists who have been arguing for years in favour of flexible government accords, dualism and a meaningful dialogue between cabinet and opposition, are now – when all this is actually happening – talking of chaos and brand every attempt at broadening consensus and dialogue a sign of weakness.
It seems many of them have short memories indeed. Those who use their majority are to rigid, those who go out to find one are too weak. Both can’t be true.
Wouter Bos is an economist and political scientist
This article appeared earlier in the Volkskrant
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