It turns out everyone was tracking the wrong iceberg. After months of speculation about whether Mark Rutte’s coalition would collapse under the weight of its differences on farming and nitrogen reduction, it foundered on another issue that has been rumbling below the surface for months: immigration.The downfall of Rutte’s fourth cabinet can be traced back to last November, when the prime minster abandoned his chair at the COP27 climate summit in Egypt to tackle a potential revolt by his own party’s MPs.
The VVD group, led by Rutte’s former political assistant Sophie Hermans, was threatening to vote down a bill that would give the asylum minister, Eric van der Burg, the power to disperse refugees around the country even if it went against the wishes of local councils.
The measure was seen as necessary following the overcrowding problems at the Ter Apel asylum reception centre in Groningen last summer. Refugees had to share mattresses or sleep on the grass outside after the centre ran out of beds.
The aid organisation Médicins Sans Frontières condemned the conditions, which included filthy toilets, no showers and no access to essential medication. A baby died after spending the night in a sports hall that was being used as a dormitory. Inspectors warned there was a “serious risk of an outbreak of infectious diseases given the total lack of hygiene“.
Rutte secured his party’s support for the bill, but only on condition that he found a way to limit the number of asylum seekers that were allowed to cross the border. He made a “personal commitment” at a party conference a few weeks later to bring down the numbers “substantially”.
VVD members were alarmed by the government’s estimates that 70,000 asylum seekers could arrive in the country during 2023.
Even when the actual numbers turned out to be far lower, with 18,300 applications between January and May, which projects to around 45,000 for the year, it failed to ease their fears of losing votes to parties further to the right, such as Geert Wilders’s PVV and JA21.
At the same time, Rutte’s coalition partners, the progressive-liberal D66 and the ChristenUnie, made it clear they would resist any plans to restrict asylum applications further, particularly for the partners and children of people already sheltering in the Netherlands.
Last August the two parties reluctantly agreed to a plan to suspend the right to family reunification for refugees living in temporary accommodation, but made clear there would be no more concessions.
The ChristenUnie leader, Gert-Jan Segers, described the deal as “just bearable”, but reiterated the need for a more “humane” approach and said migration quotas needed to be agreed at European level.
For Rutte, the clock was ticking. The tightly stitched discipline within his VVD party was fraying, with some members pressing him to impose an “asylum stop”, without saying how this was compatible with the Netherlands’ international obligations.
A further setback came in February when the Council of State threw out Van der Burg’s flagship policy to restrict family reunifications, upholding the view of three district courts that said it breached Dutch and European law.
Van der Burg’s next move, to stop funding the “bed and board” basic accommodation for people whose asylum applications had been rejected, was abandoned within a day after it was blocked by D66 and the CU.
All the VVD had to show for months of effort was a few technical measures, such as an agreement to resume repatriations to Morocco for rejected asylum claimants. At a party conference last month, Rutte faced accusations that he had broken his promise to reduce asylum numbers substantially.
Hermans urged the prime minister to “hurry up” and said ministers should not go away on holiday until they had come up with a “serious package of measures”. For the first time she suggested that the VVD, the largest party, could withdraw from the coalition: “If we don’t see a way forward, we’ll pull out.”
VVD delegates agreed to continue backing the cabinet, provided they could conclude a deal on migration before the summer. But as the talks continued, it was clear that both D66 and the ChristenUnie intended to honour their earlier promises not to shift further on family reunion.
A second sticking point was the VVD’s plan to create two classes of refugee, those fleeing personal persecution and those seeking shelter from war zones, and grant fewer rights to the second group, including a cap on the number of family reunifications.
That, too ran up against staunch opposition from D66 and CU, who said it was tantamount to abandoning vulnerable children in war-torn countries to their fate.
Sensing he was caught between a rock and a hard place, Rutte forced the issue, reportedly threatening to pull the VVD out of the coalition if a deal was not done by last Friday.
But his gambit failed. Segers’s successor as CU leader, Mirjam Bikker, saw her party’s commitment to family values as an existential issue. “There are things you can ask of us and things you can’t ask of us,” she said elliptically on Thursday.
The CU, as a party of conscience with a small but loyal voter base, had the least to lose in terms of electoral support if the coalition collapsed.
Rutte later denied that he had threatened to withdraw his party from the cabinet, but he spoke in his resignation press conference of a clash of values and an “unavoidable political reality”.
An attempt by Rutte and Van der Burg on Friday to water down the measure by reserving it as an emergency brake if asylum numbers rose too high was also rejected, leaving the prime minister with no choice.
The heavy briefings against the CU during the week suggest Rutte must have considered forcing them to withdraw unilaterally from the coalition, but ultimately he decided to take the decision on himself.
His resignation statement was heavy on regret and insistence that “all parties had done their utmost” to keep the cabinet afloat. When he said its downfall had touched him personally, it was in the tone of a dog owner who had just agreed to have his best friend put to sleep.
He will hope that in doing so, he can diffuse the blame for the collapse of the cabinet and avoid a protracted round of finger-pointing that could have rebounded on his party. Voters do not take kindly to parties that bring down governments and fail the basic test of Dutch politics: the ability to compromise and share power.
But the main reason the Dutch government collapsed on Friday is that Mark Rutte, unable to steer a course between his party and his cabinet, chose the iceberg.
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