Ascension Day is do-or-die moment for Dutch cabinet negotiations

The party leaders gather round the negotiating table for the first time in 12 days. Photo: ANP/Ramon van Flymen

The talks to form a new Dutch government are entering a make-or-break week after the four right-wing parties submitted their financial plans to the budget analysis bureau CPB.

The CPB is due to report back on Wednesday, ahead of the Ascension Day holiday, so the parties can discuss the results ahead of next week’s deadline to conclude the third phase of negotiations.

All four parties – the far-right PVV, right-wing liberal VVD, centre-right NSC and the farmers’ party BBB – have agreed to abide by the Netherlands’ international obligations, including a 3% budget deficit limit for countries that use the euro.\

But the differences in the parties’ spending plans have become a major sticking point as the formation talks enter their sixth month. Formal talks resumed on Monday after a 12-day break for the May recess.

The VVD are the most hawkish of the four on public spending, with plans to cut the international development budget by €5.5 billion, social security by €0.8 billion and healthcare spending by €0.2 billion. Geert Wilders’s PVV, by contrast, wants to invest €7.7 billion in healthcare and €4.7 billion in social security.

The VVD is also the only one that allowed the CPB to evaluate its manifesto before the election. The CPB found that the VVD would generate a budget deficit of 2.9%, crucial for a party that has cultivated a reputation for fiscal responsibility.

NSC, the party of Pieter Omtzigt, has been critical of the “model reality” used to assess the effects of the parties’ policies, while the PVV’s plans were too vague to be analysed reliably and the BBB said it was unable to meet the deadline.

Budget deficits

A retired CPB analyst, Wim Suyker, produced his own analysis of the parties’ manifestos shortly before the election, which concluded that both BBB and NSC would exceed the European limit, with deficits of 4.2% and 3.7% respectively. Suyker also said the VVD would reduce the deficit to 2.5%.

The formation talks briefly broke down in February when Omtzigt said the constitutional differences between his party and Wilders’s PVV were too great to be bridged.

He was lured back to the negotiating table for the second phase with the promise that the parties would form a “programme cabinet”, with half of the ministers appointed on the basis of their expertise rather than membership of the political parties.

Tensions on immigration

The third stage of the talks began at the end of March with two lead negotiators, Richard van Zwol and Elbert Dijkgraaf, who were given a deadline of May 15 to produce an outline plan for government.

However, the talks have stalled as the parties have been unable to reconcile Wilders’ demands for a drastic reduction in immigration numbers with Omtzigt’s insistence that international treaties and European agreements must be upheld.

The current talks are already the fourth most protracted in history, 166 days after the election, while 10 months have passed since Mark Rutte’s government resigned in a dispute over tighter asylum restrictions.

New elections?

Frans Timmermans, the leader of the largest party not in the negotiations, the left-wing alliance of Labour (PvdA) and GroenLinks, has called on the VVD to open talks if there is no new government on the horizon by June 1.

“Something needs to happen after half a year of nothing,” he said two weeks ago. “You can’t keep people waiting for ever. The PVV, VVD, NSC and BBB are flogging a dead horse.”

Opinion polls, meanwhile, suggest the PVV is starting to lose support but could still win around 30% of the vote if new elections were held now. NSC would be the big losers, shedding around half of their 20 seats.

A survey for EenVandaag also found that just 14% of VVD voters and 17% of NSC supporters want to see their parties join a government with PvdA-FL, while 61% of all voters would prefer another election.

Thank you for donating to

We could not provide the Dutch News service, and keep it free of charge, without the generous support of our readers. Your donations allow us to report on issues you tell us matter, and provide you with a summary of the most important Dutch news each day.

Make a donation