In the country where senior civil servants ride bikes, not being ‘normal’ and drinking expensive wine was the downfall of MP Mark Verheijen, writes DutchNews.nl editor Robin Pascoe.
The loss of VVD parliamentarian Mark Verheijen came at a somewhat inopportune time for the party – just days ahead of the launch of the provincial election campaign.
But, after weeks of media pressure, the MP has done the decent thing and stood down. As long as there are doubts about his integrity, he said, he cannot do his job.
You would think by the newspaper coverage given to Verheijen that he had fiddled his expenses to the tune of tens of thousands of euros rather than organise a free party for the VVD, wrongly declare a dinner with expensive wine and pay for a train trip with the wrong company card.
But such are the heinous crimes that can bring down a politician in the Netherlands. Prime minister Mark Rutte has gone so far that he does not declare any expenses at all so there is no discussion about how much he spends on his lunch.
I remember years ago being at a function at the British ambassador’s house in The Hague, attended by a couple of very senior civil servants and a handful of British journalists who had been flown over for the occasion.
I walked back to the tram stop with one of them as he watched incredulously as one of the Binnenhof mandarins came out of the building, got on his bike and cycled off into the distance, trouser legs flapping.
My companion could not believe that someone so senior would cycle back to the office from an embassy function. But there was not a chauffeur-driven car in sight. This was, I explained to him, perfectly normal in the Netherlands and even the prime minister was known to cycle to the office.
Being normal is a way of life. Ask the Dutch about their true psyche and they are likely to tell you it is all based on doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg – which roughly translates as ‘just act normal, that’s crazy enough’.
The then-princess Máxima learned this Dutch down to earth-ness the hard way when she took her turn as nit mother at her daughters’ school. Having your hair checked by the future queen for lice – so normal on the one hand because she’s your mate’s mum. But on the other, so bizarre you have to wonder if it really did happen.
But ‘not acting normal’ is what did it for Mark Verheijen, not the fact that he got his expenses in a muddle.
The one thing that stands out in all the coverage is that repeated reference to the bottles of wine which cost €127. That is what brought him down. No politician in the Netherlands drinks wine that cost €127 – or at least would admit to doing so. If only he’d ordered the house red at €18 a bottle he’d still be in a job.