Friday 22 November 2019

Impotent ministers, impotent MPs and impotent voters: Wynia’s week

Photo: Maarten Goeman

In the Netherlands governments govern as if elections and even new cabinets are just by the by. It’s diversity and sustainability galore and anyone who dares criticise Brussels is a populist. Where can a voter find refuge these days? asks Syp Wynia.

Who wouldn’t want to be a minister? A nice, chauffeur-driven car, a ministry at your beck and call and a weekly outing to the Trêveszaal, the most beautiful place for a parliamentary get-together ever. But does a minister have any say at all?

Take the current cabinet. Most ministers came into view seven months after the government accord. They were supposed to carry out an agreement in which they had no say whatsoever. Only prime minister Mark Rutte (VVD), agriculture minister Carola Schouten (ChristenUnie) and social affairs minister Wouter Koolmees (D66) were actually present when the accord was written – with Schouten and Koolmees taking a back seat.

And how about CDA’s Hugo de Jonge? He may be deputy prime minister but he still has to do what the accord tells him to do. And junior minister Menno Snel? He wasn’t even a member of D66 when he was asked for the post of junior finance minister. Hardly had he said ‘I do’ when he was asked to defend the abolition of the dividend tax plan, which he had had nothing to do with. And when the plan was voted down, he had to defend that decision as well.

The government contract

But there are politicians whose fate is even worse. I am talking about the innumerable MPs who have chained themselves to the same government accord, without having any influence on its contents whatsoever. Because that is what a government accord is – a contract which MPs pledge to support for as long as the cabinet lasts and which is executed by ministers who have had equally little say.

But it gets more pathetic still. Behold the Dutch citizen. He has the right to vote but very little idea of what it will achieve. There is a reasonable chance that the party with the most votes bags the top post. But who that prime minister  teams up with and what policies they will follow is anybody’s guess.

I had a chat with a former politician the other day. He said he used to wonder about the imperviousness of Dutch policy to elections and cabinet changes. You do what is expected of you and it turns out it’s not wildly different from what was expected of your predecessor.

The olden days: verzuiling

This is nothing new. We used to have verzuiling. People were Catholics, Socialists or different shades of reformed Protestant, and it was clear which way they would vote. Political leaders pretended to be at loggerheads but in fact the Catholic-Socialist coalitions from the 1950s weren’t so different from the VVD-led cabinets of a decade later.

And now, does it really make that much of a difference where the cabinet members come from? Since 2010 Rutte’s cabinets have been propped up by VVD, CDA, PvdA, D66, ChristenUnie and SGP (and, briefly, by PVV).

Despite the occasional indignant exchange, consensus rules in parliament. Even when faced with a referendum result showing that the Dutch population really isn’t crazy about a bigger, more expensive and more powerful Europe, Dutch ministers and the prime minister continue to support a bigger, more expensive and more powerful Europe, albeit after some moaning and groaning.

Or take the global  Marrakesh ‘migration pact’. The Belgian government collapsed but in the Netherlands, the government parties said there was nothing in it or that is was a jolly useful pact.

Some ifs and buts were inserted into the document which no one will pay any attention to.  Until, that is, the moment the agreement made by New York, Geneva and Brussels is declared standard policy and no one knows who in the Netherlands was responsible. I will tell you: it was the The Hague Consensus.

Being a world leader

The climate agreement kerfuffle is more of the same. During the first cabinets under Rutte, the Netherland wanted to be Europe’s most frugal spender in the hope of cocking a snoot at countries with big budget deficits. The fact that this made the crisis at home worse was a minor consideration.

Roll on Rutte III and the Netherlands has emerged ‘triumphant’ from the crisis. Time to become Europe’s number one climate champion. No other country in the world – excepting the odd small Scandinavian country but then they have water power and a lot more space – has formulated such stringent climate policies.

And again, the interests of the people seem to count for nothing. As long as we are European champion at something.

And so the The Hague Consensus is made up of such things as the Climate accord, the Climate law and the gas ban. The Climate law – which originated with GroenLinks and PvdA – is supported by left-wing ‘opposition’ parties and the four government parties.

The gas ban, which is forcing the population to abandon gas at a price without the climate improving one bit, rather the opposite, is supported by almost all parties in the lower house.

One party state

There will be provincial elections in March and European elections in May. Climate policy will dominate the March elections while in May the main theme will be people’s willingness to support the Dutch cabinets’ policy of a closer European union.

The VVD knows trouble is brewing. It may be the biggest party since 2010 but support has been crumbling, hence parliamentary leader Klaas Dijkhoff’s sudden u-turn on the climate policy which his party is fully behind. And hence the CDA attack on Rutte’s foreign policy which is not critical enough of countries such as Italy. But, as voters know all too well, it is all a charade.

In 1990 historian J.W. Oerlemans called the Netherlands a ‘one party state’. And at the time it was. The ruling parties no longer had an ideological anchor and only pretended to oppose each other in order to gain votes. By subsequently voting for parties for the elderly, LPF, SP and PVV voters showed they had had enough.

But things have fundamentally stayed the same. The The Hague Consensus still rules. The voter rarely is the decisive factor . He is – if such a thing were possible – an even more pathetic figure than the politician who must blindly support a  government accord.

And so, I think I am right in concluding, many Dutch voters are racked by doubt. Even if he thinks CO2 emissions should be limited he can still be of the opinion that it is crazy for the Netherlands to take up the lead role while proposing mad schemes such as a gas ban.

And even if he thinks European cooperation is a fine thing, he should also be allowed to have reservations about taking the dead end road to a European Transfer union.

A wasted vote?

But, says this eminently reasonable citizen, should I really vote for the likes of Wilders or Baudet if I don’t like climate championships or European Transfer unions? This is a question that not only CDA voters or VVD voters grapple with. PvdA voters, too, are scratching their heads. I know them, you know them, and perhaps you are one of them.

The answer is that it seems very likely that those who don’t wish to adhere to the The Hague Consensus have little choice but to vote for Wilders or Baudet – although some people will draw the line at this.

But isn’t such a vote a wasted vote when all that will happen is that The Hague continues its climate hype, its endless chatter about diversity and its labelling of Eurosceptics as ‘populists’? It is a dilemma, it cannot be denied.

Stay at home and your vote counts for nothing. Vote for the The Hague Consensus and you may vote for something you had not bargained for. Vote against and you may be overruled time and again. The Netherlands is a country of impotent voters. Even a minister has more say – even if he is just taking carrying out the government accord.

This column was first published in Wynia’s Week. Syp Wynia is a journalist and columnist who writes primarily on politics and economics, as well as Europe, migration and the government’s finances.

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