Prime minister Mark Rutte has invoked the ‘chaos’ of Brexit as a cautionary tale of what could happen to the Netherlands if it neglects its political traditions of coalitions and compromise.
In an ‘open letter’, published as a full-page advert in the AD newspaper, Rutte likens the country’s prosperity to a precious vase. ‘That possession is brittle and fragile. It can easily break.’
He goes on: ‘We have seen examples of societies where they dropped the vase. Look at Great Britain. The politicians and people there have forgotten what they achieved together. Now they’re in chaos.’
The letter is published four months before Dutch voters choose new provincial assemblies, which will in turn determine the make-up of the new Senate in May. If, as expected, the coalition government loses its one-seat majority in the upper house, it will need to seek support from opposition parties for its legislative programme.
Rutte cites the recent demonstrations against Zwarte Piet, the blackface character who plays second fiddle to St Nicholas in the traditional December parades, as an example of a situation where things ‘almost went wrong.’ ‘People yelling so hard for or against Zwarte Piet that they lost sight of the children.’
In fact talks have been ongoing behind the scenes between parties for several years on how to modernise the appearance of Zwarte Piet. The vast majority of arrests during this year’s Sinterklaas parades were for people attacking anti-Piet demonstrations.
Rutte wrote: ‘I hardly ever get everything I want. Usually I make compromises and water down my demands, because I always feel I have a responsibility to keep the vase intact.’
He described others who refused to compromise and work together as ‘people who grip the vase so tightly that it breaks.’
The fragmentation of Dutch politics, which saw 13 parties win seats in parliament at the last general election in 2017, has led to concerns that the ‘poldermodel’ of governing by compromise is coming under intolerable strain.
The recent breakdown of talks between employers and unions to reform the pension system further underlined the perception that decision making is becoming more difficult. The negotiations to form the current four-party cabinet last year lasted an unprecedented seven months and gave the government a single-seat majority in both houses. At local government level this year’s coalition talks lasted two weeks longer than in 2014.
Rutte struck a more combative tone the last time he used the open letter format ahead of the 2017 election, when his VVD party was trying to overhaul Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam PVV in the polls. He was criticised for telling people to ‘act normal or go away’ in comments that were seen to belittle concerns about racism.
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