What’s Going On Under the Sea?

Dutch Cabinet Formations: What They Mean for the Netherlands and Europe

, by Willem Van Boxtel

What's Going On Under the Sea?
After the coalition talks, Europe will enjoy at least mild support from the Dutch government.

You may have forgotten, but since dramatic election results of March this year, the Netherlands has formally been government-less. Negotiations are still ongoing to form the new post-election cabinet, and although this big talk behind closed doors may be far from most people’s everyday minds, what results from them will be incredibly important to the future of not just the country, but of the continent.

Will the Netherlands join France and Germany at the forefront of a new, reformed EU, or will conservative parties force an unenthusiastic government response to the new Franco-German axis of EU reform? In this article, I will attempt to give a light and opinionated overview of who has been talking to who in The Hague, and explain how any resulting cabinet may situate itself politically on the continental stage.

Negotiations So Far: Yes, No, Yes, and No Again

March 15th 2017. For the first time since 2002, Dutch voters went to the polls after the completion of a Cabinet’s four-year term rather than the government collapsing after a political crisis. The previous coalition, made up of the classical liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the social-democratic Labour Party (PvdA), had managed to struggle and deal its way through four years, but both government parties were struggling in the polls, with Labour set to lose ten, fifteen, possibly even twenty seats. After watching the Cabinet cling onto power like a barnacle for several years by making separate deals [1] with the social liberal Democrats 66 (D66) party, the Christian Union (CU), and the Reformed Party (SGP), parliament, and people now long for a cabinet that enjoys a healthy majority in both chambers of the Dutch Parliament, the States-General.

However, this task is proving more difficult than anticipated. The March 2017 general election divided the House of Representatives immensely, with no single party winning more than 35 out of 150 seats. By contrast, after the last election in 2012 Labour gained 38 and the Liberals a lofty 41. In the current Parliament, the current Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD are still the largest group by far with 33 seats, with Geert Wilders’s far-right Freedom Party (PVV) trailing at a distant second 20. Dutch voters were widely applauded for their apparent rejection of populism at the time of the election, but the cabinet formation process is far from over. Because of the splintered makeup of the Lower House, at least four parties must form a coalition agreement, which is tough. Moreover, Wilders has been excluded from these negotiations by almost every sizeable group, which turns the second largest party into more of a nuisance than anything else – not that the far-right weren’t a nuisance before the election, but oh well.

So, over the weeks that followed and after the election dust had settled, the four great election victors (Liberals, D66, the Christian Democrats (CDA), and green-progressive GreenLeft) started talks to form the post-election Cabinet, being the most logical combination after the exclusion of the anti-globalists and anti-rationalists of the far-right. As said, as done. Right? Well, not quite, apparently. Major differences of opinion between GreenLeft and D66 on the one hand and the Liberals and Christian Democrats on the other side, particularly on migration and income differences, proved to be too big a hurdle to pass. GreenLeft’s charismatic leader Jesse Klaver walked away from the negotiating table and the taking of governmental responsibility, leaving the ‘engine block’ of VVD, D66, and CDA without a partner. So much for a balanced, progressive government for the Netherlands. [2]

One party out of the room, another enters. The Christian Union (CU) had retained its 5 seats in the House and was the next candidate to supply the engine block with a majority – albeit an extremely tight one, of exactly 1 seat. But this duckling was gunned out of the water before it was even fed by Alexander Pechtold, leader of the social liberal D66. After a one-to-one session with the CU’s parliamentary leader, Pechtold had to conclude there was no way the socially progressive D66 would be able to co-operate successfully with social conservatives like the Christian Union. During the previous parliament, D66 initiatives like expansions on assisted dying, further regulation of cannabis sales, and a bill on allowing dual nationality, had been narrowly supported by MPs, but all of these still have to pass through the Senate, where a new Cabinet would have to support them. D66 couldn’t see this happening with the Christian Union, so their bones were discarded and a new partner had to be found. Ruthless, according to some – including the Liberals and Christian Democrats – principled, according to others. [3]

Another party out of the room, and now what? All eyes turned to Labour, who had been decimated in the election, losing 29 of its 38 seats in what was the biggest single loss in Dutch parliamentary history. Perhaps understandably so, they weren’t the keenest to once again form a government – they’d experienced first-hand what doing so can do to a party’s popularity, after all. So Labour’s leader, Lodewijk Asscher, maintained a stern ‘non serviam’ to the negotiators and refused to even begin preliminary talks. This leaves the formation at an impasse.

A new negotiation leader was then appointed by the House of Representatives, someone who is nicknamed the ‘Underking’ of Dutch politics; someone who has already successfully negotiated two cabinets, in 1994 and 2010, chaired the Council of state for fifteen years, and was granted the honorary title Minister of State in 2012. This political superman, Herman Tjeek Willink, is to save the citizens of the political bubble in The Hague and defeat those who are not willing to concede. So now, after over one hundred days of formations, negotiations, chats, discussions, tears, joy, drama, laughter, dinners, lunches, breakfast, and thousands, thousands of cups of coffee, we went back to square one. GreenLeft joined the table again – and left it after a day or so. [5] And then, it was the Christian Union’s turn.

On 21st June, it was announced the CU would join the engine block of Liberal, Christian Democrats, and D66 for formal negotiations under the leadership of Superman Tjeek Willink. However, Superman appeared to be slightly tired of saving the city, and a new negotiating leader, former Finance Minister Gerrit Zalm, was appointed on 26th June. Bridges will need building, dykes and embankments founded, and more cups of coffee drunk. Overcoming the social divides between D66 and the Christian Union is one thing, but managing to defend concessions made in Parliament and the media is an entirely different kettle of fish.

But what would a Liberal, Christian Democrat, D66, and Christian Union government mean for the Netherlands, and more important, for Europe? Judging by the parties involved, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Lord Himself would descend upon the continent to save the EU from certain destruction, but let’s keep it realistic. Let’s look at the parties and their stance on Europe, and attempt to delve into what plans could be made in support of, or against, further EU integration.

Liberals (VVD): Two-Faced Gods?

During his time in the Prime Minister’s office, Liberal leader Mark Rutte was widely accused of telling one story in Brussels, and another at home. When meeting with other EU leaders he apparently supported the EU wholeheartedly, whereas at home he attempted to portray his party as mildly Eurosceptic. The VVD election manifesto claims the EU should only be concerned with ‘important, cross-border core tasks: the internal market, international trade, energy and climate, and migration.’ It also says ‘we refuse any taxes levied directly from Brussels.’

However, for all that, the VVD does appear to be in favour of Juncker’s multi-speed Europe, of more common European foreign and defence policy, and of real European reform. Moreover, the manifesto actively calls for ‘decisive European action’ when it is needed. This is what I mean when I call this party two-faced. They appear to speak tough words about Brussels and its supposedly tedious legislation and expanding influence, but at the same time they laud what European co-operation has achieved and want more of it. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde all over again. [6]

Social Liberals (D66): ALDE beasts

D66 are the only explicitly European federalist party in the Netherlands. I quote from the D66 manifesto:

“If we aim to solve issues such as climate change, terrorism, refugees, energy, security, and trade, we must do so together with Europe. Europe has given us valuable peace and safety, growth and prosperity. Common European relations bring unity, understanding, and tolerance, and therefore offer a guarantee of individual liberty and peace. In a world where challenges like security, energy, ecology and migration crises are crossing borders ever more, a battle-ready Europe is crucial.”

D66 backs a common asylum policy, a European border and coast guard, and the creation of a European army. To establish the latter, D66 sees the Netherlands as a prime player, as Dutch military forces are already exchanging training and exercise with other Benelux militaries, with Germany and with the UK – although the British are slowly but certainly fading away through the grey, dark Brexit mists, of course.

Speaking of which, D66 also thinks the EU cannot be an à la carte menu and that, should parts of the UK aim to stay within the EU after Brexit, they should be welcome to do so. The party is scathing about Brexit and abhors the decision made by 51.9% of British voters.

D66’s election posters featured the EU flag, and throughout the campaign it portrayed Europe as a feasible solution to many problems the Netherlands faces. A truly European party, which will no doubt be extremely valuable to have embedded in government. Europe, we are back.

Christian Democrats (CDA): Running in the 1900s

Or are we? We are back, but I didn’t mean back to the 1950s. With its focus on family values and morality, the Christian Democratic Appeal are not the easiest bedfellows for D66 and other progressive parties – possibly why GreenLeft dropped out of negotiations twice. Using wild phrases such as “excess individualism” and “right to challenge” the CDA aspires for a country built on common values, based on Christianity. Presumably Christian values mean the unlimited preliminary detention of terror suspects, limits on freedom of speech, regulated cyberspace, and purely symbolic policies, but there we are.

On Europe, however, the Christian Democrats are not as conservative as one might think. Their manifesto sees arch-Christian Democrat Angela Merkel as an example, and agrees with the Liberals on a multi-speed Europe. However, they also have their reservations and name many problems, but very few solutions, in their 105-page manifesto. [8]

GreenLeft: a green, not a blue Europe

With a great focus on climate and renewable energy, GreenLeft steamed to a staggering 14 House seats, up 11 from their meagre 3 at the last election. Running on a social democratic and environmentalist platform, the party drew support away from Labour by promising to strive for more income equality and equal chances. On Europe, GreenLeft sees the EU as friends of big business and tax evasion, but is very much in favour of more co-operation. A “strong and social” Europe is their aim. Shame they’re not at the coalition table anymore, as GreenLeft and D66 could have provided a fantastic opportunity for a pro-EU Dutch cabinet. Instead, GreenLeft decided to stick to its idealisms rather than make concessions, and is now leaving the Netherlands with a possible coalition of “Christians et al.” [9]

Christian Union: Jesus for all

There is one word that the Christian Union’s manifesto is based on: hope. They hope for a more solid society, for more respect towards each other, for better refugee care, for fewer abortions and even fewer assisted deaths, for fewer same-sex marriages and fewer adoptions by gay parents. It’s a good thing all they do seems to be to hope, I suppose.

The CU sees the EU as having strayed from its original goal – the goal of hope, of course. They hope Brussels doesn’t “meddle” in affairs it shouldn’t, they strive to impose a cap on the authority of the Commission, and intend to make sure further transfers of power to European institutions can only happen after a two thirds majority of Parliament agree. The Christian Union is also opposed to accession of Turkey or other surrounding states – presumably because they’re not protestant.

Where does this leave us?

But what does this mean for the next Dutch government? Well, if D66 manages to concede going into coalition with two Christian parties, and the next government consists of VVD, CDA, D66, and CU, Europe may not receive the boost it so desperately needs from the Netherlands. There was a golden opportunity for progressive, pro-EU parties, particularly D66, GreenLeft, even Labour, to come together, concede some of their manifestos – as every party in a coalition system should – and join France and Germany in advancing the renewed European spirit we have seen since the Brexit and Trump fallout became real. But no, the government might be dragged back to the 1900s, or at best brought to a standstill, by the two Christian parties in the House. Jesus weeps. Or cheers.

So, will a conservative cabinet rule the Netherlands for the next four years? Well, at the very least the government will be somewhat balanced by the influence of D66, who are determined to be part of the next government. Will Europe continue to enjoy support from the Netherlands? Mildly, at least, I think. The elimination of the Christian Union from the coalition table would mean more support, but that would mean a minority government at home.

Labour and GreenLeft, two other pro-EU parties, have eliminated themselves from further co-operation. The Dutch need Europe, but its pro-EU parties have defaulted on their promise to strengthen the continent. We can only hope that at some point over the next few weeks parties realise that if there is one country in Europe that needs the EU more than any other, it is the Netherlands. Negotiations with the CU start this Wednesday, and I hope – hope! – they’ll be cut short sooner than you can say “I confess.”


[1] NU.nl (2014) Kabinet is volgens Rutte niet in gevaar geweest. 19th December. Available from http://www.nu.nl/politiek/3957638/kabinet-volgens-rutte-niet-in-gevaar-geweest.html [Accessed 22/06/2017]

[2] De Vries, J. (2017) Formatie VVD, CDA, D66 en GroenLinks stukgelopen op migratie. De Volkskrant, 15th May. Available from http://www.volkskrant.nl/politiek/formatie-vvd-cda-d66-en-groenlinks-stukgelopen-op-migratie~a4494935/ [Accessed 23/06/2017]

[3] De Vries, J. (2017) D66 houdt poot stijf: geen coalitie met ChristenUnie. De Volkskrant, 24th May. Available from http://www.volkskrant.nl/politiek/d66-houdt-poot-stijf-geen-coalitie-met-christenunie~a4496691/ [Accessed 24/06/2017]

[4] Belinfante, M. (2017) Asscher blijft erbij: PvdA niet aan formatietafel. EenVandaag, 20th June. Available from http://politiek.eenvandaag.nl/tv-items/74925/asscher_blijft_erbij_pvda_niet_aan_formatietafel [Accessed 24/06/2017]

[5] NOS (2017) Geen nieuwe onderhandelingen VVD, CDA, D66, Groenlinks. 12th June. Available from http://nos.nl/artikel/2177917-geen-nieuwe-onderhandelingen-vvd-cda-d66-groenlinks.html [Accessed 24/06/2017]

[6] Bruijn, J.A. et al. (2016) Zeker Nederland: Verkiezingsprogramma VVD 2017-2021. Available from https://www.vvd.nl/verkiezingsprogramma_s/ [Accessed 25/06/2017]

[7] D66 (2017) D66 – Verkiezingsprogramma. Available from https://verkiezingsprogramma.d66.nl/programma/vol-vertrouwen-de-wereld/#betere-europese-samenwerking-voor-meer-slagkracht [Accessed 25/06/2017]

[8] CDA (2016) Verkiezingsprogramma 2017-2021: Keuzes voor een beter Nederland. Available from https://www.cda.nl/standpunten/verkiezingsprogramma/ [Accessed 25/06/2017]

[9] GroenLinks (2016) Tijd voor Verandering. Verkiezingsprogramma 2017-2021. Available from https://groenlinks.nl/sites/groenlinks.nl/files/Verkiezingsprogramma-digitaal-2017-2021.pdf [Accessed 25/06/2017]

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