Tue Feb 20th, 2007 at 04:27:36 AM EST
On November 22nd, the Dutch went to the polls to elect a new parliament. The government, which is based upon these elections in our parliamentary democracy, will form in a couple of days.
Balkenende IV (already!), a coalition of the christian democrats, social democrats and a small christian party, is ready to start.
The new government has been characterised by some in advance as a do-nothing bunch, because the programme is rather unambitious. The conjuctural trend in the Netherlands is rather positive, so there are no great pressures for further reforms. Indeed the coalition accord which will form the basis of the government's policy foresees the budget surplus growing from the 0.5% to 0.9% at the end its period, while neither saving nor investing a whole lot of extra money. Six billion is to be saved, seven billion is to be invested on top of current commitments. These sums represent less than a third of a percent of the expected Dutch national income in the period. Further social liberalisation is also not part of the agenda. But there also won't be much of a rollback.
Considering that this is a heavily Christian government, it could have been worse.
A comprehensive survey of what faces the Netherlands for the four years to come - afew
The Netherlands is a country that will face relatively calm and prosperous times in the coming four years, if nothing crazy happens. The few issues that it does face are rather mundane. Still, they need to be addressed. I think there are a number of priority areas there (which quite obviously reflect my own political preferences). To list them:
- Designing and implementing a comprehensive green innovation and growth strategy
- Expanding the highspeed rail and normal rail network
- Dealing with the democratic deficit
- Legalising and controlling soft-drug production and sale
- Integrating ethnic minorities
- Providing more funding for universities and reforming the funding system
- Formulating a coherant foreign policy, especially with regard to the 'war on terror'
- Engaging with the EU in a way that strengthens both Europe and the Netherlands
- Coordinating more policy with Belgium and Germany, and with Europe
The programme of Balkenende has a strong communitarian edge. The edge is reflected in its title Samen Leven, Samen Werken (Living Together, Working Together). Balkenende has always been a fan of communitarianism and now it appears that the philosophy is also starting to resonate within the social-democratic PvdA (nl). The idea that individualism 'has shot through too far' is definitely established in Dutch political thought, I even remember some people from the left-liberal D66 party repeating it. According to the introduction, it is also an idea reflected by popular opinion. It states that the Dutch think that individually, they're doing quite good, but that society is not faring as well. This government will see itself as the guardian of society, defining the norms of appropriate conduct, helping those who are left behind and stimulating, sometimes demanding, positive participation by all citizens. A new sense of togetherness and feeling sheltered is to take hold.
But it's not all back to the kleinburgerlijke spruitjesgeur of the 1950s. The programme stops to take note that the solutions of yesteryear require additions and adjustments in the coming decade, particularly in the face of a desired economic 'dynamism' and the fact that society is no longer homogeneous. The basic idea is formulated that most well-educated, emancipated people can take care of themselves and flourish in the 'network society', but that the less fortunate need a helping, and also sometimes correcting, hand.
In terms of ideology, the message sent by the programme is closest to the left flank of the CDA. It reflects its view of an 'organic' society, with people given the liberty and the security to practice their communal values within their own 'sphere', and the role of the government as a guardian and steward. One of the more inspired messages is on the topic of the environment:
"The environment is under pressure, the climate is changing and natural resources are getting exhausted. All in all it is the question if our well-being is rising as quickly as our wealth." (my translation)
The programme formulates a work programme with its own set of priorities, some of which overlap with my own, some of which don't. Some admirable elements in the programme are the repeated calls to deal with administrative tunnel vision (if anyone knows a better word for 'verkokering', call me 'cause I'd like to use it, a lot). The demands that are posed for an eventual new European treaty are good: "substance, size and name" are to be substantially different from the European Constitution. Other than that there is little beyond promising to 'positively engage' with Brussels. No mention of the stuff that really matters, which in the case of the Netherlands is the mid-term review of the budget in 2008. It is important that the Netherlands allows for a greater size of the budget as a share of GDP, under the condition that there is a more equitable distribution of the burden (e.g. national co-financing of the CAP).
Foreign policy continues to be fudged. The Palestine-Israeli conflict is given a symbolic statement here, which makes me wonder why we don't focus on the dozens of other conflicts that exist. Everyone is already doing Israel and there is little a middle-sized country like the Netherlands can add other than supporting a common EU policy on the issue. Nonetheless, the programme promises 'active bilateral policy' in addition to cooperating within the EU. Oh well. The Dutch foreign security policy is one of four tasks: peacekeeping, fighting terrorism, prevention of conflict and reconstruction. War, however, is not so easily categorised as the Dutch would wish and the fact of the matter is that although the Dutch are doing a little reconstruction and antiterrorism in Afghanistan, the main activity of the military there has become fighting in a guerilla war. It would be nice to have some recognition of this (as well as some realistic ideas of what should be done to make the operation there work and a concept for keeping the troops secure in case the Americans go to war with Iran). A positive note is development aid, which is to go up. The Netherlands already gives the largest amount of foreign aid as a proportion of GDP, and this is to be expanded further for stimulating renewable energy.
Both sustainability and innovation are priorities of the coalition's programme and to a certain extent they are merged (in the area of renewable energies). This is a hopeful development. A more comprehensive strategy needs to be developed relatively quickly, though. On the topic of innovation, there will be more money for universities and schools, although I would have made it more. The system, which gives the largest amount of money to a university upon graduation of the student, remains unchanged. The amount of extra money spent on nature conservation is too low to realise the "Ecologische Hoofdstructuur".
The amount of extra money spent on rail transportation is laughable. A positive note is that the cabinet promises to build a fast connection to the northeast (this was promised earlier but the decision has been put off). The fast train connection to the north has been a source of much controversy. Initially, the plans were to build a maglev train, which is a rather fantastic way to waste money considering the sparse population. A more logical solution would be to extend the high speed rail that runs from Amsterdam to Paris, on which the national railway company will soon begin a service with two trains. It is somewhat stupid to let this line stop at Groningen, as proposed, where it could be continued to Germany, connecting Oldenburg, Bremen and Hamburg. This would allow a similar model to be run as on the Amsterdam - Paris connection: one high speed train at 330 km/h (an adapted ICE) and one fast train at 200 km/h. The government should aim for a partnership with the NS and DB this time around in exchange for a 10/15-year concession, rather than being more free market than thou (the high speed rail to Brussels and Paris was first tendered as a construction contract, then as a transport link, this has led to gross inefficiencies, partially due to fraud, which would have been avoided if the government hadn't had this construct).
The lack of a common perspective is also reflected in the longstanding Dutch solution to the problem of traffic jams, which will be a kilometre charge. The Belgians are implementing a completely different system (a static charge which discriminates against foreign traffic), meanwhile, the Germans have a comparable system for trucks (the lkw-maut). Due to the difficulty of implementing an appropriately priced common fuel tax, the EU will now face this woodwork of national regulatory systems, which hamper the free movement of persons and goods. There is a task for the EU here to harmonise this somewhat.
Having a communitarian programme provides something of a better roadmap for the integration of minorities than the soft, almost relativist multiculturalism practiced in the nineties or the rather confrontational approach of the past three Balkenende cabinets (first spearheaded by the party of Fortuyn and then the right-liberal VVD). Specific measures include some hard demands (mainly on language ability) and the recognition of a set of common values and norms. The emphasis is not so much on the emancipation of the individual, but rather on finding a common sense of belonging and on the value of different communities. It is stated that it is the duty of each citizen who enjoys the freedoms of the constitution to defend constitutional rights, especially those of others (another societal 'debate' on the topic is to be launched). Although I'm more a fan of the emancipation of the person, I think that this approach will have some beneficial effects and that the multicultural issue could be less problematic in four years, if the government keeps a good law enforcement strategy against extremist violence in place.
On the drug front (of course) nothing will happen. But on the democracy front the government will allow the nominations of mayors and provincial governors by the council / provincial assembly, as a matter of policy. This could form the first step towards an amendment of the constitution to that end. It should also make the soon-to-be-had provincial elections a bit more exciting. If they are already going to have this policy...
The Balkenende IV cabinet is made up out of 16 ministers and 11 secretaries of state (a lower position in the Netherlands). The Christian Democrats have 8 ministers and 4 secretaries of state, the Social Democrats have 6 ministers and 6 secretaries of state and the Christians have 2 ministers and 1 secretary of state. See wikipedia for tables and links to individual profiles.
Balkenende will once again be PM, Wouter Bos of the PvdA has the ministry of finance and is deputy PM, Andre Rouvoet of the Christenunie is also deputy PM and has the newly created agenda of youth and family. Being in the position of the ministry of finance gives Bos a lot of power, especially as the secretary of state at the ministry (of the CDA) has to deal with fiscal affairs, leaving Bos free to concern himself with spending.
On the side of the CDA, there are few new faces, more people shifted back and forth. It controls the ministries of economy, social affairs, foreign affairs, health, justice, transport, and agriculture. The PvdA has weaned some control of the foreign affairs policy in that it will control the porfolios of foreign aid and European affairs (the latter in terms of policy coordination, the minister of foreign affairs will still have some influence on it). The PvdA controls the ministries of finance, internal affairs, education, and the environment. The Christenunie only has control over the ministry of defence. Some of the ministers have a portfolio without direct control of a ministry. On balance, the CDA is clearly the strongest partner in the cabinet. Whether this becomes a strong determinant of the cabinet or whether more policy-oriented partnerships develop among the ministers will depend on the ride.
There are a couple of changes that I'm excited about, starting with the introduction of Ronald Plasterk as a minister of education. As a columnist, he fell out with the outgoing minister, Maria v.d. Hoeve, over her flirting with the 'theory' of intelligent design. Plasterk is a convinced atheist, which is a welcome addition to this rather religious group. We won't have to worry about attempts to spread religious doctrines through the curriculum or to diminish the teaching and testing of the theory of evolution. Maria v.d. Hoeve, whom he replaces, is shifted to the ministry of economy, where her quaint ideas about ID will have no influence on her functioning. From her background she appears to have some feeling for innovation, otherwise she's just an experienced public manager.
The new minister of the environment, Jacqueline Cramer, will have to team up with V.D. Hoeve to design a comprehensive strategy for green growth and innovation. Cramer herself has already been under attack from the right-wing populist press, who circulated a patently false story that she would want to ban diesel cars. She's not a stereotypical activist environmentalist, though, in the past she's worked a lot on innovative strategies and technologies.
On the downside, I have my doubts about Maxime Verhagen, who is to become minister of foreign affairs. Verhagen has been the leader of the CDA in parliament for the past 5 years and in this position he's often made quite undiplomatic statements about foreign leaders (like calling Gerhard Schröder the worst chancellor ever while Schröder was still in office). His task was political manoeuvring and partisan debate, and it is difficult to make the transition. Having the CDA fossil Piet Hein Donner on social affairs is also not an ideal outcome. Donner is sometimes tone-deaf, it remains to be seen how he does there.
Most other ministers appear competent, so, now it's off to being sworn in!