Over the past week, the European media and commentariat had been focused on Catalonia, where the leader of the regional assembly, Carles Puigdemont, was keeping everyone in Madrid — and even in his coalition alliance of separatists — guessing as to whether he would, or would not, use the results of the recent referendum there to declare independence.
And for the media and commentariat who were still interested, the fifth round of Brexit negotiations between Brussels and London were also underway, with little progress to report other than United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May was still in a job, hadn’t taken up the offer of a P45 [a British slang for termination of employment] offered to her at the Conservative party conference in Manchester by a comedian who evaded security to interrupt her keynote speech, and hadn’t yet been deposed by either the hard or soft Brexiteers who are anxious to get their hands on the keys to Number 10 Downing Street.
And apart from Spain and Britain, there was some rather astonishing news out of The Netherlands earlier this week.
No, it wasn’t about the fact that city officials in Amsterdam are to crack down on new businesses opening in the central business district that cater only to the tourist trade. The mayor of the municipality is eager to ensure Amsterdam remains a city where ordinary Amsterdammers can still live, cycle and work. She has had enough of cheesy cheese shops that have opened recently to cater to the many visitors who come to the canal city and leave with some tulip bulbs, clogs, some blue Delft tourist tat and Edam cheese.
The city council has ordered its building and planning officials not to grant permits to new stores that cater only to tourists, those that sell souvenirs, and those that sell pizza by the slice. The move has been generally welcomed by city dwellers who have been inundated by the sheer number of tourist shops opening in the heart of Amsterdam and across from Central Station.
And in the sleepy seaside capital of The Hague, there was real political news for a change. The capital is so sleepy that it hasn’t had a working government since the general election on March 15. Yep. That’s right. There has been no Dutch government in charge of the nation of 17 million. You mightn’t have noticed — and few else did.
It’s not as if it really mattered, because the Dutch economy is buzzing along at a fine clip without anyone to interfere, decide, ponder, alter course, intervene, change policy — or whatever else the political machine does to keep the wheels of economy and state properly greased and rolling along. If you cast your mind back to the early part of the year, Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party cast a long shadow over Europe, setting a hateful tone by calling for the removal of mosques, the banning of Islamic symbols and mosques, and fanning the flames for right-wing ideologues elsewhere across the continent.
Although the outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte did win, it’s taken him until last Tuesday to form a four-party coalition to move forward on political reforms.
Last month, despite not having a government in place, Rutte propose a neutral budget to at least assure everyone that he and the other members of the Dutch parliament were actually needed. Trade concerns following the election of President Donald Trump in the United States, the potential effect of Brexit, and even the uncertainty that surrounded the election of President Emmanuel Macron in France — all had no negative effect on the Dutch economy as it hummed along nicely, and analysts expect it to expand by 3 per cent by the end of the year.
Indeed, the reforms that were put in place by the Dutch government after the financial crisis in 2008 show now that the economy of The Netherlands is robust — so robust that it matters not if there was a caretaker government in place for the past seven months.
It’s not as if the Dutch aren’t used to long periods of non-governing government, and it took 208 days in 1977 for one government to be formed. This time around, Rutte beat that record, but most Dutch don’t seem that concerned.
“Does it matter a lot that we have a caretaker government? No, honestly, it doesn’t,” observed Marieke Blom, the chief economist at ING Group NV when Rutte presented the caretaker budget in early September. “For now, the economy is in good shape. Although there are things that can be improved, I believe they’re very urgent.”
That’s just as well, given the length of time it has taken for the four coalition partners to agree on a programme for government.
So, now that there is finally someone to make decisions, what are they going to do?
Well, even though Wilders leads the second-largest party in the Dutch parliament, no one wanted him in government. Yet, he still has an influence in dragging the political agenda to the Right. The four parties, the liberal VVD led by Rutte, the centrist D66, and the more conservative Christian parties of the CDA and the Christian Union, have agreed to limit allowances for refugees in the first two years of their stay.
And the economy that’s doing so well without anyone to make a decision? Well, Rutte and his partners plan to lower the corporate tax rate paid by businesses from 25 to 21 per cent while at the same time phasing out Dutch coal-burning power plants and ramp up spending on renewable energy sources. Rutte’s coalition will also increase takes on food and other basic supplies, and hope to offset the lower corporate tax rate by reducing the amount of relief Dutch mortgage holders can claim against their income tax bills.
Socially, D66 had pushed for wider use of the controversial law on euthanasia, but that is at odds with the Christian values of two coalition partners.
And even after months of wrangling to get the new government formed, the Rutte coalition still only has a one-seat majority in the chamber in The Hague. Come next spring, Dutch voters could find themselves back at the polls again — and potentially face another prolonged period of caretaker government. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.