Debating Dutch foreign policies

Knowledge brokering14 Oct 2010

The Netherlands has a new government: Rutte-Verhagen. A two-party government (the ‘liberal’ VVD led by Mark Rutte, and Christian Democrat CDA led by Maxime Verhagen) that legitimizes right-wing populist, anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders, by openly associating itself with his ideas. It is only by virtue of the support of Wilders’ PVV party (24 seats in parliament) that the government has achieved a slim minority of 76 seats (out of 150).

A large minority of the ruling Christian Democrats – once the biggest political party in the Netherlands, now decimated to 21 seats and even fewer in the latest polls – is opposed to the inclusion of Wilders in this coalition. They voiced their concern during an emotional debate at a recent party conference attended by 5,000 members. However, now that the government agreement is a reality, things seem to have returned to business as usual, and Christian Democrat dissidents have abandoned their resistance. This is the first sign that a creeping process of acceptance is underway, one that may unleash yet more nationalistic sentiment.

A creeping process, because the government plans are very much in line with Wilders’ political programme. He is in the enviable position of having power but no political responsibilities: he has no ministers in the cabinet. It would have been more honest and transparent if Wilders had been included in the government, for example as minister of foreign affairs, a suggestion also put forward in The Economist by columnist Charlemagne. How would he have combined his polemic tone with the priority in the new government agreement to defend Dutch economic interests? Would he still call the Turkish prime minister a ‘total freak’? Would he go on organizing his International Freedom Alliance? And if so, would CDA and VVD keep on sharing cabinet seats with him?

In political terms, a fundamental question is whether opposition parties and civil society organizations in the Netherlands should choose to resist this cabinet. Normally, Dutch society holds consensus in high esteem. It is unlike the winner-takes-all political culture that exists in the United Kingdom or United States, for example. Compromise is a common political tool in the Netherlands; even parties that are not in power, or organizations that do not agree with government politics, usually stay on speaking terms with their political opponents.

But this time it is different. The government in power legitimizes the exclusion of a large part of society (one million of the Netherlands’ 16 million population is Muslim, and there are one billion Muslims in the world). Although the VVD and CDA use a lot of rhetoric to suggest they disagree with Wilders’ extreme point of view – officially they ‘agreed to disagree’ with Wilders’ anti-Islam crusade – he will nonetheless cast a visible shadow over government policies. Not only will this polarize internal Dutch relationships, even putting an end to the Dutch ‘poldermodel’, the long-time consensus model, it will also damage the Netherlands’ image and position in the world – more significantly than in past years, when the Dutch voted ‘no’ against Europe, which took many international observers by surprise.

At the moment, Dutch opposition parties and civil society organizations seem knocked out. Below the surface, there is a lot of anger about the ongoing polarization by Wilders and the government. What is the limit? Where should one stop to build bridges with parties whose reason of existence is rejecting these bridges? However, there is no comprehensive and convincing alternative political project available. And the main spokesmen and women of opposition parties and organizations already seem to be accommodating, happy that social reforms are postponed or that development budgets were not cut even further.

So much for party politics. The Broker is an independent magazine that reflects on development and foreign policies from an academic or ‘evidence-based’ point of view. Elsewhere on this website we started a discussion blog about Dutch foreign policies.The idea is to exchange views on this blog about the foreign policies that are expected to emerge from the Rutte-Verhagen-Wilders alliance. This specific blog on The Broker web platform should enable people to keep track of the Netherlands’ position in the world.

We will start with a discussion about what is in the new government agreement, but when concrete policies are laid out, we can start debating them. Bloggers can analyze Dutch behaviour and diplomatic efforts abroad. This blog will expose the positives and the negatives, and discuss alternatives and new ideas. Those supporting the new government can make their case here, and those opposed to it can offer their criticism. Always, I hope, with arguments.

Although this is bound to be a highly Netherlands-oriented debate, I hope that non-Dutch debaters will participate as well, by asking questions and presenting their views from outside the Netherlands. It might be useful to compare the Dutch situation with similar political experiences in other countries; some Nordic countries have a longer history with this kind of political collaboration. In the United Kingdom, a new conservative government is changing its international course without cutting the development budget, as the new Dutch government intends to do. The rest of Europe may wonder what is going in this country, not to mention African countries and other developing countries that may have traditionally viewed the Netherlands as a progressive and generous donor nation. What do people in developing countries think about what is going on here?

Even if they have no inside perspective on what is going on in this country, their comments may be useful for the Dutch to understand what is going on here – because many people in the Netherlands do not understand it themselves.