Dutch coalition talks: how strange the change from major to minor

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Herman Tjeenk Willink was unable to engineer a breakthrough.

Sybrand won’t play with Jesse. Jesse’s not speaking to Alexander. Alexander won’t play with Gert-Jan and Lodewijk won’t play with anyone. Mark has the ball but can’t find anyone to go in goal, and Geert is skulking in the toilets, scrawling graffiti on the walls. Three months after the people of the Netherlands delivered a jigsaw puzzle of an election result, attempts to form a coalition government have run aground with no sign of a fresh start any time soon.

In contrast to the previous failure, when the four party leaders went out of their way to avoid pointing fingers, this time the blame was dumped on the head of Jesse Klaver. The GroenLinks leader was accused of flip-flopping on the refugee issue, appearing to accept a compromise on asylum seekers from north Africa, only to row back at the last minute. ‘We will not send back political refugees or those fleeing war,’ Klaver told Parliament. It was a particularly bitter pill for D66 leader Alexander Pechtold, who had lobbied to bring GroenLinks into the coalition as a progressive counterweight to the conservative forces of the Liberals (VVD) and Christian Democrats. Pechtold despaired of the outcome as ‘impotence bordering on unwillingness’. But he wasn’t alone: Mark Rutte cast off his poker face to vent his frustration at Klaver for turning his nose up at a deal that was good enough for left-leaning countries such as Greece and Portugal.

There are problems with this analysis. The solution proposed by Herman Tjeenk Willink, who took over Edith Schippers’s steering role two weeks ago, was modelled on the deal the European Union struck with Turkey to accommodate Syrian refugees outside Europe’s borders. Tjeenk Willink knew he could rely on the support of Rutte, who brokered the Turkish deal during the Dutch EU presidency last year. The Greek government’s endorsement of that plan was hardly surprising given that one of the effects of the deal was to ease the strain on islands such as Lesbos. But refugee organisations such as Amnesty International have strongly criticised the arrangements for leaving asylum seekers in a squalid, dangerous limbo with no way out. Pechtold’s party, D66, warned that the deal compromised Europe’s ability to deal with Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In the Dutch press there has been hardly a murmur about Rutte’s breathtaking attitude towards Erdogan, who is cast at once as a tinpot tyrant with a Nazi fetish and a dependable partner in the delicate business of housing the children of war.

Tjeenk Willink’s approach also merits closer scrutiny. Given all his skills and experience as a negotiator and architect of Dutch governments, the Labour senator seems to have underestimated the significance of the refugee question. In a barely concealed stab at GroenLinks, Tjeenk Willink lamented that the coalition had choked on a ‘minor issue’ before it could get on to serious matters such as climate change and inequality. In fact Klaver signalled straight after the election that a humane refugee policy was one of his party’s top priorities, and Schippers cited it as the main stumbling block when the first round of talks broke up a month ago. Concern about immigration was one of the dominant themes of the election campaign and widely seen as the main reason that Geert Wilders’s PVV ended up with 20 seats. The fact that Tjeenk Willink never got as far as bringing the four parties round the same table after two weeks of elaborately choreographed discussions must bring his judgment into question. His decision to try to crack the immigration issue first left GroenLinks isolated and cut off more fruitful lines of dialogue; had the parties identified common ground on other issues, particularly the environment, Klaver might have been less willing to pull the plug.

There is unlikely to be a way back to the negotiating table for Klaver now that he has made the refugee issue a matter of principle. The same problem obstructs the path for the ChristenUnie, which is existentially opposed to D66’s policy on assisted dying. The only remaining route to a majority cabinet now appears to be via Labour (PvdA), but so far Lodewijk Asscher has dismissed any talk of his party remaining in government after its electoral humiliation. The paradox is that the longer the parties try to resist a minority government, the likelier it becomes.

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