The reluctant kingmaker

Gert-Jan Segers became an accomplished political performer. Photo: Anna-Paul Roukema/CU CC-BY-SA-4.0

The resignation of Gert-Jan Segers as leader of the ChristenUnie party was one of those political events that nobody expected, but in hindsight made perfect sense. Segers had been leader of the CU, the smallest party in the four-way Dutch coalition, since 2015, and explained in his parting interview with NRC that he never intended to serve more than two terms in parliament (he was first elected in 2012). He ended up overstaying by two years because he was unwilling to jump ship in the middle of a crisis, but the crises kept on coming: the coronavirus pandemic, the childcare benefits scandal that prompted the entire cabinet’s resignation last year, the famers’ protests and latterly the near-breakdown of the asylum accommodation system. Each of these issues is close to the ChristenUnie’s heart, yet none of them is resolved, which is perhaps why Segers’s decision to step down came to many as a surprise.

The ChristenUnie is that peculiar political entity: a party of conscience. Its primary purpose is not to seek power, but to ‘bear witness’ and defend its principles, whether in government or opposition. Its loyal – one might say devoted – electorate has secured it five seats at each of the last four elections, making it a beacon of stability in the turbulent Dutch landscape. In other systems its 3% share of the vote would make it a fringe movement, but in the Netherlands, where concession and compromise are woven into the fabric, it often has a pivotal role. In 2012 the CU was part of a five-way makeshift coalition that negotiated an emergency budget after Geert Wilders’s PVV refused to sign off on an austerity package, triggering the collapse of Mark Rutte’s first cabinet. In 2015 Segers took over as party leader from Arie Slob; two years later, after the general election, he took the CU into government as the smallest member of a four-way coalition of liberals and conservatives: what NRC called a ‘cabinet of the cargo bike and the church pew’.

Segers had a reputation as a scrupulous and pragmatic leader with a strong sense of responsibility, at a time when some politicians treat parliament as a YouTube hit factory. But under his stewardship the line between principles and power was constantly tested. For a man who eschewed political games, it was remarkable how often he found himself in the role of kingmaker. Mark Rutte described him as an ‘anchor in the coalition’ and no wonder: Segers saved Rutte from being cast adrift on at least three occasions. When GroenLinks pulled out of the coalition talks in 2017 on the issue of migration, it was Segers who stepped into the breach. Commentators speculated on whether the CU could work with the progressive-liberal D66, given their implacable differences on medical-ethical issues, but within weeks the two parties had come up with the solution of a non-aggression pact. D66 would not expand the limits on euthanasia or assisted dying, while the CU would refrain from legislating on abortion. Three weeks later they were junior partners in a coalition with Rutte’s Liberal party (VVD) and the Christian Democrats (CDA).

Last April, on Good Friday, Rutte’s career seemed holed below the water line when Segers declared he would not join another coalition under the same leadership. It followed the exposure of documents suggesting the VVD and CDA wanted to muzzle the critical CDA MP, Pieter Omtzigt, by offering him a cabinet post. ‘The truth is being handled in a way that is very problematic for us,’ Segers said. But after three days of reflection the CU leader who came back with a retraction and an apology for judging the prime minister too harshly. And after six months of D66 repeatedly slamming the door on a new partnership with the CU, it was Segers who accepted the offer of coalition fixer Johan Remkes to put the Rutte III cabinet back together. The most thumbed passage in Gert-Jan Segers’s Bible must surely be Matthew 5:39, Jesus’s invocation to turn the other cheek.

But two terms in government have not left Segers unblemished. He grew tired of the political power games, pointedly saying in his exit interview that he would miss the ‘business of clashing egos the least’. At the start of Rutte III he was characterised as naïve and idealistic; by the end he had become adept at the messy reality of compromise. Perhaps too adept. As the smallest party in the coalition the CU had to make uncomfortable choices to stay on board. The plan to abolish dividend tax in 2017, a measure that the VVD insisted on even though no party had included it in its manifesto, was perhaps the most notorious. Segers likened it to ‘swallowing a melon’. He doubted if his party had done the right thing on voting for CETA, the trade treaty with Canada, having initially opposed it. ‘We did it step by step, without much trouble, but we said to each other: “we mustn’t get too good at this”,’ he told NRC. And last October Segers faced a serious challenge to his moral authority from party members who described the government’s treatment of asylum seekers at the reception centre in Ter Apel as ‘ethically bankrupt’. Yet in the end, after making a vigorous speech that invoked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four freedoms and called on the government to turn back from the neoliberal path, Segers consented to a deal that included the VVD’s much maligned plan to stop refugees being joined by their families.

In Utopia, St Thomas More proposed that anyone who campaigned for political office should be barred from holding it. More was a Catholic, but the notion of power being a burden rather than a privilege runs through the veins of Dutch Calvinism. ‘Politics should be uncomfortable,’ Segers told NRC this week. In five years as a coalition party leader he had to swallow a lot of melons: the responsibility of keeping the coalition afloat was even more burdensome than the responsibility of joining it. And while the media focused much on the ideological differences with D66, the two parties were often united on major issues such as asylum, where the real challenge was accommodating the populist wing of the VVD. Segers’s departure comes at a time when the future of the coalition and his party both hang in the balance, but he decided it was time to pass on the torch: ‘For us the mission is more important than the people who undertake it.’ It was a statement that underlined what a consummate politician Gert-Jan Segers has become.


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