Europe is in crisis and has been for the last couple of years. It is however not only Greece, Portugal and Spain which find themselves in volatile political and economic times. Events in the troubled regions to the south have overshadowed the silent corrosion of democratic values and human rights of countries historically considered to be at the political heart of the European project. The Netherlands is a painful reminder that it is not only Greece which increasingly lacks democratic legitimacy but that the problem is structural and widespread.
The Netherlands was once a country which praised itself for its extreme social liberalism but is increasingly held captive by rightwing populism and a neo-liberal agenda which continues to painfully discredit itself. It is difficult to find political legitimation for the existence of the contemporary Dutch minority coalition which consists of an ideologically impaired Christian Conservative Party (CDA), a neo-liberal party (VVD) which managed to tarnish the little liberalism it had left and a supportive anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) of which maybe too much has been said already. It is however much easier to discuss what is going wrong in the Netherlands, which makes it all the more curious why its political shortfalls receive so little attention in the international media.
The lack of democratic legitimacy starts with the technical make-up of the current Dutch cabinet. The three-party coalition constitutes in fact a very questionable democratic entity which enjoys a majority of only one seat in parliament. The support of the PVV which is not directly part of the cabinet, to make matters worse, is fundamental for the Conservative Christians and the Neo-Liberals to gain and maintain their (one seat) majority in the Dutch House of Representatives. The effects of this hostage situation have with the arrival of the economic crises in the Netherlands worsened. Austerity is imposed with support of a radical rightwing party which blames the crises on migrants, Islam and everything considered left from its own nationalistic agenda.
The construct of a minority coalition provides the PVV with almost unlimited power since its support is conditioned on the basis of the implementation of its own populist policies. It is only the support of the PVV which enables the minority government to destroy what once was the world’s most efficient and recognised welfare system. The result is a toxic mix of neo-liberal privatisations, liberalisations and deregulations combined with right-wing extremism of the kind that would have made Pim Fortuyn blush.
The effects of neo-liberal nationalism
There is an abundance of worrying signs that the legal system in the Netherlands is under severe threat of being hollowed out by politicians. The Dutch ombudsman warned ↑ only yesterday in one of the country’s most well-read national papers that politicians consider justice “an unexpected factor, which apparently does not fit in the economic model”. Surprising legal judgments are increasingly portrayed as blunders and politicians explicitly ridicule and undermine the separation of powers that normally sustains and legitimises the workings of modern democracies. Laws are reformulated to fit political agendas and bend in such a way that racism can now be presented as acts of freedom of speech. Freedom of thought has by contrast long been abandoned.
The violation of democratic rights is increasingly normalised and justified on the basis of economic urgency and right-wing populism. Political representatives of the three coalition parties have met over the last month for talks behind closed doors to discuss the drastic budget cuts supposedly needed to reduce the country’s public deficit to the EU’s three percent requirement ↑ . The PVV and its flamboyant and controversially blunt leader (Geert Wilders) not long ago denounced the nature of such closed-door politics (‘achterkamertjespolitiek’ in Dutch) but find themselves now surrounded in political ambiguities. Wilders only a few months earlier blamed the Greeks for their unhealthy economic management and character and while ingenuously wishing to see the country being ‘thrown out of the European Union’ argued that the Netherlands would never ever find itself in such a situation.
The coalition’s lack of political legitimacy does unfortunately however not only stem from the fact that it is unwilling to inform its electorate (which it in any case seems to hold in very low esteem) of the new series of cuts before its neo-liberal nationalist formula has been set in stone. It also seems to disregard its own electorate and seems instead more willing to listen to the supra-national institution ↑ (and its ideology ↑ ) which has proven to respect democratic legitimacy as little as the PVV and other popular Eurosceptics have argued. The ironic paradox that the PVV is actually correct when it complains about the democratic deficit within the EU raises the question why the PVV continues to support the pro-EU agenda of its coalition partners.
A European project which, bear in mind, the Dutch politicians concurrently and painfully continue to undermine. The PVV’s anti-EU sentiment reached in fact a new climax when it launched its now infamous anti-immigrant hotline ↑ which allows Dutch natives to inform on ‘evil’ Eastern Europeans. The site ↑ reads: “Lost your job to a Pole, Bulgarian, Romanian or other Central or Eastern European? Let us know”. The online hotline inevitably drew naturally sharp criticism from the European Commission, European Parliament and numerous human right organisations.
What is perhaps more embarrassing, at least for Dutch liberals, is that the head of the Dutch cabinet, Premier Mark Rutte (VVD), flouts his liberal principles and continues to refuse to condemn the harmful initiatives of his coalition partner. The Dutch liberal party - once the staunch promoter of laissez-fairism - finds itself now rejecting and awkwardly turning away from the consequences of its hard labours to transform Europe into a capital-friendly region. Now cheap labour from Eastern Europe is finally within its grasp, the VVD wishes to constitutionally tighten-up the restrictions of immigration within Europe. One wonders how sustainable neo-liberal nationalism will turn out to be when labour costs increase and exports start to dwindle as a result of the xenophobic fears over ‘evil’ Central and Eastern Europeans that swarm and occupy the Dutch tulip fields.
Enough of the neo-liberals and nationalists, what about the other party in the neo-liberal nationalist Gang of Three? The coalition’s third Party, the CDA, suffers from a similar (if not even worse) democratic deficit to that of its two partners. Having lost almost half of its seats during the lost elections in 2010 ↑ and being short of another 8 according to recent polls (held in early April 2012 ↑ ) one really wonders what the Party’s exact purpose is in a supposedly representational democratic coalition. The lack of democratic legitimacy was probably also the reason why its Party Congress announced in January of this year the arrival of a new political roadmap. A revaluation of its ideological norms and values was supposed to bring the Party back to its Christian ‘social’ origins and ideals. A week ago, only two months after the ‘historic’ Congress, the previously-mentioned closed-door negotiations seem to suggest otherwise. The Party Leader of the CDA, Maxime Verhagen, has allegedly agreed to cut one billion euro ↑ from the Dutch budget for development aid. Perhaps the social Christian Party is trusting in God herself to assemble the 0.7 percent of GNI to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals?
And what about the infamous Freedom Party (PVV), which it must be remembered is technically neither a party nor very free, and its democratic potential (or lack thereof)? The Party, which perhaps mockingly included ‘direct democracy’ as a policy point in its party programme, is led in authoritarian fashion by an undisputable leader (Geert Wilders) who stubbornly refuses to democratise 'His' party. The PVV has in fact only one member (Wilders himself). An influential member of the House of Representatives for the PVV, Hero Brinkman, recently decided to resign ↑ from his parliamentary post mainly for reasons of democratic deficit within the Party. His resignation allowed him finally the freedom (clearly lacking within the ‘Freedom’ Party) to provide valuable insight into how the party is run from within. Most remarkable perhaps is the apparently large amount of financial support which the PVV attracts and receives from American anti-Islamic think-tanks. The lack of transparency, for which the Party constantly accuses the EU institutions, within the Party and its decision to resist any form of disclosure as to the details of the Party’s finances prevents any form of democratic accountability towards both its own voters and the electorate at large. CVs of numerous Party delegates suffer from questionable records and it should come to no real surprise for those even slightly familiar with the PVV and its policies that many have labelled the party as politically very ‘dangerous’.
The sad fact remains however that the minority coalition and the PVV continue to disregard the principles (of accountability, transparency and democratic legality) that normally ought to constitute modern state legitimacy. The coalition (which after Brinkman’s departure no longer has an official majority) instead ignores its democratic responsibilities to the Dutch electorate and has unashamedly expressed its preference to rather accommodate and fulfil the neo-liberal requirements set by the EU. In the meanwhile, unemployment is expected to rise and research has shown that Dutch confidence in the economy has reached new lows ↑ . Other data shows that one in eight Dutch households finds it difficult to make ends meet and demand for food banks has never been as high .
The question that arises then is who gets the blame for the ongoing social effects of the coalition’s love for neo-liberal principles? The culprits are rather conveniently the Eastern European migrants, the Greeks, the leftists and of course those that dare to associate themselves with Islam. The neo-liberal reformers in the coalition can however do little more than adhere to the wishes of their rightwing populist partner. In the meantime, rumours abound of Ministers ↑ of State that risk being fired for not walking in-line with the PVV anti-immigration agenda, while the Premier refuses to abandon or even confront his irreconcilable project of a neo-liberal nationalism.
Jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien, jusqu’ici tout va bien…