Four-Party Talks to Form Dutch Government Collapse

Negotiations to form a coalition government with the Green party break down. What happens next?

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte negotiates with other party leaders in The Hague
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte negotiates with other party leaders in The Hague (Tweede Kamer)
  • Four-party talks in the Netherlands to form a coalition government have collapsed.
  • Edith Schippers, the outgoing health minister who led the negotiations, told reporters immigration was the most divisive issue.
  • She added that the parties also struggled to find common ground on climate and income policy.
  • The liberal party of caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte had been negotiating with the Christian Democrats, liberal Democrats and Greens since the election in March.
  • The obvious next step is to swap the Greens for the Christian Union.
Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20177:13 PM

Next step

The obvious next step is to swap the Greens for the Christian Union.

Unlike the Greens, it did not gains seats in the election. But the small party’s views on crucial policy areas like labor and tax reform align with those of Rutte’s liberals and the Christian Democrats.

For the liberal Democrats, such a pact would be harder to swallow. They are secular, socially liberal and pro-European; the Christian Union is conservative and Euroskeptic. The parties could clash on issues like organ donation and political integration in the eurozone.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20177:18 PM

“No guilty party”

All four party leaders have emphasized that the decision to break off the talks was made unanimously.

“There is no guilty party,” said the liberal Democrats’ Alexander Pechtold.

He added it was difficult to imagine an alternative. As noted, a coalition with the Christian Union would be far from perfect from his point of view. All other options involve not four but five parties.

The absence of recriminations suggests the four might try again.

After the 1994 election, the first attempt at forming a “purple” coalition between the liberals, liberal Democrats and Labor also failed after six weeks, yet those three parties eventually ended up in government together when they couldn’t find a better option.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20177:25 PM

Christian Democrats the main obstacle

Tom-Jan Meeus wrote in NRC Handelsblad last week that the Greens were willing to compromise on socioeconomic policies in order to “score” on climate and energy.

Their health, income and labor policies are far removed from those of the other three parties. I expected that would be the main obstacle, but it wasn’t, according to Meeus. It were the Christian Democrats.

Meeus pointed out they stood little to gain from a collaboration with the Greens.

The Christian Democrats gained seats at the expense of the nativist Freedom Party in the most recent election by emphasizing cultural and identity issues. They picked sides in what the Atlantic Sentinel has called Europe’s “blue-red culture war” — and they picked the other side from the liberal Democrats and Greens. To then form a government with those parties might be seen as a betrayal by reactionary voters.

The Christian Democrats are also popular with farmers, who mistrust the Green party’s environmentalism.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20177:31 PM

Freedom Party still unlikely to come to power

Geert Wilders is delighted the talks with the Greens have failed and tweets that his Freedom Party — the second largest in parliament — is available for future talks.

Few other parties are interested in forming a government with the nationalists, however, and I frankly doubt Wilders himself is interested. As I wrote here before the election, he has gone out of his way to antagonize other parties and avoid responsibility.

Populist parties like his don’t do well when they need to make good on their (unreasonable) promises. Better to stay in opposition and keep one’s hands clean.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20177:42 PM

Socialist leader tries to divide parties

Socialist Party Emile Roemer has said in a radio interview that “of course” there must be a guilty party: “There were apparently parties that came face to face.”

The national broadcaster NOS reports that Rutte and the Christian Democrats were on one side of the immigration issue and the liberal Democrats and Greens on the other. Which would make sense.

Roemer insists that parliament must be told exactly how the four parties split, but that is self-serving. He has an interest in reminding the liberal Democrats and Greens about all the things they don’t like about the two right-wing parties; he needs them for a left-wing pact.

An all-left coalition is still highly unlikely, though. It would require the participation of the Labor Party, which suffered an historic defeat in March, as well as the Christian Democrats, who have almost nothing in common with the far-left Socialists.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20177:56 PM

Christian compassion

If immigration was really the most difficult issue, swapping the Greens for the Christian Union may not solve everything.

Journalist Tom-Jan Meeus points out on Twitter that the small party’s immigration policy is rooted in Christian compassion.

On the other hand, their voters tend to take a hardliner line on this and their platform does say there are “limits” to what the Netherlands and Europe can do.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20178:08 PM

Doing the math

A coalition of liberals, liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats and the Christian Union would have only 76 out of 150 seats in the lower house of parliament. They could probably get informal support from the borderline-theocretic Reformed Political Party, which has three seats, but it’s still a razor-thin majority. It would mean any one lawmaker could hold the government hostage.

It’s the same story in the upper chamber: the four parties would have 38 out of 75 seats there.

For comparison, a four-party coalition with the Greens would have 85 seats in the lower chamber and 39 in the Senate. That’s why it was explored first.

A coalition with the Labor Party would have a comfortable eighty seats in the lower house and 43 in the Senate. But for Labor to govern when it was punished by left-wing voters for governing with the liberals would strike many as disrespectful of the electorate. This is a last-resort option at best.

For a right-wing government, you would need the Freedom Party. For a left-wing government, you would need the Christian Democrats. Neither is likely.

Another option is for the liberals, liberal Democrats and Christian Democrats to form a minority government. They are only five seats short of a majority in the lower chamber and one seat short of a majority in the Senate. Rutte is used to making deals. He led a minority right-wing government from 2010 to 2012 and his second government, with Labor, didn’t have a majority in the upper chamber.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20178:42 PM

What are the next steps concretely?

Schippers is due to submit a report to the speaker of parliament, Khadija Arib, within days, formally notifying her about the talks’ failure.

Arib is expected to call a debate in parliament within one week of receiving the report, which could be as early as later this week.

A majority in parliament then decides who should be Schippers’ successor and explore the next possible coalition, which will presumably be one between the liberals, liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats and Christian Union.

It is likely those four parties will coordinate beforehand on whom to name as informateur to lead the negotiations.

Nick Ottens Nick Ottens May 15, 20179:56 PM

Talks with Christian Union may not be easier

Robert Giebels also doubts that talks with the Christian Union will be much easier, writing in de Volkskrant that the party’s immigration policy is still closer to that of the liberal Democrats than the two center-right parties and that its climate and income policies are similar to the Greens.

Giebels points to another problematic issue: euthanasia. The liberal Democrats want to make assisted suicide legal for seniors who aren’t ill but feel their life is complete. The Christian Union is adamantly opposed to this.

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