Opinion

Butter on Their Heads

Let the Dutch Christian Democrats and Labor look in the mirror before blaming Mark Rutte.

Wopke Hoekstra
Dutch finance minister Wopke Hoekstra in The Hague, September 15, 2020 (Ministerie van Financiën/Martijn Beekman)

There’s a Dutch expression for hypocrisy that doesn’t have a direct translation in English: you accuse someone of having “butter on their head”. It means they better avoid the heat lest it stream down their face.

Party leaders Wopke Hoekstra of the Christian Democrats and Lilianne Ploumen of Labor stepped into the heat on Saturday, when they addressed their respective party congresses (held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic). It wasn’t long before the butter on their heads started to melt.

Both accused Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in power for ten years, of dismantling the Dutch welfare state.

Just one problem: their parties have each governed with Rutte for five of the last ten years.

Scandal

The Christian Democrats and Labor, which are polling at 11-13 and 7-8 percent support, respectively, against 26-28 percent for Rutte’s liberal party (of which I am a member), argue for a more caring state in the wake of a scandal in the tax agency. More than 20,000 parents, many of immigrant descent, were falsely accused by tax authorities of cheating on their child-care benefits. A study found that “fundamental principles of the rule of law” had been violated. Rutte’s entire government resigned over the scandal.

Because elections had already been scheduled for March 17, Rutte and all but one of his cabinet ministers have stayed on in a caretaker capacity.

The scandal was a wake-up call for all political parties. Rutte’s has traditionally taken the hardest line on fraud, but parties of the left, right and center voted for rules that forced parents to pay back tens of thousands of euros in child support if they had neglected to report changes in their income or incorrectly filled out a form.

Hoekstra has been finance minister for three years and, with Rutte, resisted a coronavirus recovery fund in the EU that would be wholly composed of grants. (In the end, half the €750 billion fund was made up of grants and half of loans.) Now he faults the Dutch government for not being more generous toward its own citizens.

Ploumen’s predecessor as Labor Party leader, Lodewijk Asscher, was the minister in charge of social affairs when thousands of families were financially ruined by the state. Asscher — to his credit — has resigned, but it makes Ploumen’s insistence that the scandal reveals the “bankruptcy of right-liberal thinking” a little incredible.

Risks

I argued earlier, citing NRC columnist Tom-Jan Meeus, that broadsides against liberalism carry two risks for other party leaders:

  1. Unless they are willing to (re)nationalize entire sectors of the economy (only some are), voters are bound to be disappointed if grand promises of a more caring state boil down to minor reforms.
  2. Repudiating liberalizations that were carried out with cross-party support feeds into the far-right narrative that the Netherlands is governed by an unaccountable “party cartel” that isn’t responsive to voters. It is.

Consensus

There is broad consensus in the Netherlands that government needs to do more to cope with the coronavirus, with climate change and to ensure that child care, health care and housing remain, or become more, affordable. Rutte’s party’s has shifted to the center on all of these issues.

No party argues for keeping the Netherlands’ deficit under the EU’s 3-percent-of-GDP ceiling, which was the obsession of the last crisis. Debt as a share of economic output is projected to rise from 49 to 61 percent this year.

The major parties agree the national government needs to take a more proactive role in alleviating the Netherlands’ housing shortage, whether by building more homes outside existing urban centers, eliminating rental tax for housing associations or allowing those associations to evict high-income renters.

Parties also agree contractors enjoy too little security compared to full-time employees, although those of the left would make it more expensive for companies to hire temp and freelance workers whereas the Christian Democrats and liberals would make it cheaper to hire workers on a full-time contract.

All parties agree child-care, health-insurance and housing benefits, which are tied to income, need to be reformed. Options include converting benefits into tax credits and making child care, health care and rent cheaper.

Only the parties to the left of Labor want to make child care free of charge. Child-care centers are adamantly opposed to changes that reek of nationalization, pointing out that they are among the best in Europe and turning the system on its head would be unwise.

It’s the same with health care, although Labor — but not the Christian Democrats — argues for a comprehensive overhaul. The Netherlands’ mixed public-private system is consistently ranked the best in the EU, yet left-wing parties want to abolish private health insurance and return to a Medicare-for-all-like system that existed until 2006 and was plagued by waiting lists.

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