The Polarization of Dutch Politics

The land of the “polder model” is no more. Whereas Dutch politics during the last decades of the twentieth century were dominated by a culture of consensus, the rift between the political left and the political right has widened in recent years, culminating in an almost perfect split between conservative and leftist parties.

The division became evident after last year’s parliamentary election when Dutch voters swung the right and made Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, known for its anti-establishment and anti-Islamist rhetoric, larger than the traditional ruling party, the Christian Democrats.

The election was narrowly won by the liberals. They formed a coalition with the Christian Democrats which won a one-seat majority in the lower house of parliament from Wilders.

Even if the Freedom Party isn’t formally part of the government, cooperating with Wilders, who has characterized Islam as a totalitarian ideology and proposed to ban the burqa and the Quran, has been controversial. Hundreds of thousands of traditional Christian Democrat voters defected to his party last summer but among conservative party members, a third opposed the coalition.

Last month’s provincial elections probably left the ruling coalition one seat short of an outright majority in the upper house of parliament but it is likely to count on the vote of a minority party on the religious right. To humor these orthodox Protestants, the government will not relax laws governing Sunday shopping as the liberals would like and consider reform of current abortion law.

Abortion is legal in the Netherlands into the 24th week of pregnancy and subject to a five day waiting period. The government may lower that threshold to 21 weeks.

While orthodox Christians and liberals are far apart on cultural issues, including euthanasia and gay marriage, they share a vision of limited government and like to be tough on crime. Indeed all four parties in the Netherlands’ new conservative alliance want less interference in people’s private lives and enterprise and less involvement from Brussels in Dutch immigration policy.

Ahead of the election, Prime Minister Mark Rutte called upon voters to support the coalition, even if they wouldn’t elect members of his own party. Wilders similarly urged voters to provide the three parties with a majority.

Faced with a €18 billion shortfall, Rutte’s cabinet has proposed deep spending cuts that affect welfare programs and public-sector salaries. The opposition considers the budget cuts imbalanced and unfair and has suggested that the government raise taxes on high incomes and corporations to mend the deficit.

In recent polls, the Labor Party was almost as popular as the liberals but its opposition to labor and housing market reform has occasionally alienated it from minority parties on the left. The country’s Green party and centrist Democrats actually voted with the ruling coalition in support of a Dutch police training mission in Afghanistan when Wilders and his Freedom Party opposed further military intervention overseas.

While Labor leader Job Cohen celebrated the results of the most recent election as a victory for the opposition, with five very different sizable parties on the left, ranging from socialists to left leaning liberals, it seems unlikely that he will be able to unite them on major issues.

The coalition on the right has worked in favor of the liberals, who, for the first time in a hundred years, could deliver the prime minister, and in favor of Geert Wilders, whose party is growing more solid and influential. As third partners, the Christian Democrats have not fared well.

After it was formed in the late 1970s as an alliance of religious parties, the Christian Democratic Appeal has dominated Dutch politics and governed almost constantly except during the 1990s when Labor and the liberal party joined in a “purple” coalition.

The party’s middle position, once regarded as an asset, has left it without a clear ideology, fueling debate between its conservative majority and parliamentarians who favor a return to the center.

For decades Christian politics have been in decline while party loyalty in general has dwindled. In seems unlikely that in the newly polarized constellation of Dutch politics, the Christian Democrats could prosper anew as a broad centrist movement. With the liberals and Geert Wilders outflanking them on the right, it chances of recovering altogether seem slim.

Libya Releases Captured Dutch Navy Crew

The three Dutch aviators captured during a rescue operation in Libya nearly two weeks ago were set to be released Thursday. One of the sons of the country’s longtime ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi announced this.

Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said that the Dutch navy personnel would be handed over to “the Maltese and Greeks” in an interview with Reuters. A Greek military airplane was scheduled to pick up nationals Thursday evening.

“We captured the first NATO soldiers,” Saif al-Islam Gaddafi said. “We are sending them back home. But we are still keeping their helicopter.”

The three were captured by forces loyal to the Gaddafi regime while attempting to rescue a Dutch engineer and a Swedish citizen the city of Sirte, centered halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast. They deployed in a Lynx helicopter from the HNLMS Tromp.

Libyan state television has aired footage of the Dutch helicopter and members of its crew along with weapons they carried, noting that they did not have permission to enter Libyan airspace.

Dutch defense minister Hans Hillen said earlier this week that the three were hold in “good condition” in Libya. Authorities would not comment on their possible release.

Civil unrest has swept the North African country for weeks. While rebel forces were in control of major cities in the east, Gaddafi remained defiant in the capital city of Tripoli. His son has warned of “civil war” if the turmoil endured. Heavy force was deployed against anti-government militias in the city of Az Zawiyah, near Tripoli, and in the oil port of Ra’s Lanuf. More than a thousand Libyans were estimated to have been killed in the violence.

NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on Thursday to discuss the possibility of military intervention. Rebels have asked for the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent the regime from halting their advance on the capital with aerial bombardments. Ra’s Lanuf and oil industry in the east of Libya had been attacked from the air while opposition members reported helicopter gunships shooting into crowds during the early days of the revolt.

While the alliance agreed to intensify patrolling in the Mediterranean Sea and provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, it would not commit to a no-fly zone without approval from the United Nations. France and the United Kingdom were working on a Security Council resolution that would authorize such action.

Three Dutch Marines Captured in Libya

Three Dutch navy personnel were captured by Libyan forces loyal to embattled ruler Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi on Sunday while trying to extract two European nationals from the North African country. The Netherlands’ Defense Ministry reported the incident on Thursday and said that “intensive diplomatic negotiations” were underway with Libyan authorities about the release of their men.

The crew were trying to evacuate a Dutch and European Union citizen from the city of Sirte, centered halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi on the Mediterranean coast. They deployed in a Lynx helicopter from the HNLMS Tromp which is anchored off the Libyan coast.

The Tromp, which was commissioned in 2003 and had been participating in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa until last month, was underway to make port in February when anti-government protests erupted in Libya. The frigate was deployed to the Gulf of Sidra to potentially assist in the safe return of Dutch nationals.

Since civil unrest rocked Libya three weeks ago, rebel forces have claimed control of major cities in the eastern part of the country. Libya’s longtime ruler Colonel Gaddafi was able to cling to power by deploying heavy military force against demonstrators but his realm of control seemed limited to the capital of Tripoli by the time the Dutch mounted their rescue effort.

Libyan state television aired footage of the Dutch helicopter and members of its crew along with weapons they carried, noting that they did not have permission to enter Libyan airspace.

The Dutch Defense Ministry would not describe the captured aviators as “hostages.” Libya and the Netherlands are not in a state of war.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that news of the men’s capture had been kept quiet for several days to advance talks on their release. “Everything is being done to make sure the crew gets home,” he said.

With fellow EU member states, the Netherlands have enacted sanctions against the Gaddafi regime, including a weapons embargo and the freezing of financial assets abroad. The International Criminal Court, which is seated in The Hague, has warned Gaddafi and members of his family that they could face war crime charges if the state violence against protesters continues.

The two European nationals the Dutch crew was trying to extract from Libya were released by authorities and able to flee the country.

Dutch Government Denied Upper House Majority

The Netherlands’ ruling coalition probably failed to secure a majority in the upper house of parliament on Wednesday. Without ample support in the Senate, the government’s austerity plans could be imperiled.

Faced with a €18 billion shortfall, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s cabinet has proposed deep spending cuts that affect welfare programs and public workers’ salaries. The opposition, led by Labor, considers the budget cuts imbalanced and unfair and has suggested that the government raise taxes on high incomes and corporations to mend the deficit.

After Dutch voters swung to the right in June’s parliamentary election, the country’s Christian Democrats and liberal party formed a government that won a slim majority from Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the lower house of parliament.

The Christian Democrats were decimated in last year’s election. Many of their supporters, particularly in the south, voted Wilders instead.

In Wednesday’s provincial elections, the Christian Democrats had again to brace for major defeats. The provincial representatives will elect the members of the Senate in May. Exit polls predicted that the party could lose as many as half of its upper chamber seats.

Even if the Freedom Party isn’t formally part of the government, cooperating with Wilders, who has characterized Islam as a totalitarian ideology and proposed to ban the burqa and the Quran, has been controversial. Hundreds of thousands of traditional Christian Democrat voters defected to his party last summer but among conservative party members, a third opposed the coalition.

Without a solid majority in the Senate, the government will have to try to win votes from the opposition for its legislative agenda.

Earlier this year, it managed to elicit support from two minority parties for sending a police training mission to Afghanistan — a mission Wilders’ Freedom Party opposed.

Plans to rein in mounting health-care costs and welfare programs are deeply unpopular on the left however. Prime Minister Rutte may garner support from minority senate parties and independents on the political right but even if the opposition is willing to seek compromise, it will be difficult for him to balance the state budget during his government’s four year term.

Dutch, Germans Extend Afghanistan Presence

The German parliament voted to extend the country’s military presence in northern Afghanistan by one year despite the mission’s mounting unpopularity at home. The Dutch legislature approved a police training mission for the same region.

Germany currently has 4,860 service personnel deployed in Afghanistan as part of the international peacekeeping force ISAF. Extending the mandate to January 2012, parliament set the maximum troop number at 5,350.

Reiterating NATO’s commitment to stay in Afghanistan for another three years before transferring security responsibility, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle promised to “make sure that by 2014, there is no longer any need for German troops in Afghanistan.”

Germany is ISAF’s third largest troop contributor and lead nation in Regional Command North which includes the provinces of Badakhshan, Baghlan, Kunduz and Takhār. Forty-five German soldiers and police officers have been killed in Afghanistan.

The German constitution prohibits military deployment abroad. Following an airstrike on two captured fuel tankers in September 2009, which killed more than a hundred civilians, Germany reclassified the Afghanistan deployment last year as an “armed conflict within the parameters of international law.”

The Netherlands had been involved in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war and deployed forces in the southern province of Orūzgān in 2006. Dutch ground and air forces totalled almost 2,000 personnel which took part in combat and reconstruction operations along British and Canadians troops in the south.

Last year, the country’s ruling coalition collapsed when the Labor Party refused to extend the Dutch presence in Afghanistan. The new minority government, composed of Christian Democrats and liberals, favored a 545 strong police training mission to Kunduz which is supposed to be relatively safer than the south.

Because the ruling parties have no majority in parliament, they had to concede to demands of the opposition for its support. Three centrist parties eventually endorsed the mission, after Prime Minister Mark Rutte pledged that Dutch forces would not exceed their mandate and participate in combat operations alongside newly trained Afghan police and paramilitary troops.

The Rise of a New Right in Europe

Old-school socialists may allege that the credit crunch once and for all proved that free-market capitalism and globalization had failed yet across Europe, a new generation of liberal and conservative politicians is stepping up who favor even smaller government.

In the wake of the financial crisis, social democrat and labor parties across Europe lost ground to both their larger conservative counterparts as well as third or fourth party liberals who championed deregulation and austerity. As countries braced for spending cuts this summer, from Britain to the Netherlands to the Czech Republic, voters had greater confidence in candidates who were frank about the need to slash public spending than politicians on the left who resisted any suggestion of welfare reform. Read more “The Rise of a New Right in Europe”

Italy, Netherlands Reconsider JSF Purchases

As the costs of the F-35 fighter aircraft continue to mount while the Joint Strike Fighter program is plagued with delays both Italy and the Netherlands are reportedly considering to cut their F-35 purchases.

Across Europe countries have to make cutbacks in defense spending. Italy and the Netherlands each prepare for many billions in spending cuts while British armed forces are confronted with painful austerity measures.

The United Kingdom’s likely reduction in F-35 purchases has prompted the Italians to reconsider their own plans. Without British participation, the costs of the project would likely increase even further, especially for the so-called Level 2 partners, Italy and the Netherlands. They are scheduled to contribute $1 billion and $800 million respectively while Britain was expected to cover approximately 10 percent of the planned development costs, or $2.5 billion.

According to the Italian defense undersecretary Guido Crosetto, the country may decide not to acquire the F-35B vertical landing variant and only buy the F-35A conventional version. The Italian air force originally envisaged buying forty vertical takeoff JSFs to replace its AMX fighter bombers alongside 69 conventional aircraft to replace its aging Tornados.

The future participation of the Dutch in the project has been in doubt before when the ruling Labor Party refused to commit to the purchase of 85 F-35As earlier this year. Since, a new, conservative government has taken power but it, too, is confronted with rising costs.

Defense minster Hans Hillen publicly complained that the cost of individual aircraft had mounted with 20 percent in parliament today. He suggested that the Netherlands may not be able to afford the 85 fighters it pledged to acquire.

Raising Europe’s Budget Controversial

The European Union may have to prepare for possibly an intense struggle over Europe’s budget for the next fiscal year. Commission and Parliament want more money; member states that are reining in spending object and even propose to spend less on Europe.

Although the EU costs less than 1 percent of the national income of all 27 member states combined, conservative parties throughout Europe, since recently in government, often campaigned on reducing contributions to Brussels. The British especially, who face huge spending cuts, are critical of raising Europe’s budget. Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to voice harsh criticism during the EU summit later this week and can count on support from Mark Rutte, prime minister of the new Dutch government. Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland and Sweden are similarly skeptical of spending more on Europe this year.

While all of Europe braces for spending cuts, the European Commission proposed a budget of €130 billion which is an almost 6 percent increase compared to last year.

Whether the Euroskeptics manage to get their way is far from certain. A majority in the European Parliament appears opposed to austerity and believes that in these times of recession, governments should invest more, not spend less. The seven aforementioned countries opposed to raising the EU’s budget next year are three votes short of a majority in the European Council.

Russian Bombers Intercepted Over North Sea

Two F-16s of the Royal Dutch Air Force intercepted a pair of Russian bomber airplanes over the North Sea on Tuesday. Two Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bombers, commonly referred to by their NATO designation “Bears,” were escorted by the Dutch fighter planes for some time.

Monday night, fighter jets of the British, Danish and German air forces were first to respond to the presence of the Russian bombers. The Dutch F-16s, part of the Quick Reaction Alert stationed near the city of Leeuwarden in the north of the Netherlands, were called to action Tuesday afternoon.

Russian bombers last penetrated European airspace in March when two Tupolev 160s were intercepted by British Tornados off the northwest coast of Scotland. The Russians have been conducting over a dozen of such flights over northern parts of the Atlantic and the Arctic in recent months. Last September it was reported that Russian submarines had been noticed stalking Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines.

Tension has been rising in the Arctic for quite some time. With ice caps melting and vast natural resources becoming readily available for exploitation, Moscow is determined to claim a stake in the region, planting its flag beneath the Pole in August 2007 and patrolling the area with bomber planes and warships in good Cold War fashion. It has also invested over a billion dollars in the expansion of its port of Murmansk which is supposed to double its capacity by 2015.

Under existing Under Nations sea law, the eight Arctic states have jurisdiction over waters extending twelve nautical miles from their shore while their exclusive economic zones stretch up to two hundred miles into the Arctic Ocean. Russia counts for the bulk of Arctic land and has made its designs abundantly clear in recent years.

The Arctic is estimated to contain about 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and so much as 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered natural gas. Together this represents 22 percent of all untapped but technically recoverable hydrocarbons. Over 80 percent of these resources lie offshore.

Fear of Change Propels Populists to Power

Throughout Europe, fringe movements have been able to maneuver themselves into the political spectrum, rallying anti-immigration forces and a renewed sense of nationalism with considerable electoral success. While the world is globalizing and Europe becoming one, millions of people, from Finland to Italy, want to have no part of multiculturalism and change. Read more “Fear of Change Propels Populists to Power”