Political Deadlock in Belgium and Holland

Nearly three months after both Northwestern European states held their parliamentary elections, Belgium and the Netherlands are still without a government. This week, in both countries, negotiations over a new ruling coalition broke down, leaving neither with a clear political resolution for the foreseeable future.

June’s incredibly close elections in the Netherlands decimated the traditional ruling party, the Christian Democrats, while providing neither the right nor the left with a clear majority. The liberal party, which came out largest by just one seat compared to Labor, has spearheaded the negotiations for a new government up until now, attempting, most recently, to come to a coalition with both Christian Democrats and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party. Wilders is widely condemned on the political left for his Islamophobic, anti-immigration rhetoric but has fared well in recent years, more than doubling his seats in parliament in the last election.

Although much of Wilders’ support, particularly in the south of the country, comes from Christian Democrat voters, several conservative party leaders, among them three former prime ministers, have objected to the notion of governing with his platform in recent weeks. Former health secretary and current number two in the party, Ab Klink, channeled their concerns and persuaded two fellow parliamentarians to block the negotiations. Party leader Maxime Verhagen, simultaneously serving as caretaker foreign minister, ultimately managed to restore unity in his faction but lost Wilders’ confidence in the process.

Liberal party leader and likely future prime minister Mark Rutte has proposed to pin down a coalition agreement himself now and seek support from other parties later. The notion is not without precedent. Wim Kok, before he became prime minister for the Labor Party in 1994, attempted a similar method and was successful in forming the country’s first Purple coalition, bringing together social democrats and liberals in a single government. It depends on the recommendations of other party leaders and Queen Beatrix whether Rutte gets his way or another, conventional round of negotiations follows first.

In either event, amassing sufficient support for a majority government under liberal leadership will prove difficult to accomplish. Few of the parties on the left, which together hold about half of the votes in parliament, are willing to implement the liberals’ rigorous spending cuts on health care and social security. Each day that the country remains without a government, the Netherlands’ public debt mounts with some €100 million. The next government, the liberals say, has to find some €18 billion in permanent spending cuts on a budget that equals more than 45 percent of GDP.

In Belgium the political uncertainty is all the greater. June’s elections there brought Flemish nationalists to power who are demanding greater autonomy for the northern, Dutch-speaking part of the country. Compared to Flanders, southern, French-speaking Wallonia is relatively backward. Unemployment is twice that of Flanders while the region is responsible for but a third of Belgium’s total economic output.

While in Flanders, the political right — the nationalists and Christian Democrats — won the elections, in Wallonia, the socialists are in the majority. These two camps, supplemented with smaller parties from the center, have to reach an agreement on the federal level to form a new government.

Socialist leader and chief negotiator Elio Di Rupo offered the Flemish significant financial reform, including a transfer of competences from federal to regional governments worth some €15 billion. “All conditions were there for the center of gravity to shift from the federal state to the federated entities,” he declared. But the nationalist balked at parallel requests to give Brussels — an independent, bilingual region within Flanders of which the population is largely French speaking — a fixed subsidy of €250 million to alleviate part of its massive debt burden.

Di Rupo finally tendered his resignation as negotiator with King Albert II on Friday after several attempts to reach a compromise failed, complaining, in a press conference, that “not all Dutch-speaking politicians understand the sensitivities of the French speaking. They will not approve of an accord that heralds the impoverishment of Brussels and Wallonia,” he predicted. The Flemish, on the other hand, are largely tired of effectively subsidizing their southern neighbors for their lack of productivity. Any new administration will have to enact major legal and financial reform to further separate the two nations but with the political landscape so starkly divided, it seems unlikely that a government composed for a multitude of parties will have the mandate to do so.

Among the Dutch, the notion that Flanders should, once again, become part of the Netherlands is widely entertained these days. Modern day Belgium was part of the Netherlands between 1815 and 1839 when its secession was recognized in the Treaty of London. The Flemish now have reason to retort that their neighbors ought to get their own house in order before contemplating such schemes of reunion.

Dutch Voters Swing to the Right

Parliamentarian elections in the Netherlands on Wednesday have left the political landscape in the small European country unusually strained. Until late into the night, the results were too close to call with both the liberal party and Labor vying for the top position. Ultimately, the liberals under Mark Rutte’s leadership prevailed and won 31 seats; former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen lost three for Labor compared to their last presence in parliament and ended up with thirty seats.

The traditional ruling party, the Christian Democrats, were hit hard by the votes, losing almost half of their seats in the lower house of parliament. Outgoing prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende announced his resignation as party leader after the firsts results poured on. He will continue to lead the government until a new cabinet assumes power.

The uncontested champion of the election turned out to be right-wing politician Geert Wilders who more than doubled his Freedom Party’s support. Preelection polls gave Wilders around eighteen seats. He ultimately won 24, making him the third largest political party of the Netherlands, before the Christian Democrats.

A new government will be hard pressed not to involve Wilders in spite of his staunch positions on Islam and immigration which have been disavowed by many on the left. Wilders campaigned on his promise to curb the supposed Islamification of the Netherlands and has proposed banning the Quran, the burqa and taxing Muslim women wearing headscarfs. Even the liberal party, politically closest to Wilders, has described his rhetoric as extreme.

A right-wing coalition of Christian Democrats, liberals and Geert Wilders now maintains a slim majority in the lower house of parliament but would be prevented from passing legislation because the latter has no seats in the Senate. Together, the Christian Democrats and the liberal party have 35 seats in the upper legislative body; three short of an absolute majority.

A broad, “Purple” coalition, formed by Labor, liberals and two parties from the political center seems most likely at this stage, although the liberal party repeatedly attacked Labor during the campaign over its supposed unwillingness to enact necessary economic reforms. The next government will have to find almost €30 billion in budget cuts. The liberals have proposed to slash the foreign aid budget and reform social security. Labor fears that that will usher in the end of the welfare state and has warned that when the liberals have their way, hundreds of thousands will be reduced to poverty.

Even a “Purple” coalition has no majority in the Senate and would have to rely on conservative support to pass legislation. A “government of national unity” has been raised as a possibility. The three mainstream parties, Christian Democrats, Labor and the liberals, maintain comfortable majorities in both houses of parliament. Whether the Christian Democrats, after suffering such heavy losses, will want to run the risk of being overshadowed by the two larger parties is doubtful though.

Dutch Election Too Close To Call

For the first time in almost a hundred years, the Dutch right-wing liberal party may emerge as the country’s largest parliamentary faction from Wednesday’s election. But as results poured in on election night, the liberals were unexpectedly engaged in a fierce struggle for power with Labor.

The outcome was anticipated by preelection polls which had the liberals leading by four to seven seats compared to their adversary, the Labor Party. In the final days before the election, however, the socialists were able to narrow the gap. Exit polls released on Wednesday had the liberals and Labor competing for the top position.

The Christian Democrats, in government since 2002, lost almost half of their seats in parliament. Outgoing prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende was quick to announce his resignation as party leader in the face of poor results. He will stay on as caretaker premier until a new government is formed.

The liberal party has been in government many times in recent decades, always as a minority partner in conjunction with either Labor or the Christian Democrats. They acquired a reputation for fiscal austerity, during the 1980s when they worked under Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers and passed major reforms, and in part because liberal finance ministers have often been successful. Gerrit Zalm, for instance, has been the country’s longest serving finance minister, in office between 1994 and 2002 and again from 2003 to 2007 under Balkenende.

The global economic downturn and the near bankruptcy of Greece have driven Dutch voters to the political right. The liberals promise to reduce the deficit and prevent the national debt from rising further by reducing government bureaucracy, foreign aid and welfare spending.

With the country’s pervasive welfare state under threat, the liberal party’s foremost contender, Labor, has shifted further to the left under the leadership of former Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen. Cohen and his party portrayed the liberals’ agenda as “cold” and “disastrous” for low-income families but apparently to little avail.

After a spike in popularity last month when Cohan announced his candidacy, Labor lost seats in parliament, bringing it down to 31. Cohen proved unable to rehabilitate Labor as fiscally responsible and politically reliable after his party pulled out of the ruling coalition last February.

Nonetheless, as the liberals seemed to head for victory in the weeks running up to the election, many voters on the left opted to support Labor over fringe parties.

Another politician who has managed to amass popular support is Geert Wilders, renowned for his populist rhetoric and staunch positions on immigration and Islam. A former liberal party parliamentarian, Wilders first ran on his own ticket in 2006 and has since campaigned to curb the supposed Islamification of the Netherlands. He favors banning the Quran and has proposed legislation that would have taxed Muslim women wearing headscarfs. Wilders’ party performed well in March’s municipal elections and more than doubled its seats in parliament today.

Liberal party leader and possibly the next prime minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte previously announced that a new coalition should be formed within less than a month after the election, allowing his government to submit its own budget before September.

With the political landscape so fragmented, it seems unlikely that a new majority can be found within mere weeks however. The liberals won’t like to work with Labor but may have no other choice: a coalition with the Christian Democrats and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party would be just one or two seats short of a majority. A broad “Purple” coalition, formed by Labor, liberals and two parties from the political center is favored by different politicians. A government of national unity, supported by the three largest parties, has also been proposed.

A minority government, though unusual in the Netherlands, may well be possible. Wilders has already announced that he might be persuaded to sustain a right-wing administration. Smaller Christian parties on the right could help achieve a majority. Political analysts are skeptical about the liberals’ and the Christian Democrats’ willingness to be seen as cooperating with Wilders however. They would risk alienating moderate voters and end up strengthening their political foe — Labor.

Dutch Liberal Party Leading in Polls

With less than two weeks to go before Dutch voters head for the polls, and half of the electorate still describing itself as undecided, all political parties in the Netherlands are ramping up their campaigns with a vigor quite unprecedented in Dutch politics.

Where polling figures in the wake of local elections in March revealed political uncertainty before anything else and no three party majority seemed possible at the time, the situation today is slightly less complicated as for the first time in their postwar history, the liberals will likely claim victory and possibly deliver the prime minister.

Incumbent Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende hasn’t done well in the polls nor in the three televised debates that have taken place so far. His party of Christian conservatives currenty holds 41 seats in parliament; the polls give them somewhere between 21 and 26 instead.

Labor, which pulled out of its coalition with the Christian Democrats last February because it refused to prolong the Netherlands’ participation in ISAF, nominated former Amsterdam major Job Cohen to lead the party into the election. He managed to more than double the socialists’ popularity in the polls but has performed poorly in the debates since and is steadily losing support.

According to all the polls, the liberal party, led by 43 year-old Mark Rutte, wins the most seats, from 22 in parliament today to somewhere between 33 and 37 depending on the polling bureau.

Rutte was written off as a lightweight when he took over the party leadership in 2006 but has built credibility in recent months by promising to cut government spending and lower taxes once in power. The liberals are traditionally regarded as the party best equipped to balance the budget and have repeatedly delivered the country’s finance minister in the past. With deep spending cuts ahead, the party favors small government, individual responsibility and economic modernization. If they maintain their current support, the liberals may well turn out to deliver the prime minister for the first time in almost a hundred years after June 9.

The liberal party also campaigns on law and order issues and a promise to curb non-Western immigration. It has to compete with the more radical faction of Geert Wilders on this front who is renowned for his strong positions on reducing the supposedly growing cultural influence of Islam. His Freedom Party enjoyed a spike in popularity around the time of local elections in March but didn’t manage to maintain its support when economic issues came to dominate the agenda. People don’t seem to care so much about what Wilders describes as the “Islamization” of Dutch society anymore. They care more about jobs and being able to afford their mortgage.

The liberals’ pledge not to allow any change in home mortgage interest deduction is something many homeowners like to hear while unemployment hovers near 6 percent.

A center-right coalition of liberals and Christian Democrats appears most likely at this stage. Rutte has more or less rejected the possibility of coming to a government with Labor while the parties on the left do not hold a majority on their own. A government on the right does need support from the center however unless it wants to subject itself to the whims of Geert Wilders.

Europe Braces for Spending Cuts

Countries across Europe are bracing for deep public spending cuts

While the Greek debt crisis and subsequent decline of the euro continue to worry investors around the world, the people of Europe are preparing for severe austerity measures, and not just in the troubled south.

With hundreds of billions of euros pledged to stabilize the common currency, European leaders are forced to make major cutbacks at home.

The new Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition ruling Britain unveiled its financial plans on Tuesday. Shortly after Queen Elizabeth II opened Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne and his Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws announced a reduction in public spending of £6 billion to be enacted this year.

Nearly all departments of government in the United Kingdom will be affected by the spending cuts except education. According to The Blue Nation, not included in the £6 billion savings are those set to be made in the departments for health, international development and defense as they are to be reinvested in the “frontlines” of those services.

The money saved will be allocated almost entirely to reducing Britain’s deficit. Business leaders were quick to support the measures while further encouragement came from growth figures also released on Tuesday. The British economy was able to boast a modest growth rate of 0.3 percent compared to last quarter.

The German government announced heavy spending cuts on Monday. Starting next year, Germany will have to cut at least €10 billion each year until 2016 to bring its public finances back under control. Chancellor Angela Merkel is reportedly considered to raise taxes in order to bring down the deficit — in spite of her campaign promise not to.

The Dutch are already among the most heavily taxed people of Europe yet they, too, will be confronted with spending cuts in health care and social services. The retirement age is set to be raised with two years, from 65 to 67, while several political parties have proposed to drop out of the Joint Strike Fighter program in order to save billions of euros.

Italy, finally, joined the ranks of other South European economies as Portugal and Spain in announcing multibillion euro spending cuts. The Berlusconi government is preparing to cut so much as €25 billion both in 2011 and 2012 according to plans leaked to Italian media. Gianni Letta, the prime minister’s lieutenant, spoke of the need to make “heavy sacrifices” lest Italy follow down the path paved by Greece.

In order to rein in spending, government will freeze salaries in Italy while refraining from hiring additional public servants. Financial support for provincial and local governments will be cut with almost €6 billion and measures to fight tax evasion are expected to be announced soon.

The situation is complicated by politics in many of the aforementioned countries. While the British just elected a new Parliament, the necessary spending cuts have become part of election campaigns in Germany and the Netherlands. Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition was robbed of its upper house majority earlier this month after losing a local election in Germany’s most industrious of states. The Dutch are likely to elect a center-right government once again two weeks from now to deal with the cutbacks while the Italians may also head for the polls ahead of schedule as Silvio Berlusconi’s governments appears on the brink of collapse.

Dutch to Quit JSF?

A motion from the Dutch Labor Party was narrowly accepted in parliament on Thursday night to end the Netherlands’ participation in the testing fase of the Joint Strike Fighter program.

The decision comes three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections in the Netherlands, necessitated by the Labor Party’s pulling out of the ruling coalition in February. In government with the Christian Democrats, Labor agreed to the purchasing of a single experimental aircraft. Now, according to a party representative, it is no longer “financially responsible” to continue participation in the current stage of the program. The next government will be forced to enact massive budget cuts with parties to the left of Labor already proposing to pull out of the JSF entirely.

No matter concerns to the contrary, the Netherlands is not quite abandoning the project altogether. Parliament has merely called upon the government to stop the country’s participation in the so-called Initial Operational Test and Evaluation fase of the program. There are elections before it will have a chance to comply and it seems likely at this point that a center-right coalition will emerge of liberals and Christian Democrats, supplemented with one of the smaller parties to win a majority in parliament. Both factions are both in favor of continuing the Netherlands’ purchasing of the F-35 fighter plane.

The Dutch Royal Air Force currently operates ninety F-16 fighter craft, eighteen of which are scheduled to be sold to Chile near the end of this year. Originally, the Dutch anticipated to purchase 85 F-35s but this number may well go down to sixty or even fifty as the costs of the project continue to the rise.

Saving the Euro

Bending the rules of euro management, European leaders and finance ministers agreed to an unprecedented effort to guarantee the stability of the eurozone with loans adding up to nearly $1 trillion (or €750 billion) this weekend.

In spite of the multibillion euro rescue package previously pledged to Greece, investors continued to worry about the unsound fiscal policies of other eurozone members, including Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The value of the euro sharply decreased in recent days while protests in the streets of Athens last week shed further doubt upon the country’s chance to recover — and pay back its loans. Read more “Saving the Euro”

Cesspool of Corruption

Bill O’Reilly’s report on the city of Amsterdam of December 2008 is rather well known online as the amalgamation of ideology-driven falsehoods which it was. The Fox News anchor happily portrayed the Dutch capital as a cesspool of corruption and crime, warning that the Obama Administration had a similar fate in store for all of America.

Just a month after Barack Obama’s election to president, the left, according to O’Reilly was “pushing the envelope” to legalize marijuana and prostitution in the United States. Both have been legal, to an extent, in the Netherlands, so it makes sense to look at how things played out there.

Margaret Hoover, a Republican Party strategist, appeared on the program to talk about the “wonderfully naieve ideas” which Dutchmen had “about teaching their children to have safe sex and smoke grass.” Consequently, she claimed, criminals and drug addicts from all over Europe came to Amsterdam to “exploit that opening.” The city then “is a mess.”

This is nothing short of a wonderfully naive bunch of lies, except that Dutch youngster are indeed taught about safe sex in high school — which probably accounts for a relatively low number of teenage pregnancies. According to research from the 1990s, a little over six out of every 1,000 women in the Netherlands under the age of 20 gives birth to a son or daughter. The number stands at 52 in the United States which is actually the highest in the developed world.

Children, of course, aren’t taught how to use drugs in school nor is Amsterdam “full of undesirables,” as O’Reilly put it. Unless that refers to liberals in general.

Monica Crowley, a Fox News contributor, described the city as a “cesspool of corruption,” though the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal notes that corruption in the Netherlands is among the lowest in the world. According to Crowley, “everything is out of control” in the country yet violent crime is minimal and outside of the major cities, virtually non-existent.

The legalization of prostitution has in fact reduced related crime. Human trafficking is a real problem still, but Dutch police are actively fighting it. Part of the Amsterdam red-light district was shut down in recent years for that purpose and laws have been enacted that allow the city to close brothels if the police so much as suspects that it might be engaged in any criminal activity.

The drugs story is a little more complicated because Dutch law distinguishes between “hard” (cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, LSD) and “soft drugs” (marijuana and, at the time of O’Reilly’s report, psilocybin mushrooms). Neither are legal but the latter are formally “tolerated” which means that people are allowed to sell, buy and consume them, though only in limited quantities and in licensed coffee shops.

In spite of what O’Reilly may suggest, drug use in the Netherlands is fairly low. A 1999 study by the University of Amsterdam found that about 15 percent of Dutchmen had ever used marijuana while the numbers for illegal drugs hovered near 2 percent.

In the United States on the other hand, 47 percent of Americans over the age of 12 reported having used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetimes, according to a 2008 national survey undertaken by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The greatest problem with the Dutch policy is not that it tolerates drug use; the greatest problem is that it remains illegal for coffee shopkeepers to purchase their wares. They may sell drugs but not buy them, which pretty much forces them to deal with criminals. In a nationwide appeal, Dutch mayors this year called upon the government to finally legalize soft drugs altogether which, they believed, would do more to put an end to drug related crime than either maintaining the status quo or criminalizing drugs altogether.

Prostitution and drugs are difficult issue to tackle for any government. But the Dutch have pursued a bold and successful policy in recent decades that several other European countries as Belgium, Spain and Switzerland are now beginning to adopt as well.

People won’t stop using drugs or stop seeing prostitutes because it’s illegal. The American case amply demonstrates this. Society may deem certain behavior undesirable but that on itself does not justify the abridgement of civil liberties.

Cold Response

Between February 17 and March 4, Norway hosted the Cold Response 2010 military exercise in Troms county, above the Arctic Circle. More than 8,500 troops as well as 1,000 special forces from fourteen different nations participated, including soldiers from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The exercise, the first of its kind to take place exclusively in the minus thirty degree Celsius temperatures above the Arctic Circle, tested cold weather amphibious operations as well as interoperability between expeditionary forces. Ground operations ranged from company-sized maneuvering to a brigade-sized beach assault. Both American and Royal Marines hit the beaches in landing craft, with air and naval support, responding to the “invasion” of fictitious Northland by the enemy from Eastland. Read more “Cold Response”

Dutch Ask, Dutch Tell

Retired US Marine Corps General John Sheehan’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee of March 18 caused quite a stir on both sides of the Atlantic last week.

Sheehan was asked to remark on the proposed repeal of the American military’s infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy which allows gay men and women to serve their country as long as they keep their sexual preference to themselves. The Netherlands has allowed homosexuals to serve openly for many years. According to Sheehan, that was “part of the problem” when Dutch UNPROFOR forces were overrun by Serbian troops in Srebrenica, Bosnia in July 1995 which resulted in the deaths of some 8,000 Muslims men.

The Srebrenica massacre is a national embarrassment in the Netherlands that prompted many studies, the foremost of which was conducted by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation. It concluded that the mission was ill-conceived from the start and well nigh impossible to execute. Upon its release in 2002, the Dutch government resigned.

Never has the fact that gays are allowed to serve openly in the Dutch military been connected with the failure of Dutchbat’s mission and the genocide that ensued as a consequence. When pressed, General Sheehan referred to a non-existent military officer who supposedly informed him of the connection: one “Hankman Berman.” A Henk van den Breemen does serve with the Dutch Defense Ministry, yet he described Sheehan’s remark as “absolute nonsense.”

Reactions from other Dutch officials have been equally fierce. The defense minister, Eimert van Middelkoop said Sheehan’s claim was “damaging” and unbecoming of a soldier. Even Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende weighed in on the issue, denouncing the comments during his weekly press conference as irresponsible and “way off the mark.”

Rachel Maddow gathered all of the official responses on her MSNBC show last Friday. Listening to the different comments leaves one with no alternative but to accept that General Sheehan was lying before the Armed Services Committee the day before; lying, for political purposes.

This should be a shame for any man, for a military man especially. But not only did General Sheehan serve with the Marine Corps for over thirty years, fighting in Vietnam and in Iraq; he acted as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic and Commander-in-Chief of the United States’ Atlantic Command for many years and retired a distinguished officer. That he should lie before the United States Senate, presumably in the hopes of influencing policy, is an outrage.