Key governance challenges not yet a public focus
Three challenges affecting the sustainability of governance in the Netherlands remain insufficiently addressed: restructuring traditional state functions, the shift to a sustainable economy, and finding a balance between identity politics and globalization. None of these key challenges received due attention during the 2017 election campaign, which was hijacked by a populist-dominated debate about immigration and Islam. This signals the need to seek and develop new modes of citizen representation and participation.
State functions must
The first challenge involves an urgent restructuring of traditional state functions. The Dutch have eagerly reaped the peace dividend after the fall of communism, in line with traditionally strong pacifist and anti-military public opinion. In view of threats from Russia and Turkey to parts of Eastern Europe, and a less certain U.S. commitment to NATO, the Dutch and other EU states will have to increase their military capacity and spending in a relatively short time. Reforms to the police, judiciary and public prosecution (Ministry of Safety and Justice) have run into implementation obstacles and serious integrity problems that, without adequate political attention, may become chronic. Government tasks in the domain of (public) finances require that the continuity of the tax apparatus is guaranteed, and the country should tackle its reputation as a tax haven for large foreign, especially U.S., corporations.
Environmental policies lagging. Strategies needed for technology,
The second major task is to design and facilitate a shift toward an environmentally sustainable economy. The strong economic recovery that the Netherlands has experienced over recent years has a flipside: the Dutch can no longer fall further behind the rest of the European Union in implementing climate change (mitigation and adaptation) policies. The exhaustion of the Netherland’s natural gas resources in the medium-term means that a new energy policy for renewable energy sources is imperative. Public investment in more sustainable transportation infrastructure can no longer be postponed in view of a looming congestion crisis. Foreseeable technological innovations (digitization, big data, robotification) necessitate reform of the educational system and the labor market. Technological innovations require the development of a strategic approach to digitization, including its effects on essential human rights, regulation and control, and mechanisms for consensus-building concening contentious (ethical) issues around emergent new technologies. The growing segregation across levels and types of schools needs to be addressed. The relevance of existing educational qualifications in a rapidly changing labor market is increasingly questionable and education at all levels is inadequately financed. Labor market policies face a difficult balancing act between flexibility, and job security, decent wages and work-family relations. For an aging population, a sustainable economy should include decent (health) care provision and pensions.
Balancing globalization, national identity
The third longer-term task is to strike a viable balance between identity politics and globalization. Globalization manifests itself through multi-ethnicity and an increasingly multiracial composition of the population. The public disorder and “Black Pete” debates are initial steps toward a long overdue public deliberation about the integration of refugees and migrants. Considerable popular support for an openly xenophobic, anti-EU and anti-Islamist political party like the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (PVV) is a sign of widespread public discontent and unease. Established political parties, particularly the Christian Democratic Party (CDA), show no desire to approach the debate openly. However, their leader, Sybrand Buma, agrees with the “angry citizens” who, in his eyes, help protect the “Judeo-Christian” identity of the Netherlands and Europe. The leader of the conservative liberals (VVD), Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in his eagerness to win the support of “angry citizens,” differentiated between the existence of “good” and “bad” populism in Dutch politics.
Cooperation within Europe indispensable
Objectively, for the open Dutch economy, cooperation in Europe is crucial. Economic growth and employment, defense, and regulated migration depend on it. The Dutch economy cannot prosper without a stable euro, a well-functioning banking union, and a strong and fair internal market (i.e., a market offering equal pay for equal work in the same location). Therefore, it is necessary that Dutch politicians publicly insist that the “I want to have my cake and eat it too” attitude held by a large proportion of Dutch citizens vis-à-vis the European Union is unrealistic.
Developing new modes of citizen participation
It is increasingly clear that tackling the latter two challenges will require new modes of constructive citizen participation and representation. The gap between government and citizens creates significant discontent and feeds populist calls for more direct democracy. In view of recent negative experiences with national referendums in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, the highest legal and policy advisory body to the government, the Council of State (Raad van State), claimed that national referendums result in a dysfunctional representative democracy. In its view, participatory democratic practices ought to be limited to the local and municipal level. Critics, on the other hand, accuse politicians of not taking emerging forms of citizen participation seriously. They call for a change of course from “defensive” participation to opening up a “second track,” a more proactive form of participation, based on open dialog, trust and cooperation. To what extent this will be realized, remains an open question.
Political cleavages must
The country’s new political cleavages – between “particularist” and “universalist” citizens, between adherents of neoliberal and neo-structural economic thought, between freedom for corporations and stricter disciplinary interventions for ordinary citizens, and between top-down expert governance and bottom-up citizen participation – must ultimately be overcome if a viable democratic and sustainable Dutch society is to be created.