The Netherlands


Key Challenges

Crises have deepened challenges
In 2019 we wrote that three challenges affecting the sustainability of governance in the Netherlands had as yet been insufficiently addressed: the maintenance of traditional state functions and the integrity of the separation of powers, the transition to a sustainable economy, and the need to address growing inequalities in income and living standards. Since then, two crises have confirmed and deepened these challenges. Two years of coronavirus pandemic crisis management forced a break with traditionally frugal budget policies, laid bare the disadvantages of austerity and market-inspired institutional reforms in the healthcare system and the social domain, and deepened existing social inequalities. The childcare benefits scandal reported in the “Unprecedented Justice” report showed how all three branches of government were complicit in causing a legislative and implementation disaster for tens of thousands of citizens and families, many of them of non-Dutch descent. Both crises, jointly, challenged the hubristic self-image of the “high” quality of Dutch governance for citizens, political commentators and journalists, and civil servants. The question, then, is whether or not, and to what extent, the coalition agreement for the new Rutte IV government presents a promising response.
Abandoning neoliberal
austerity; subsidies used
to encourage green transition; addressing effects of digitalization
With regard to policy-performance indicators, the government appears to have given up on neoliberalism, austerity and frugal budget policies. Relying on the ECB’s reassurances that it would keep the euro alive and interest rates low, the government has implicitly embarked upon the untested waters of Modern Monetary Theory (Kelton, 2020). It is using this financial “bonanza” mainly to fund long-term projects to tackle overdue economic sustainability problems while seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: nitrogen emissions from overblown export-directed livestock farming; an energy transition for consumers and, more so, the energy-intensive industry; and a spatial-planning crisis stemming from the combined impact of increased private and commercial transport and mobility, a housing shortage and increasing competition over land use (between housing, nature, farming, industry, space for renewable energy production). Considerable sums are also reserved for education (higher salaries for more teachers) and to provide compensation to the victims of the childcare benefits and Groningen earthquake damages affairs. The generally liberal Rutte IV government devotes less money and policy effort to the issue of correcting broader social inequalities. The tax system bias in favor of wealth/assets over labor income is left untouched, and is perhaps even exacerbated, as CO2 emissions are not immediately taxed; rather, the government seeks to reduce them in the long run via hefty state subsidies offered to firms that in return promise to develop and use green technologies in industry. It remains unclear how the government intends to deal with serious implementation gaps and manpower shortages that have emerged in policy areas including education, housing, (youth, elderly and hospital) care, infrastructure construction, public transport, and policing and judicial work. These latter two areas are all the more worrisome given efforts to fight drug-related and (financial) cybercrime. Particularly education is now contributing to social inequality, instead of acting as an equalizer. Emergent and potentially disruptive technological innovation requires the development of a strategic approach to digitalization that will address its effects on human rights, while also introducing regulation and control mechanisms, and developing consensus-building mechanisms able to handle contentious (ethical) issues. This will be a task for a designated minister for digital affairs in the Rutte IV government.
Serious organized-
crime concerns
Regarding the challenge of ensuring that traditional state functions are improved, more money has been made available for the military and to support citizen access to the courts, by paying for the fees of social lawyers. No serious steps are being taken to tackle the country’s reputation as a tax haven for large sums of foreign (U.S. and Russian) capital. In large parts of the country, there are serious symptoms of state absence/failure with regard to protecting citizens from violence, and even a considerable number of murders, in the fight against drug-related crime. The police and judiciary have failed to stop the country from sliding toward the status of a so-called narcostate. The number of big (Antwerp, Vlissingen, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Delfzijl) and smaller harbors along the coastline and the county’s import/export economic interest in smooth and fast customs clearance of goods make the Netherlands the biggest entry and exit point for drugs to the rest of Europe; ineffective policing of sparsely populated rural areas has helped the country become the biggest exporter of synthetic drugs and a main distribution point for cocaine. It is unclear how the government intends to deal more seriously with these symptoms of state failure.
Small steps in improving checks and balances
Regarding the challenge of improving the actual functioning of the checks and balances of the trias politica, so hurtfully damaged in the childcare benefits scandal, the government has mainly provided promises and an open admission of failure. Small beginnings are visible in a new Law on Open Government (Woo) and a slight increase in the intellectual and financial resources provided to parliament. So far, there has been little effort to impose any firm regulation of the conduct and finances of political parties, even though this makes them more reliant on and vulnerable to external, sometimes foreign funding. Policy formulation, and, ironically, suggestions to improve implementation tests, are often outsourced to government-sponsored think tanks. The independence of a well-functioning judicial branch is still under pressure due to underfinancing and understaffing, although more resources have been made available from the government budget for more court personnel and digitizing court procedures.
Efforts to deal with
impact of globalization
The third longer-term task is to strike a balance between identity politics and globalization. In the Netherlands, globalization manifests itself (among other indicators) through continuous immigration and an increasingly multiethnic population. Although a recent expert report offers four scenarios, there has to date been no public debate, let alone policy formulated, regarding the future demographic composition and size of the population. Curiously, the public media system, tasked by law to further national coherence, will be expanded by one broadcasting organization for “Black” and another for “white-Dutch” voices and interests. Resources for adequate immigration and asylum policies within the country remain totally inadequate. For the open Dutch economy, cooperation within the European context is crucial. And indeed, the Dutch government and the country’s political parties appear to have made a turn back toward Europe.
Calls for more
direct democracy
It is increasingly clear that tackling these challenges will require new modes of constructive citizen participation and representation beyond protests and large-scale demonstrations. The gap between government policy on the one hand, and citizens’ feelings and experiences on the other, has created significant discontent and anti-establishment sentiment, feeding populist calls for more direct democracy. Participatory democratic practices are (again) limited to policy implementation at the local and municipal level. Critics have called for a change of course away from “defensive” participation to the opening of a “second track” – that is, a more proactive form of participation in the beginning stages of policy formulation. The extent to which this will be realized remains unclear. There is a reason for optimism – Dutch society has demonstrated a great deal of resilience and flexibility during the testing times of the coronavirus crisis.
Uncertain future
Time will tell whether the Rutte IV coalition agreement is just throwing money at a knot of intertwined problems, or will represent a tipping point in moving away from a traditional growth-based to a life- and truly prosperity-based mode of governance.
S. Kelton, 2020. The deficit myth. Modern monetary theory and the birth of the people’s economy,

Party Polarization

At all levels (national, provincial and local), the Dutch political-party landscape is more fragmented than ever. Tellingly, the 17 March 2021 elections brought 19 political parties into the 150-seat national parliament: four single representative parties; five parties with three representatives; six parties with less than 10 representatives; and four larger parties with more than 10 representatives (CDA:14; PVV: 17; D66: 24; and VVD: 34). Although not all national political parties are represented at provincial and local levels, adding to the fragmentation at national level, a quarter to a third of the seats at these levels are filled by strictly local political parties. Fragmentation clearly hampers policymaking and coalition building. For example, the formation of a new cabinet (Rutte IV) took almost 10 months between the parliamentary election in March 2021 and the swearing-in ceremony in January 2022. As of 30 November 2021, the new cabinet (Rutte IV) was still being formed. The duration of 299 days was a new record compared to the previous record of 226 days, which had been achieved by the last government formation (Rutte III), of all things.
Climate issue driving polarization
All modes of polarization (ideological, affective, facts-polarization) are increasing. Ideological polarization has been moderately increasing since 2010. After the depoliticizing 1990s, the Dutch started to have more diverging beliefs and attitudes on globalization, the EU and direct democracy (esp. referendums). On issues like multiculturalism, income equality and redistribution, and climate change, views follow the conventional left-right dimension and alignment with party platforms is high. But in a very short time, polarization on the climate issue has become a strong dividing line.
Radical right fanning emotional politics
For a traditionally “tolerant” nation, affective polarization has grown remarkably between 2017 and 2021: most Dutch think negatively about their political opponents; in 2021, especially on issues like income redistribution and climate change. No doubt this tendency is influenced by the emergence and parliamentary visibility of radical-right political parties.
Disagreement on
the facts
Polarization in terms of facts – that is, strong differences in the perception of factual reality, for instance deriving from belief in conspiracy theories around the coronavirus and climate, or anti-evolution theory – also has increased alarmingly. People in favor of more income redistribution overestimate scientifically validated income inequalities. People with anti-immigration or pro-immigration stances systematically over- and underestimate the number of immigrants in the country. On average, Dutch people have much more doubt about the role of human agency in climate change than do climate scientists. Fact-polarization clearly depends on institutional trust, especially regarding the media and science. This divide became exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic with increased conspiracy belief and institutional distrust, particularly at the extremes of the political landscape.
Public discourse
becoming harsher
Affective and fact-polarization combined raise deeply worrying political concerns. The tone and civility of public discourse is losing out to harsher and outright brutal ways of expression – even in parliament. If both trends continue, they may erode the common ground for political debate. (Score: 5)
Nationaal Kiezersonderzoek 2021, Versplinterde vertegenwoordiging, 29 october 2021. Record aan diggelen: kabinetsformatie 2021 is nu officieel de langste ooit

SCP (P. Dekker en J. den Ridder), 2019. Burgerperspectieven

A. Krouwel en B. Geurkink, Politieke fragmentatie in Nederlandse gemeenteraden, Jaarboek van de Griffier, 2016, 127-139

Toshkov, D., & Krouwel, A. (2022). Beyond the U-curve: Citizen preferences on European integration in multidimensional political space. European Union Politics.

an Prooijen, J-W., Cohen Rodigues, T., Bunzel, C., Georgescu, O., Komáromy, D., & Krouwel, A. (2022). Populist Gullibility: Conspiracy Theories, News Credibility, Bullshit Receptivity, and Paranormal Belief. Political Psychology.
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