Coalition crisis deepens as Netherlands cuts aid budget

 

THE POLITICAL crisis in the Netherlands deepened at the weekend as disagreement within the minority coalition party, the Christian Democrats, over plans to cut the country’s development aid budget by €1 billion emerged in public for the first time.

In an open letter to the government, six senior Christian Democrat members – including former prime minister and UN high commissioner for refugees Ruud Lubbers, three former foreign ministers, and two former aid ministers – warned that the Netherlands’ international standing would be damaged if the cut went ahead.

The decision to cut the aid budget was taken last Thursday in closed talks between the two coalition partners, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, and the right-wing Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, which has supported the minority coalition government since the 2010 general election.

The three parties have until April 30th to agree a €9 billion programme of savings which will bring the country’s budget deficit into line with the euro zone limit of 3 per cent of GDP by 2013.

However, the negotiations came close to collapse last Wednesday when Mr Wilders apparently threatened to walk out, saying he could not agree to unpopular healthcare reforms or changes in redundancy legislation unless cuts to the Netherlands’ €4.6 billion aid budget were also on the table.

When the talks resumed last Thursday, the reduction in development aid was privately agreed by negotiators of all three parties – in what was widely regarded, even by his critics, as yet another significant political coup engineered by Mr Wilders.

The letter by the senior Christian Democrats is the most significant indication so far that cracks are beginning to emerge in that three-party consensus.

It urged the two coalition party leaders, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, leader of the Liberals, and deputy prime minister Maxime Verhagen, leader of the Christian Democrats, to reconsider the decision – regardless of the political consequences.

It pointed out that a €1 billion cut would be the equivalent of roughly 20 per cent of the annual budget, and would reduce the Netherlands’ annual contribution to just less than 0.6 per cent of GDP, below the UN target of 0.7 per cent, which it has always in recent years surpassed.

“Our contribution to development aid has made a strong contribution to the positive image of the Netherlands in developing countries,” the letter said. “That is something we should be unwilling simply to abandon.”

The letter was immediately supported by two “dissident” Christian Democrat MPs, Kathleen Ferrier and Ad Koppejan, both of whom have expressed their dislike in the past for doing political deals to secure the support of Mr Wilders.

Outside the political arena, there was more bad news for the government yesterday when police in Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht announced a strike next Thursday in protest at a pay freeze.