Dutch coalition would see through major social change


SUNDAY SHOPPING is likely to be liberalised and civil servants opposed to gay marriage will be barred from becoming local council registrars if, as expected, the Liberals and Labour form a new coalition government in the Netherlands without needing the support of religious political parties.

The outgoing Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition had only 52 seats between them in the 150-seat parliament, which meant they constantly relied for survival on opposition parties such as Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party or the smaller religious parties, Christian Union, or the fundamentalist SGP.

However, a Lib-Lab coalition would have a working majority of 79 seats, with the likely addition of the centre-left D66, and possible return of the Christian Democrats. This would leave them free to implement social change which both parties support but which has not previously been possible.

The Liberals, for example, agreed not to extend Sunday trading during the life of the outgoing government as part of a deal for the support, when necessary, of the Calvinist SGP, which increased its seats from two to three in the September election.

However, as coalition negotiations between the Liberals and Labour come to the end of their third week, there are indications that the legislation which allows shops to open only 12 Sundays a year – unless they are in “tourist” cities such as Amsterdam, The Hague or Rotterdam – could be repealed quickly as part of their joint programme for government.

In the conservative Protestant “Bible belt” across the centre of the country, where traditional Dutch churches have more than 650,000 active members, shops remain closed every Sunday – and will still remain free to do so.

However, shopkeepers’ organisations say that being free to open three more Sundays a month would be an enormous boost.

The issue of registrars who refuse on religious grounds to carry out gay marriages has also been controversial – but here too the outgoing government refused to act for fear of losing the support of the Christian parties.

Last January, a majority of MPs voted in favour of a motion saying registrars who refused to officiate at same-sex marriages should be sacked. However, home affairs minister Liesbeth Spies refused to implement the motion – saying she was awaiting the recommendations of an expert group, and then the cabinet had decided it was a matter for the next government.

According to research by the gay rights group COC, 58 local councils employ 102 registrars who refuse to marry gay couples, and almost all are orthodox Christians. However, the Liberals and Labour are aware that here too they have the electorate on their side. A poll in 2006 showed 82 per cent of the Dutch population was in favour of same-sex marriages, by far the highest level of support in polling anywhere in the world.