Dutch coalition talks in turmoil as ministers resign over Afghanistan

Sigrid Kaag of foreign affairs and Ank Bijleveld of defence step down over evacuation

Two senior ministers have resigned from the Dutch caretaker government over their failure to manage the evacuation of interpreters and other vulnerable staff from Kabul – throwing plans for fresh weekend talks aimed at breaking the deadlock over a new coalition government into turmoil.

Both ministers – Sigrid Kaag in foreign affairs and Ank Bijleveld in defence – were censured by MPs on Thursday after a heated debate over the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ms Kaag stood down immediately, becoming the first foreign minister to resign. Ms Bijleveld followed on Friday afternoon.

As a result, Ms Kaag, a former diplomat who has been leader of the centre-left D66 party for just over a year, did not join caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte for a high-profile meeting with his UK counterpart, Boris Johnson, in Downing Street.

The events of recent weeks have been quite a reversal of fortune for Ms Kaag (59), who led D66 to an unexpected second place in the March general election, taking 24 seats in the 150-seat parliament and becoming a key player in negotiations to build a new coalition government.


‘Moral victory’

That surge in support was widely regarded as having given her “a moral victory” in the election, with the suggestion that it might translate into greater leverage in facing Mr Rutte. Since then, however, the talks have stalled repeatedly and she has belatedly struggled with Afghanistan as well.

In the end, having criticised Mr Rutte for failing to resign for allegedly lying to parliament over the fallout from the affair that brought down his government last January, Ms Kaag effectively found herself cornered when she herself was censured by parliament on Thursday night.

Bowing to the inevitable, she said in response to the MPs’ decision: “The minister must go if her policy has been rejected. I can only accept the consequences.”

Despite these new fractures between the parties, Ms Kaag confirmed that she would, however, lead her negotiators into this weekend's talks chaired by Johan Remkes (70), a former deputy prime minister in the Balkenende government.

Left behind

Ms Bijleveld said she had initially intended to continue working to bring home those left in Kabul, but had reversed that decision after it was widely criticised, including by some in her own party, the Christian Democrats.

She’s the sixth minister to leave office since Mr Rutte’s third coalition fell.

In all, Dutch military planes evacuated about 2,100 people from Kabul in the last two weeks of August, some 1,700 of them to the Netherlands.

Hundreds of Dutch citizens, many of Afghan origin, and an unspecified number of civilians who worked as interpreters and in other crucial support roles were left behind – despite revelations since that the Kabul embassy requested preparations as long ago as last year.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court