Ronald Plasterk knew for sure when he woke up the day after the elections and… Telegraphcolumnist noted: ‘The formation is not extremely complicated and does not have to take very long.’ That was his prediction on November 23 last year. After all, the PVV, VVD, NSC and BBB together had a large majority and ‘many common program points’.
Plasterk now sounds a lot more reserved in his new role as informant. ‘If you look from the outside, this is an obvious combination. But once they sit down at the table, there appear to be major differences between the parties,” Plasterk said on Thursday evening.
Avinash Bhikhie is a political reporter for de Volkskrant. He has been writing about national politics since 2014. Natalie Righton is also a political reporter for de Volkskrant. She has been writing about Dutch politics since 2013. Before that she was a correspondent in Afghanistan. Righton has won several journalism awards.
Follow everything about the cabinet formation here.
Wish and reality once again appear not to match. The cheerful mood that characterized the first weeks of the formation has made way for mutual sneers in front and behind the scenes in recent days. The conversations are experienced as ‘exciting’ and ‘tough’, leaders such as PVV leader Geert Wilders and NSC leader Pieter Omtzigt now say openly in front of the cameras.
The reason is clear. In recent weeks it has become clear behind the scenes that the parties have different views on many issues. Although initially most attention was focused on concerns about the rule of law, the desired financial policy also turned out to be a divisive issue. In addition, foreign policy leads to friction. Even about migration – the theme that initially seemed to unite the four parties – the parties appear to think differently now that the details are being discussed.
Free beer or cut back
A stumbling block for the VVD and NSC is that PVV and BBB have made quite a few election promises that come with hefty price tags. VVD leader Dilan Yesilgöz and NSC leader Omtzigt apply a much stricter housekeeping rule: every euro that leaves the treasury must also be replenished. The time when the euros crashed against the skirting boards is over. It is not without reason that top officials from the Budget Space Study Group warned in September that the next cabinet will have to raise 17 billion euros to keep public finances healthy. There are two options available: cutbacks or increase taxes.
Partly because of this, all the alarm bells went off at NSC. “So we all have to keep our fingers crossed,” NSC MP Nicolien van Vroonhoven warned in December during the debate on the autumn memorandum. ‘The main motto is that you simply cover the expenditure and income sides completely.’ The VVD took the same tone in that debate. “The stakes are clear: we really need to spend less,” said MP Eelco Heinen. These two MPs are now sitting next to their political bosses at the negotiating table.
The thriftiness of VVD and NSC causes annoyance among the discussion partners. PVV leader Wilders appears not to want to give up many of his financial election promises. To reinforce his demands, he even publicly announced to his voters last weekend that he is advocating ‘significant tax relief for citizens’ and ‘no painful mega cuts’, according to the PVV leader on messaging platform X. Wilders feels supported by the fact that he probably has the left flank of the House on his side in this attitude. So even without the VVD and NSC, he can gather a parliamentary majority for tax relief.
Disagreement about migration
The most remarkable thing for the outside world, however, will be that the four parties also appear to have difficulty making migration agreements with each other. During the election campaign they seemed to quickly agree: the migration balance must be reduced.
But in practice, the foursome clash over, for example, forcing municipalities to offer asylum seekers shelter. Wilders and Yesilgöz are reportedly looking for ways to circumvent the mandatory nature of the just adopted Distribution Act, for example with an ‘insert sheet’. But that is swearing in church for NSC: that party believes that a reliable government should comply with the law or ask parliament again for permission to amend the law.
There is also disagreement about labor migration. BBB members do not see a stop to this group, because many of its voters believe that migrant workers are desperately needed to keep sectors such as horticulture and slaughterhouses running. The VVD is also sensitive to this argument. One of Yesilgöz’s most important donors is OTTO Workforce, market leader in the use of migrant workers. Opposed to BBB and VVD are NSC and partly also PVV, which want to limit the number of labor migrants.
And there are more differences. For example, VVD and NSC consider it unthinkable to reduce support for Ukraine, while the PVV campaigned with the message of stopping that support immediately. In the meantime, the BBB considers it an option to investigate whether Ukrainian refugees can be returned to the (assumed) safe parts of their home country.
It seems impossible that Plasterk will be completely on the same page. It must be clear by Monday, February 12 at the latest, whether he is willing to discuss compromises further with the foursome. To achieve this, every effort will have to be made. “You have to agree, and that’s not the point yet,” Wilders said on Friday. “We’re going to do our best to get out, and that will be very exciting.”