A rather unique political tour de force is coming to a (first) conclusion in the Netherlands the past Thursday evening.
Was the country quickly heading to become the laughing stock of the Eurozone at the start of this week, a breathtaking manoeuvre by the political parties in The Hague has now saved the face of the caretaker cabinet of Mark Rutte and co. Dutch austerity is on its way, Merkel and Brussels can release a tiny sigh of relief, the budget deficit will be cut towards the three percent limit.
Sore losers and ebullient winners have emerged in just a few days. A quick overview.
As briefly introduced in October 2010, the Dutch government was comprised by a monster alliance of political parties swung to the right. The ministers in office were shared between the economic marketistas of prime-minister and pernicious boffo Mark Rutte and between the leaderless brethren of the Christian party CDA, turning hard right under the guidance of Maxime "Rat" Verhagen - who became deputy prime-minister. Laughing third was the party of Geert Wilders - or better, Geert Wilders, because his ragtag collection of MPs could hardly be considered more than voting drones. Wilders was the third leg propping up the minority government - and it showed in the formal government accord in 2010 that bore some notable greasy fingerprints of Wilders - particularly on demands to reduce foreign immigration at the European level.
In this constellation, the Dutch politicians were confronted early March with some dismaying news - the economic outlook of the coming years had just come in, and they were wafting with south European premonitions. Without interference - and the government was already merrily cutting away billions in healthcare, arts and education - the Netherlands were heading for a 4.6 percent deficit next year. A disaster in the making, considering it was Rutte himself and his fairly capable minister of Finance, Jan Kees de Jager, had stamped their feet in Brussels that the three percent deficit had to be met, at the cost of severe financial penalties.
Drastic measures were needed. An extra 14 billion Euros needed to be trimmed off the budget. A rightwing's delight - were it not that Wilders was never Brussels best friend. The three parties went into lockdown, searching their billions in their own ideological visions.
I will spare you the seven weeks - seven! - of the increasingly ridiculous situation that our prime-minister blithely cycled away, smiling knowingly, saying nothing, while the limousines with Wilders inside slipping out elsewhere.
I will spare you the details during that time of the widening cracks in the Wilders party with dissidents branching off, undermining his negotiation powers.
But last Saturday, the parties had it made. The numbers were there. Austerity was here to stay, blowing with a chill, right gale. Increase in value added taxes, harsh cuts in student loans and developmental aid, the retirement age be raised more quickly, collective wage increases to be frozen. All individual decisions had been weighed and agreed upon - the one thing missing was the signature under the whole package.
And that's when the ugly face of Wilders reared. He refused, claiming the package was 'unacceptable for his elderly voters'. Apparently, he rose from the small circle of negotiators, exited without shaking hands and left. Not just out of these negotiations, but all he had made with Rutte and Verhagen. Wilders, the great isolationist, returned to his favourite spot: the outcast.
And with that act, the political gamble made in 2010 by Rutte and Verhagen crashed and burned, the defeat evident. Particularly for the Verhagen faction this must come as a bitter pill - in 2010 nearly a third of the CDA-party voted against an alliance with Wilders. Verhagen insisted nonetheless and pushed through, with tears in his eyes and a quaver in his voice. He now pays the price in full. Today, he's the least favourite politician of his party, with a mere 2 percent of his members favouring him. Furthermore, the party is effectively without a figurehead ever since Balkenende called it quits, and the party is trailing low in the polls. With elections today, the party that nearly always governed would be effectively marginalised. Verhagen has already announced his departure from politics.
Rutte, however, will persevere. He handed in his letter of resignation on Monday, and elections are expected to be held early September. It is testimony to the instability of Dutch politics since the emergence of Pim Fortuyn ten years ago - the fifth consecutive government folding before its time.
But this time, it left the country in a position worse than before. Brussels expecting a 2013 preliminary budget in a few days, our Dutch budget spiralling increasingly faster into larger debt, and now with no one at the helm. Headaches galore. The butt of the joke in the Eurozone, the prime-minister without clothes, the rating agencies rattling their sabres, the market traders getting fidgety, Merkel writing hate-poetry about Holland and Hollande.
And if nothing else had happened, I would've harped a bit on the ineffectiveness of the political Dutch parties embracing their election rhetoric and pruning their best-looking quotes for television camera's. I would have swallowed some more aspirin, punched out my diary and that be the end of it.
Yet these are interesting times. Past Tuesday, after Rutte swallowed chunks of humble-pie in Parliament, several opposition parties took the lead for finding a solution. It was their chance - with a demise of the cabinet, parliament governs - to both dismantle the half-baked proposals of the Rutte-cabinet and they seized their piece of the budget pie.
An unprecedented situation emerged the past 48 hours. The minister of Finance moved incessantly through the Parliament from party to party, not as someone giving marching orders but as a facilitator and crunching the numbers. Meanwhile, opposition parties chipped in their own plans and negotiated at breakneck speeds on their terms.
What anyone would've perceived as impossible with elections on the way, a new accord was presented Thursday afternoon and approved, with a tiny majority, the same evening. What Wilders could not do in seven weeks, was signed into agreement within two days. Particularly the Greens have taken a gamble by providing the necessary final votes.
That does not mean all is well. As it always had to be a compromise between the coalition parties and the slightly more progressive, it ended not unexpectedly as a mixed bag - Dutch Austerity 2.0. It won't be sugar and spice.
Far too much of cost-saving is on short-term gains, and keeps structural reforms at distance. Much of the initial package has been copied into the new accord, with an additional flourish - value added tax will be increased for luxury products only, the retirement age will still be raised more quickly (thereby breaking a collective agreement with the unions) and collective wage increase are still frozen for most. The bulging health budget will hardly be addressed. Only a tiny modest reform with the increasingly problematic means how the government props up the Dutch housing market. And so on.
On the upside, there will be more funding for the environment, the budget of developmental aid will be untouched, and some of the most harsh and controversial proposals by the Rutte cabinet have been killed off. Because his cabinet folded, many of the laws in preparation will be shot down.
In the meantime, Rutte had his face saved, and he went into overdrive to compliment his new alliance. I expect him to come out remarkably unscathed. Not unpleasant for him, as his party remained leading in the polls.
There is a tentative feeling of a national sigh of relief now that some parties in The Hague actually got to their senses. It is as if politicians wanted to show to themselves: we don't want to end up as Belgium, left in the lurch for months on end. And it'll be interesting to see if the rescue-operation will reflect badly on those parties that couldn't come to terms with the new accord. There are several. Wilders, unsurprisingly. The Socialist party and also the biggest opposition party, Labour, whose new leader is taking back the party to the left flank faster than you could sing 'the Internationale'. We'll see if they are set to gain or lose by their choice, electorally.
Biggest loser in the political fray, and not just because I delight in writing it, is Geert Wilders. And he shows it - after ranting on the pervasive hold of Brussels, he slumps in his seat and pouts like a schoolboy that got stuck on the losing team. The opposition parties not only killed off many, if not most, of his proposals of the past 18 months, also the two government parties are making hay with his previous input. A proposal to choose for only one national passport, pressuring Brussels for tighter immigration limitations, a burqa ban in public spaces, no party gives these ideas merit any longer. He has nothing to show for and the stranglehold he had on Dutch government is gone. Things have moved to a slightly normal balance - for now.