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3rd Mar 2024

Dutch PM misses EU summit to save coalition

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte has asked his Luxembourgian colleague Xavier Bettel to take his place at the EU summit of government leaders in Brussels on Thursday (18 December).

Rutte will stay in the Hague in an attempt to “solve the problem that has arisen” within his coalition, the prime minister wrote in a letter to parliament.

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The coalition government of Rutte's centre-right Liberal party and the centre-left Labour party has been in danger of collapsing since Tuesday (16 December).

The “Christmas crisis”, as Dutch media have dubbed the row, started when three Labour senators unexpectedly voted against a bill by Liberal health minister Edith Schippers.

With their No votes, they struck down the bill, which would have limited the choice patients have in choosing their medical provider.

Schippers called it “very disappointing” that her bill was struck down, but the move by the three senators has repercussions beyond a failed bill.

In the 2012 elections for the lower house, Liberal and Labour emerged as the two largest parties, receiving a majority of seats between the two of them. In the Senate, which has the power to strike down laws, they had only 30 of 75 seats.

Soon enough the cabinet realised they needed a fixed set of parties to work with to gain majorities in the Senate, instead of scrambling for seats every time a bill has to pass the house.

Since 2013, the government has three favourite opposition parties to work with: the pro-EU Liberal D66, and the Christian right-wing parties Christian Union and SGP. The so-called “constructive opposition” helps the cabinet secure majorities in the Senate, in exchange for some influence in government policy.

That only works if party discipline within Labour and Liberal also remains tight. The three “dissidents” that voted against Schippers' plan, are a strain on relations between the coalition parties. The main question for the two sides is: can we trust each other to deliver the necessary seats?

All of Thursday, party leaders and ministers have been trying to find out if they can.

Meanwhile in Brussels, it will be Luxembourgian prime minister Bettel who will speak on behalf of Rutte.

He sent foreign affairs minister Bert Koenders to Brussels to brief Bettel. EU rules prevent Koenders, or anyone else, from replacing Rutte in the actual meetings.

In his letter, Rutte explained that the choice befell on Bettel – and not Belgian prime minister Charles Michel – because of the two other Benelux prime ministers, he has been in office the longest.

The Benelux is the cooperation between Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, which dates back to 1944, and was something of an inspiration for European cooperation.

Before EU summits in Brussels, the Benelux prime ministers meet to prepare. Since October, all three prime minsters are Liberal - and relatively young.

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