Dutch government wobbles over EU budget talks
By Philip Ebels
In what opposition parties have called "a very strange display", the Dutch coalition government on Thursday (29 March) narrowly managed to avert collapse as it continues to haggle over spending cuts needed to bring it in line with EU budget rules.
The government, a minority coalition of liberals and christian-democrats kept afloat by the parliamentary support of the fiercely eurosceptic PVV party, needs to find an extra €10bn or so this year (on an overall budget of €622bn) after disappointing economic indicators early this month.
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Since then, Prime Minister Mark Rutte has been meeting with negotiators from all three parties, declaring an absolute omerta until agreement is reached - or not.
For weeks, all journalists were able to get from the prime minister was a polite "good morning" upon arrival, famously by bicycle, and a "see you tomorrow" upon departure.
Until Wednesday afternoon, when they received an SMS text message from the government's information service saying the negotiations had entered "a difficult phase" after talks that day had broken off earlier than expected.
Speculation abounded. PVV frontman Geert Wilders, Dutch media reported, had wanted to walk away as his demand for a referendum on leaving the euro and re-introducing the guilder had been met with a categorical no.
Opposition parties all but rejoiced and re-iterated their call for new elections.
"We need reforms that enjoy a broad popular mandate," Diederik Samsom, freshly elected leader of the social-democrats and biggest opposition party, told Dutch TV that evening. "Whatever happens, that is something this government does not have."
For his part, PM Rutte let it be known that he was not unduly affected by the political turmoil. He took Wilders and the others for a stroll in the sun and, after, sat down on a local terrace in The Hague and happily agreed to have himself photographed with passing citizens.
"I advise you to consult the dictionary," he told public broadcaster NOS who asked him about the meaning of the word difficult.
All eyes were on Wilders, whose bodyguards - a fierce critic of Islam, he is under 24/7 protection - kept journalists at bay. Would he pull the plug on the negotiations and, thereby, the government?
What does Wilders get in return?
No, he would not. On Thursday just before noon, two hours after negotiations had recommenced, it was announced that all parties "see sufficient perspective to come to an agreement".
Opposition parties are not happy with the "very strange display", in the words of Arie Slob, leader of the Christian Union. "Not many people in the Netherlands understand anymore what is going on," he told NOS.
"It shows how extremely labile this government is," said Jolande Sap, leader of GreenLeft. "The fate of the country lies in the hands of one man only, Geert Wilders."
Wilders' return to the table has fuelled speculation that, as compensation, he might get his coveted referendum on the euro.
"I do worry about the things the PVV is going to demand back for this," said Alexander Pechtold, leader of the pro-EU social-liberal D66.