The curious political situation in the Netherlands with a caretaker minority government puts an immediate stop to many of the government’s previous initiatives, including some aspects of Dutch foreign policy.
Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party had supported the government in parliament in return for getting some of his own policies implemented. Now that Wilders has withdrawn that support the cabinet is freed from backing his preferred measures.
What Wilders wanted
Outgoing immigration minister Gerd Leers, for instance, has already announced he will stop pushing for more restrictive EU-wide policies on family reunification. The outgoing interior minister has withdrawn support for a new law, pushed by Wilders, putting restrictions on Dutch citizens holding a second passport.
A similar policy area is development aid. As part of an earlier austerity budget (the one annual budget this government did manage to get passed), development aid was cut from 0.8 percent of GDP to 0.7, a cut of about one billion euros. Geert Wilders had insisted on another cut of the same size during the recent negotiations for another austerity budget. That new reduction will not take place (although the earlier one has already been implemented and therefore cannot be reversed).
Wilders joins the opposition
Geert Wilders is free, in turn, to oppose aspects of foreign policy which he had tacitly supported in the interest of keeping this government in power. One such policy is the sale to Indonesia of dozens of Leopard tanks no longer needed by the Dutch army. The Freedom Party has always opposed the sale, but probably would not have blocked it. Now they will join the opposition parties and make sure the sale does not go through.
Further Dutch participation in the Joint Strike Fighter programme, such as the purchase of a second test plane, is now also uncertain.
Relations with a number of countries will almost certainly go more smoothly now that the Freedom Party is back in the opposition. Mr Wilders has repeatedly insulted Turkish officials, most recently during a state visit by President Abdullah Gül. The Freedom Party website soliciting complaints about Polish immigrants also raised the hackles of Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe. Many felt Prime Minister Mark Rutte did not do enough to distance his government from these ideas, but that distance is now crystal clear.
The Netherlands has also been blocking admittance of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen countries. It is not clear if the fall of the government will change that Dutch standpoint.
The Netherlands has been an outspoken proponent of stricter rules for countries in the euro zone, and for sometimes drastic austerity measures and budgetary discipline as the best means of dealing with the euro crisis (as opposed to those who believe economic growth should have priority). Now Germany, in particular, is concerned that the Dutch will no longer pursue the austerity argument, or at least not as fervently. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has gone so far as to warn the Netherlands to bring its budget in order quickly.
The influential British newspaper the Financial Times expressed similar concern in an editorial on Wednesday.
All eyes will be on the Netherlands later this spring when parliament debates ratification of the European Stability Mechanism, a permanent fund scheduled to be established in July. A majority in parliament supports the fund, but the Netherlands share of investment in the fund is 40 billion Euros - a sum some politicians may balk at with an eye on the upcoming elections.
The Netherlands has had a caretaker government for almost 2 of the past 10 years, so the political situation is not unfamiliar but still, this caretaker government is different: it does not control a majority of seats in parliament.
So now, more than ever, the Dutch parliament will have a major role in government policy. In areas of foreign policy, the caretaker government will splice together different majorities for different policies. This had already been done in the case of the Dutch police training mission to Kunduz in Afghanistan, which the Freedom Party opposed but Green Left, Democrats 66 and the Christian Union supported. Those three parties, along with the governing VVD and Christian Democrats are now known as the ‘Kunduz coalition’. That coalition, plus occasional support from the Labour Party, will undoubtedly have plenty to say about foreign policy in the next few months.