Nobody is in charge in the Netherlands - even democracy has been privatised

The old political parties have been reduced to spectators in a plot that they themselves have drafted but can no longer control.
By Marc Chavannes

By ducking out of defining and defending the public interest, the Dutch political elite has allowed a democratic deficit to develop. The state can no longer guarantee everybody's wellbeing, nor can it stop dangers at the border.

Ask Dutch people about their country and they will probably smile and sigh: great country, but why are we making such a mess of it?

This feeling of unease hasn't appeared out of thin air. For years we have done well in the world, but now the world is moving in on us. Our open, deliberately casual way of life and government is no match for this new, globalised world. We are willing and attempting to adapt to it, but we have become stuck in an angry state of stagnation.

The Netherlands used to govern itself with a mixture of bluff and endless procrastination. Both methods produce faits accomplis where no one can be held accountable. This way of governing, however, has been made obsolete.

Courage and urgency

If anything, democracy is meant to bring about decisions that are supported by as many people as possible. There are several reasons why today those decisions need to be made with more courage and urgency than the Dutch system of endless compromise-building in special committees allows for.

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The current controversy over the dredging of the Westerschelde is a fine example of continuous decision-making and responsibility-shifting. A promise made to Belgium in 2005 to deepen the sea-lane to the port of Antwerp has been stalled because the government felt the interests of the Belgians, the environment and the neighbouring farmers all need to be reconsidered - again.

The Westerschelde imbroglio paints a worrying picture for the near future when more significant and painful decisions need to be made. Where, for example, will sufficient room be found to halve a 6.3 percent budget deficit? Will the legal pension age be raised from 65 to 67? Will home-owners still be allowed to deduct their mortgage interest from their income before taxes - a huge cause of distortion in the housing market? Will the ambitious nationwide pay-as-you-drive-system of congestion charging finally be implemented in order to get this densely populated urban state rolling again?

These are issues that concern every single Dutch citizen, and every single one of them has an opinion about them. Unfortunately, the current government doesn't deem the moment fit to cut a single Gordian knot. It has rather chosen to outsource its problems to twenty advisory committees of civil servants, which have been asked to report back by next summer.

And even when a decision is made, a contract signed or a law passed, that is only a welcome invitation to start the discussion anew, as the late analyst of Dutch public administration Leendert Geelhoed pointed out. The body politic won't like it, but the not -so-far-fetched conclusion must be that no one really governs in the Netherlands.

Government lost faith in government

The financial crisis has cost many people their jobs and financial security at a time when most already felt that untamed neo-liberalism overemphasised the role of money and profit in public life. Even worse, for the past 10 to 15 years, government has asserted that many a public task could best be left to the free market. In a nutshell: the government lost its faith in government as a place to solve public problems and perform formerly public tasks. No public service remained untouched

The Netherlands was late in professing its devotion to Reaganism and Thatcherism. But when it finally did embrace the free market business model in the nineties, it never let go. Public transportation, energy supply, public housing, culture, health care, the way the legal system and education are managed, even the state itself - everything had to be given over to market principles. No public service remained untouched in this giant governance experiment while, at the same time, the quality of education was eroded by endless innovations and cuts.

Significantly, nobody has seriously examined whether any of the promised successes were delivered. But despite a lack of research, the failures are there for all to see. The death of a man who was beaten by an unregulated ('free') Amsterdam taxi driver is a fatal example.

The responsibility for all the outsourced services was shifted to a newly-created cottage industry of supervisors. Politicians are no longer at the wheel, which leaves some indifferent and others confounded by their lack of authority. The market supremacy in public administration - literally and mentally - has led to a privatisation of politics. The distinction between public and private duties has been deliberately blurred and it is an impossible task to try and find out who can be held accountable for what.

Democratic deficit

By ducking out of defining and defending the public interest, the Dutch political elite has allowed a democratic deficit to develop. This is a European Union-wide problem but more than anywhere else market mania in the Netherlands has created the atmosphere in which the cynicism and anger of anti-immigrant populists Pim Fortuyn, Rita Verdonk and Geert Wilders can flourish. The old political parties have been reduced to spectators in a plot that they themselves have drafted but can no longer control. The European Union has left the door ajar and people are feeling the draft.

Nevertheless, many people still rely on the welfare state to protect them in case of unemployment or illness, still expect the state to protect them against the sea and disasters, they still count on the state to call those who break the law to order. But the state can no longer guarantee everybody's wellbeing, nor can it stop dangers at the border. The European Union has left the door ajar and people are feeling the draft.

Nobody seems to be surprised when another major project, in infrastructure, social engineering, taxation or education, leads to enormous budget overruns and delays. Confidence in the competence and reliability of the government and democratic politics has collapsed. Parliament, having focused on the details of execution rather than on legislation and oversight, has suffered the same credibility drain.

National democracy can be fixed

What remains is an incident-driven government with all the symptoms of ADHD. It promises to fix traffic congestion, but shifts execution of its solution to beyond the next election. Every old problem deserves a new approach and new rules keep being made to replace numerous old ones. The welfare state is being reduced to a monitoring state.

But while the government seems to be looking backward rather than forward, the independent commission that is investigating the short Dutch involvement in George W. Bush's Iraq invasion has postponed the publication of its results. For all we know, it could be pushed beyond the date when prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende will or will not have been launched to a prominent European post. And it definitely obscures the real dilemma of how to deal with the war in Afghanistan. Will the Netherlands keep contributing to an obscure war that has only limited support even in the US?

And what about the climate crisis and the economic crisis? Topics galore on which the Dutch government is bound by the forces of reality to play a following role. Our national democracy, however, is the sole responsibility of the sixteen million Dutch. It can be fixed. If only they can agree, again, on what's public and what's not, on who is responsible and who is accountable.

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