The Netherlands is expected to get a long-awaited new coalition government next week, after negotiators told MPs in writing that they are finalising an agreement between the same four parties effectively thrown out by the electorate last January.
Parliament breaks for Christmas on December 17th, and in a briefing on Wednesday the negotiators said: “The talks are so advanced that the four parties have set the target of presenting the coalition agreement before the Christmas recess so that members will have time to debate it.”
The third consecutive coalition led by prime minister Mark Rutte collapsed on January 15th in the fallout from a scandal in which more than 26,000 families – a high proportion of them of dual nationality – were wrongly accused of fraudulently claiming childcare benefits.
A general election in March again returned Mr Rutte’s Liberals (VVD) as the country’s largest party. However, the centrist D66, led by former diplomat Sigrid Kaag, replaced Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party as the second-largest, forcing the Christian Democrats into fourth.
The aftermath of the election was a litany of rows which soured relations between the main parties and left the negotiations effectively paralysed through the summer months and beyond.
In the first, a negotiator’s notes were photographed from a distance outside parliament. The notes appeared to reveal opposition to including Christian Democrat MP Peter Omtzigt – who first revealed the childcare benefits scandal – in a new administration.
Mr Rutte at first denied the the notes reflected his views. But as political pressure mounted, he claimed a “failure of recollection” and was subsequently censured for lying to parliament.
Ms Kaag also suffered a significant reversal of fortune when she was forced to resign as foreign minister for failing to manage the evacuation of interpreters and other vulnerable staff from Kabul, as the Taliban overran Afghanistan in mid-August.
Although details of the programme for government have not been revealed, it’s been widely trailed as including measures – including perhaps a new ministry – to tackle a crisis in affordable rental accommodation and long waiting lists for social housing.
There is also expected to be a multibillion-euro fund to cut nitrogen dioxide emissions using a number of strategies including buying out the biggest agricultural polluters. Education reforms long favoured by D66 may include a longer school day and free or subsidised nursery care.
As an indication of the seriousness of the agreement, it’s understood ministerial posts have already been divided between the parties, with the Liberals getting eight, D66 getting six, the Christian Democrats four, and the junior partners, the socially conservative Christian Union, on two.
Mr Rutte is widely expected to return at the head of his fourth consecutive cabinet – though this has not yet been officially confirmed.