The Netherlands has a reputation as one of the sensible, efficient countries of Europe. Asked to predict which government was most likely to collapse in the face of a national scandal, many EU watchers would not have bet on Mark Rutte’s government.
But while the political fallout has been extraordinary — Rutte cycled to the palace earlier today to tender his entire cabinet’s resignation to the king — the scandal that preceded it has a curiously Dutch feel. Their failure? Mismanagement of the country’s complex child benefit system. Thousands of parents have been driven to financial ruin. A parliamentary committee looking into the tax office fiasco last month labelled it an ‘unprecedented injustice’; unblinking criticism which Rutte took on the nose, describing it as 'fair' when announcing his cabinet’s resignation to the world.
Over the last decade, some 20,000 parents had been incorrectly labelled as fraudsters by the tax office — sometimes for the most minor mistakes in child benefit forms — and chased for every cent ever claimed. With ‘debts’ in the tens of thousands of euros, some lost their homes, marriages, jobs, and even children.
Earlier this week, former social affairs minister Lodewijk Asscher resigned as opposition Labour leader for his role in the furore — increasing pressure on the cabinet to take decisive action. Although the resignation of the government is an extreme and rare move — last done in 2002 — all of the cabinet except economic affairs minister Eric Wiebes will remain in a ‘caretaker’ function, primarily to manage coronavirus measures until a general election in March. The Covid crisis has proved an effective source of political stability. At a press conference on Friday, Rutte spoke in characteristically liberal terms:
“The rule of law should protect citizens against an all-powerful government and here it has gone wrong in a terrible way… At every level, in the whole political, administrative and judicial system, mistakes have been made which left thousands of parents with huge problems and responsibility lies with the sitting cabinet and nowhere else.
The Prime Minister said that his ‘caretaker’ government’s first priority was to make sure money is returned. A €500 million (£450 million) package, promised last month, will give at least €30,000 (£26,700) each to some 10,000 parents. Rutte said the payments would be money in parents' pockets rather than just paying off further debts. Some people will get more if they are owed more, but the entire parliament agrees that speed is of the essence, with some of these injustices going back years. He also promised changes to ensure more openness in government. The tax office has admitted that 11,000 dual nationality parents were targeted for special scrutiny in the affair — Rutte promised to reform the system if it transpired that such scrutiny had been based on racism.
Yet there are those who doubt whether the intentions behind the mass resignation are entirely straightforward. Wim Voermans, professor of constitutional and administrative law at Leiden University, has said that the mass resignations could end up blocking a parliamentary debate on the matter next week.
Meanwhile, some of the affected parents were disappointed that Rutte, who has been in power since 2010, refused point-blank to take personal responsibility and resign as leader of his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The centre-right liberals are currently leading in the polls and look to take almost a third of seats in the parliament in two months’ time, meaning Rutte would probably form the next government, securing his premiership for a fourth term.
Parents like 45-year-old Kristie Rongen are left with a bittersweet feeling. She was forced to pay back €92,000 (£81,800) for childcare claimed on behalf of her three children, suffering huge financial and psychological consequences — at one point she only had enough food to give her children bread and butter for dinner. ‘I am so happy [that the cabinet has resigned] but Rutte standing again is a slap in the face for parents,’ she said. ‘We will not stop.’
Rongen is one of 20 claimants who have begun a legal case, appealing to the Supreme Court to censure five senior politicians including economic affairs minister Eric Wiebes for ‘criminal negligence’. Such a move would mean that, if the court’s special prosecutor agreed to progress the case, the justice minister would decide whether those MPs should face criminal charges and penalties. Vasco Groeneveld, their lawyer, told me the parents did not believe that political actions were enough:
“My clients are pleased with this but it makes no difference to our claim. This is about political responsibility but as far as we are concerned, it is now about criminal responsibility: they want the financial compensation to which they have a right but also, if the government has done such wrong to its own citizens, a criminal investigation into the politicians.
However, Christian Democratic Appeal MP Pieter Omtzigt, who has been campaigning for the parents since 2017 said that the fall of the government was an important step that needs to lead to more openness in government, including a constitutional court to protect citizens’ rights. ‘The cabinet has drawn the right conclusions, but the resignation will only be symbolic if it is not paired with solving the essential problems that have eaten away at our rule of law,’ he said. ‘It will be a long process.’
As that long process gets underway, Rutte has effectively deflected a no-confidence vote and is laying the groundwork for his re-election. That cycle ride to the palace to dissolve his government may well prove to be a mere detour in his political journey.