Winning Dutch parties reach coalition deal

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Monday’s coalition agreement between the centre-left Labour Party (PvdA) and the free market liberal VVD Party will see the Netherlands with a new pro-European, pro-austerity government that plans on slashing 16 billion euros from its spending by 2017.

“Getting government finances in order is an absolute priority,” said second-time Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who, along with coalition partner Diederik Samsom of the PvdA, has targeted healthcare, social security and education for cuts. “Everybody will have to make sacrifices,” Samsom said.

For students, that means replacing grants with loans that have to be paid back and no more free travel on the rail network. Also on the chopping block are free school books.

“I think Holland will loose a lot of students because of this,” says recent Amsterdam nursing student Karima Adda, whose parents come from Morocco. She depended on grants for her education.

“Scrapping student grants, changing the travel card and scrapping health insurance benefits will cost students some €5,000 a year,” said Thijs van Reekum, chairman of student lobby group ISO.

The new leaders also pledged to raise the legal drinking age from 16 to 18 years old.

Immigration and integration
For migrants and refugees, the new coalition is offering a mixed bag. Amnesty will be granted to all refugee children who have lived in the country for more than five years, settling part of a contentious battle that has been fought out in the country’s municipalities for years. Direct family members will also be allowed to stay with them, removing old obstacles that saw some family members receiving asylum while others were sent across the border.

But immigrants will be excluded from receiving welfare for the first seven years of their residency in the Netherlands, and the residency requirement for both voting in local elections and nationalisation will increase from five to seven years.

Burqa ban
A burqa ban will also come into effect in education, public transport, healthcare and in government buildings, where face covering clothing will not be allowed. And any person who wears face-covering clothes will not be entitled to receive social security. And the same sanction will apply to people who don’t speak Dutch: a basic command of the language will be a condition for receiving government money.

Development aid, which now stands at 4.6 billion euros, is expected to be cut by one billion euros. “It is shocking, much worse than expected…,” said Farah Karimi, director of Oxfam Novib. “Two international agreements are being broken. We will be under the 0.7% of GDP limit for development aid and there is no extra money for climate policies in developing countries.”

But both labour and liberal leaders say the cuts are necessary to ensure that the Netherlands comes out of the Euro crisis strengthened. One of the strongest European economies, the Netherlands is still facing rising unemployment, lower housing prices and a stagnant economy. Siding with Germany, the new government, like its predecessor, is choosing the path of fiscal belt-tightening and deficit reduction.

Building bridges?
Under the new economic blueprint, people with higher incomes are expected to bear more of the burden for balancing the budget. Both sides are saying they made concessions in order to “build bridges” between the ideologically opposed pro-labour PvdA and pro-business VVD parties.

In other issues, the Netherlands, which had been considering bidding for the 2028 Olympics (exactly a century after Amsterdam held the games last), will no longer try to host the games. The costs of bidding for and staging them, said the new agreement, is too financially risky and has little public support at the moment.

Weed pass
The controversial “weed pass” will also be scrapped. Dutch officials in the south of the country have instituted an embattled and largely unsuccessful policy whereby cannabis can only be sold to card-carrying Dutch residents. The plan was expected to be rolled out in the rest of the country at the start of 2013.

But under the new proposals, while the weed pass is out, coffee shops that sell cannibis will still be restricted to local residents who have identity cards to prove it.

”I don’t see any difference,” says a man who wants to be identified only as Bob S. He has been selling cannabis at Amsterdam’s Yo-Yo coffee shop for 22 years.

“We still are not able to welcome foreign customers, so that sounds exactly the same as the weed pass.” Still, he says he doubts authorities will be able to enforce the new policy. “It’s the same with the smoking ban in small cafes,” he says. “No one ever came here to check. So I’m not really worried.”