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Strong rhetoric in Brussels leads to inflexibility at home

International news in the last couple of days are full of reports about the pending need for austerity measures and budget cuts in the Netherlands. What stands out are the numerous reminders that it was the holier-than-thou attitude of the Dutch government with respect to other euro member states that contributed to the hardened stance of the European Commission now. “We think that the Netherlands is one country that has been very vocal when supporting the reinforcement of our fiscal surveillance rules,” Amadeu Altafaj, European Commission economy spokesman, said in comments  e-mailed to Edward Hugh on March 7. “So it’s absolutely normal to believe that the Netherlands will apply this same approach to its own fiscal policies,” he added.

As the Guardian put it in an interesting article, citing our colleague Paul Nieuwenburg, ‘the air in Brussels is thick with stories of pots and kettles’. There are considerable moral and political dilemmas for the government as the coalition partners try to come up with new budget cuts that spread the pain between the constituencies and supporters of the different parties. One  clear consequence of the strong rhetoric used by the Minister of Finance on Greece and on budgetary discipline in general in Brussels is that now the Dutch government cannot easily ask for some flexibility in balancing the budget over time.

What I find interesting here, next to the political dilemmas involved in holding together the minority government and negotiating the cuts, is the question of professionalism. The professionalism of an administration is defined, among others, by its ability for strategic planning, which includes anticipation of factors that may affect the economic and political aspects of policy making over a year or two or even longer. The level of Dutch mortgage debt has been known for several years and the question how sustainable it is has been raised by economists quite often in the last two years. The lack of anticipation that makes the Dutch government appear unprofessional now cannot be attributed to the civil servants and the economists of the Central Planning Bureau (CPB), since they are known to be very good at strategic planning and  policy evaluation and they appear to deliver data and work that is as reliable as ever. Another possible explanation is that an administration can only be as professional as its leadership and the good work of an organization can be damaged by erratic leadership. It could be that the Minister of Finance  has  been carried away by his own rhetoric, by the strong statements on other countries finances that he has become famous for in these crisis times. The consequences of populist rhetoric appear to include less than professional policy making…

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One thought on “Strong rhetoric in Brussels leads to inflexibility at home

  1. With regard to the deductibility of mortgage interest payments, all I can say is that it is the third rail of Dutch politics: touch it and you die, especially if you’re centre-right.

    More generally, I find that Dutch politics these days is more incident-based than it used to be. As long as the economy was doing OK, no one at the political level saw any need for worrying about the future…

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