Speech from the Throne 2016
Members of the States General,
Over the past few years the Netherlands has got back on firmer ground. The financial and economic crisis is behind us. We live in a prosperous and attractive country, which compares favourably with other countries. We have good public services and good infrastructure, and the rule of law is strong. There is a lot to be proud of and to build on.
Yet in the maelstrom of daily life, we feel a sense of disquiet and unease that is symptomatic of our times. With everything that is going on in the world, it’s understandable for us as a society to feel anxiety and cling to what we know. After all, the international terrorist threat, instability on Europe’s external borders, the refugee issue and economic uncertainty on the global markets are real problems with a big impact on daily life.
However, this is not the first time in our country’s history that we have had to look for solutions in the face of threatening and unpredictable developments. And it won’t be the last time that we join together to find those solutions. The recently deceased former Prime Minister Piet de Jong, who elevated his sensible approach to unrest and change almost to an art form, spoke often in his day of the need for ‘steady progress’. ‘It is the government’s job’, he once said, ‘to look ahead to what the future has in store and to make, without delay, the necessary changes to seize the opportunities it offers.’
This government took office in the firm belief that healthy public finances and a strong economy form the basis of a sound, compassionate welfare system, good healthcare, good education and high-quality public services for generations to come. With each major change that has occurred, the aim of government policy has remained the same: ensuring a future in which progress, innovation and economic growth can continue to go hand-in-hand with protection, solidarity and looking out for each other, in the best traditions of our country.
A few years ago, these achievements were under pressure. The economy was shrinking, the budget deficit was almost 4% and the number of people seeking work peaked at 700,000 – around 8% of the labour force. In addition, house prices had fallen substantially, the affordability of the state pension was under threat, and annual healthcare costs were rising much more quickly than national income.
The fact that our country is now in significantly better shape than it was a few years ago, and is back in Europe’s leading group, is a collective achievement. The Netherlands succeeded in bridging political differences and reconciling different social interests. Never before had so many major reforms been introduced at the same time, often with the support of opposition parties and civil society organisations. It happened in healthcare and education, in the labour market and the housing market, in the state pension system, the energy sector and the financial sector. In the process, a great deal was asked of people. Many had to make financial sacrifices, and great demands were made of people’s willingness to accept changes in their daily lives. Without the perseverance, hard work and enterprise of the Dutch people, the outcome would have been less positive.
For several years, the Dutch economy has been steadily growing again. And in spite of Brexit, it is forecast to grow by 1.7% in 2017. The housing market has rallied and increases in healthcare costs have been reined in. The budget deficit will fall to 0.5% next year and the national debt is also falling quickly towards 60% of our national income.
This is providing more room for manoeuvre. Fewer homeowners are in negative equity, making it easier for people to move. Tenants will enjoy greater financial leeway thanks to an increase in housing benefit. Entrepreneurs that have confidence in the future will be more prepared to invest in employees and renew their businesses. And families will have more money to spend.
More and more people are getting back into work. Since 2014, an additional 225,000 jobs have been created in the Netherlands. Unemployment has been gradually brought down to 5.8%. More jobseekers over the age of 45 have found a job – a welcome development. The number of young people in work is at its highest for seven years. Good progress is being made implementing agreements with employers on creating more jobs for people with a work disability. Labour participation is also growing because more and more Dutch people are willing and able to play an active part in the labour market. This does mean, however, that the number of people without work is declining less quickly than was hoped. Tackling unemployment – particularly long-tem employment – therefore remains a top priority.
The government has agreed a number of targeted measures with employer and employee representatives. For example, the rules on seasonal work are being relaxed and unemployed people over 50 will be given more intensive support in finding work. For people aged 21 and over, the young person’s minimum-wage rate will be abolished in two stages, because young people also deserve a full wage. Employers will be compensated to offset any negative impact on employment.
The risks and uncertainties facing our open and internationally oriented economy mainly come from abroad. We feel the impact of lower growth in emerging markets like China and Brazil. The prospect of Brexit is a new source of uncertainty in Europe that affects the Netherlands directly. The United Kingdom is an important trading partner and Brexit will cost jobs in our country too. The government’s aim is to maintain its strong economic ties with the UK.
Cooperation in Europe is essential for the Netherlands’ open economy. Within the European Union, the Netherlands will continue to focus on growth and jobs. The Netherlands has a direct interest in a stable euro, a robust and effective banking union, and a strong and fair single European market, with equal pay for the same work in the same place.
Positive financial and economic developments are slowly but surely providing renewed scope for growth in incomes and targeted investment in the future. It is extremely encouraging that purchasing power will grow again both this year and next for people in work, the elderly and people on benefits. This means the government will again ensure a balanced distribution of purchasing power. Healthcare benefit will be raised. A €200 million stimulus will make it easier for young parents to arrange childcare, enabling them to combine work and family responsibilities. It is important that children who are at risk of growing up in poverty can take part in school trips, join a sports club and have the chance to take music lessons. €100 million will be set aside for this purpose. Planned cutbacks in long-term care for the elderly and people with disabilities totalling half a billion euros will be scrapped. In education, extra money will be made available to promote equal opportunities. The allowance for specific educational expenses in secondary vocational education, for example for work clothes, tools and software, will be increased.
The energy transition, sustainability, accessibility and education are all areas which require major investment. Besides the major players, small and medium-sized enterprises too need to be able to obtain finance for new growth. The government will submit proposals to better support investment of this kind where necessary.
Investing in the future also means tackling problems like those that have arisen in the earthquake-affected area of the province of Groningen. Their impact is far-reaching and the government intends to work with all concerned in Groningen to find solutions. Safety risks are being limited by halving gas production compared with 2012 and by reinforcing homes and other buildings.
The consequences of climate change necessitate substantial investment and innovations in renewable energy sources like wind, water and sunlight. Commitments on clean and affordable energy are laid down in the Energy Agreement for Sustainable Growth. Not only is this good for the environment, it also provides jobs and opportunities for Dutch businesses.
In view of the security situation, both close to home and in the wider world, in 2017 the government will again increase spending on the armed forces, the police, the administration of justice and the Public Prosecution Service. The defence budget has been gradually raised since 2014, rising to an additional €870 million in 2020 on a structural basis.
The crime figures in the Netherlands are falling steadily and the government will continue to invest in improving safety and security. The 2016 budget already provided for a structural increase of €250 million for this purpose, and from 2017 onwards an extra €450 million will be made available on top of this. This will give the people who work day in, day out to ensure our safety – from neighbourhood police officers to special counterterrorism units, from public prosecutors to prison officers – more scope to carry out their tasks.
In the past year the world has again been shocked by appalling jihadist attacks, which have caused untold sorrow and human suffering. France, Belgium, Germany and Turkey are among the countries hardest hit.
We cannot and will not, in any way whatsoever, allow terrorists to threaten our freedom, security and democratic values. The plan of action ‘An Integrated Approach to Jihadism’ combines preventive and reactive measures. The government aims to eliminate the conditions that breed radicalisation, partly by promoting active citizenship in schools. It is becoming more difficult for would-be jihadists to travel to conflict zones, and their benefits are being stopped. Criminal charges are being brought against them and they risk losing their Dutch nationality if convicted.
Cooperation within Europe is crucial in the fight against terrorism. In the European Union, the Netherlands is working hard to improve information-sharing between European intelligence and investigative agencies, strengthen joint border control, stem the flow of terrorist financing, and enhance cybersecurity.
Outside Europe, the Netherlands continues to contribute military, humanitarian and political resources to the fight against ISIS in the conflict zones in Syria and Iraq. Our military and aid personnel there and elsewhere in the world are doing important work in difficult circumstances for the sake of international stability and people suffering oppression.
Working in close cooperation with the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom, the government conducted a successful campaign for non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. UN reform is an important theme for the government. In substantive terms its key priorities are combining peace, security and development in an integrated approach, preventing conflict and protecting civilians.
War and terrorism drive innocent people from their homes, condemning them to an uncertain future. During the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2016, many initiatives were launched to bring the flow of refugees from Syria and other vulnerable countries under control. This policy is based on three pillars: removing the reasons to flee by improving living conditions and countering violence in the area affected; reception in the region; and combating people smuggling via perilous sea routes. Dutch assistance includes €260 million to enhance reception in the region.
Arrangements were agreed with the Turkish government in March this year to stem the flow of refugees and ensure it was better regulated. This has substantially reduced both the number of appalling deaths by drowning during improvised sea crossings between Turkey and Greece, and the number of asylum seekers coming to Europe. In the coming period attention will need to be paid to the further implementation of these arrangements.
The Netherlands is a country that offers everyone who is eligible the chance to integrate in our society and everyone who lives here the chance to feel at home. Asylum seekers who come to the Netherlands are offered decent but simple reception facilities. Last year we managed to do this thanks to the efforts of municipalities, support agencies and many volunteers. People who want to build a future in the Netherlands must be prepared to learn the language and make an active contribution. We expect everyone to make a conscious and positive commitment to our country and our way of life. The mandatory participation statement will enter into force in 2017. Allowing asylum seekers to do voluntary work is one way in which the government will promote participation and integration.
It is typical of our country’s character that private initiatives have arisen in many neighbourhoods and municipalities to encourage asylum seekers to interact with society. At the same time, it is understandable that there are concerns in society at large about the arrival of large groups of refugees. We wonder whether differences in our cultures and in our norms and values might be too great, and whether too great a strain might be placed on public services.
The Netherlands fought long and hard for numerous democratic values, including the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. In our country, men and women are equal before the law, and we do not discriminate on the grounds of race, belief or sexual orientation. Everyone who wishes to live in our country must respect these values and abide by them. Nobody is asked to repudiate their own background or culture, but constitutional norms are inviolable, and intimidation and violence will meet with a firm response.
Members of the States General,
The Netherlands is a strong country in an unstable world. The results we have achieved together in recent years enable us to look forward with confidence. It would be unwise to underestimate the problems and international uncertainties facing the Netherlands. But history teaches us that ‘steady progress’ is possible by working together towards solutions, both in our own country and with our international partners.
This also holds true for your work in the parliamentary year that begins today. In discharging your duties, you may feel supported in the knowledge that many are wishing you wisdom and join me in praying for strength and God’s blessing upon you.