Speech from the Throne 2019
Members of the States General,
Precisely 75 years ago today, Operation Market Garden began. After years of subjugation and tyranny, hope for a better future literally came down from the heavens, in the form of thousands of Allied paratroopers. Those who, on 17 September 1944, witnessed the skies above Eindhoven, Arnhem and Nijmegen darken with their silhouettes would never forget the sight.
Seventy-five years later, the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law seem to have become givens. But anyone who considers the world at large will appreciate how remarkable it is to live in a country where people are able to feel safe and secure. Where freedom goes hand in hand with tolerance and a sense of responsibility. And where people are still always willing to lend each other a helping hand. It may be the divisions in society that get most attention in the public debate and social media, but for most of us the day-to-day reality is different. The Netherlands remains a country of volunteers and of sensible compromises in broad areas of common ground. From the young to the elderly, from the work floor to the boardroom, and from Willemstad to Amsterdam, people want to get involved and contribute. That is what unites us and what, together, we must cherish.
After the liberation, and in that same tradition, the Netherlands was rebuilt by the generations that came before us. Preserving and strengthening all that has been achieved is our duty to the generations that come after us. That is why the ambition at the heart of the Coalition Agreement is to build a society in which people feel secure, and are able to feel, maintain or regain confidence in the future.
That confidence begins with a strong democracy governed by the rule of law, which protects people from crime, arbitrary measures and abuse of power. It begins with decent work for decent pay. With good health and high-quality, accessible healthcare. With an education that provides opportunities. With a robust social network of family, friends, religious communities and other clubs and associations. And with an affordable home in a safe neighbourhood.
We often use statistics to inform debate. But the lives of more than 17 million individual Dutch people don’t fit a single mould. People pursue an education, change jobs, start their own businesses, buy a house, start relationships and have children. They suffer illness or the loss of a loved one. These kinds of choices and events have a big impact on our lives. A far bigger impact than a purchasing-power statistic, a macroeconomic growth percentage or a tax measure. No single life dovetails neatly with the median of a statistical model.
And yet, it is undeniable that a strong economy is essential if, together, we are to continue building a strong Netherlands. Good public services cost money, which first needs to be earned. The projections for next year are still encouraging. Never have so many people been in paid employment. The national debt is under control and the tax burden can be reduced. Projections for the coming year’s growth, purchasing power and budget balance are all positive.
But the reality is also that over the next few years the Netherlands will enter a period of more moderate growth. Our internationally oriented economy is vulnerable to turbulence on the global market, not least as a consequence of trade conflicts. What’s more, the prospect of Brexit casts a long shadow. This means a ‘profit warning’ is in order, both for the short and the long term, requiring us to think about how the Netherlands will earn its living in the future and remain a country with good public services.
The Coalition Agreement contains a commitment to strengthen our public services. This is a work in progress, across the board. Staff in nursing homes are getting more time and space to give residents the personal attention they need. Our military personnel are getting new equipment to help them do their jobs more effectively. More police officers are being recruited. We are investing in our roads and railways. Throughout the Netherlands, regional plans are being put into practice to improve the living environment in rural areas and seize economic opportunities. Together with municipalities and civil society organisations, the government has launched a major offensive aimed at preventing or reducing problem debt in families. Measures are in place to ensure that people with a disability can find a job more easily. And in the Caribbean part of the Netherlands, too, we are working to increase purchasing power, improve infrastructure and enhance governance.
The government realises full well that not every issue can be solved immediately with an injection of cash. Major efforts have been made, for example, to make the teaching profession more attractive, leading to reduced work pressure and higher job satisfaction. We’re also seeing growing interest in primary school teacher training and lateral entry into primary teaching from other professions. Nevertheless, the shortage of teachers remains acute. The government will continue encouraging more people to join this rewarding profession.
By concluding national agreements on pensions and climate action, we are changing our country’s course for both the medium and the long term. The generations that follow us also have a right to a good pension, clean air and a liveable country. The major changes that are needed require a forward-looking approach. The same was true back in the days of the far-reaching decisions to protect the Netherlands with the Barrier Dam and the Delta Works. They were investments borne of necessity, which gave us the knowledge and experience we need now to work on flood prevention for the 21st century, both in our own country and around the world. The decision to make the Netherlands climate-neutral by 2050 is not only essential, but also presents a wealth of opportunities. Clean air and new forms of energy can go hand in hand with sustainable agriculture, clean mobility and opportunities for innovative businesses.
The implementation of the pensions and climate agreements will begin this parliamentary year. You can expect proposals aimed at slowing the rise in the state pension age and ensuring that people reach that age in good health and gainful employment. Where the National Climate Agreement is concerned, the goals will be met, while ensuring the costs are divided fairly and we don’t have to change everything overnight. We are now taking the first steps. We are introducing a carbon tax for industry. We will enable households to complete the energy transition step by step by cutting energy tax and launching an energy retrofit fund to encourage homeowners to invest in climate measures.
In addition to the measures set out in the Coalition Agreement, a number of concrete plans will address short-term issues. A country is never static. Urgent new issues continue to arise.
One example is the court judgment on nitrogen emissions which compels us to find a different approach that still enables spatial development in the Netherlands. Another is the decision to tackle problems in the youth care system by providing municipalities with extra funding. A stimulus programme will facilitate the faster construction of more new houses for first-time buyers and middle-income households. Housing associations that build more social housing will qualify for a tax credit against the levy on landlords. And by giving the courts and the Public Prosecution Service more room to manoeuvre we will strengthen the rule of law. A final example is the decision to phase out gas extraction in Groningen even more rapidly than previously agreed. People who live in a house that needs reinforcing can be assured of greater urgency and the government is investing in the future of the entire region, through the National Programme for Groningen.
Furthermore, in the coming period the government wants to lay the groundwork for several long-term goals. One key question is how the Dutch economy can continue growing sustainably over the next 20 or 30 years. Before the end of this year the government will present a broad growth agenda, followed early next year by a plan for an investment fund. The goal is to facilitate specific projects in the areas of knowledge development, innovation and infrastructure, which will strengthen the foundations on which the future economy rests.
There are also big long-term questions in the health and care sector. It’s good that average life expectancy continues to rise. But with it the number of chronic conditions is rising too, and there are limits to the amount of personnel and resources available to address the growing need for more care. In the present period, important steps are already being taken, such as targeted measures to attract or retain more healthcare professionals. Sector-wide agreements are being concluded to limit rising expenditure and improve care. And new heath agreements in the areas of sport and prevention should reduce future demand for healthcare. But more still needs to be done. The long-term question is: how can we keep healthcare up to standard and accessible to all? How, moving forward, can we ensure we have sufficient compassionate caregivers, whether in an institution or a home-care environment, those indispensable people who are available night and day? And how can we apply technological healthcare innovations at scale? By summer 2020, the government will have drawn up a broad outline of the future organisation of our healthcare system.
Confidence in the future also relates to the way in which people feel represented, and to the quality of public services. Government and politics must be of the people and for the people. Achieving improvements on both scores is another ambition for the coming period.
In response to the advisory opinion of the National Commission on the Parliamentary System the government will present proposals to modernise and simplify the electoral system, with more scope for voters to influence who precisely is elected to the House of Representatives. A youth parliament will also be launched to give young people a louder voice.
The services provided by public authorities need to be much higher on the agenda. Implementing agencies such as the Tax and Customs Administration and the Employee Insurance Agency are the face of government. They are where the public comes into contact with the government. People have a right to expect a good level of service when they have dealings with a public authority. The current problems have a range of causes: outdated IT systems, staff shortages and too much (as well as too detailed) policy that makes its implementation too complex. As a result, staff at these agencies sometimes face an impossible task, and the human dimension gets lost in the process. The systematic improvements that are needed will take time, and they require a coordinated approach. The government will make proposals to this end.
Of course, as we start to celebrate 75 years since our liberation, we are all the more aware of the degree to which prosperity and wellbeing in the Netherlands depend on what happens in the rest of the world. Our liberators came from across our border. And in the years after the war the promise of a better future, felt so intensely then, was given palpable expression and substance through new international organisations such as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union.
Rooting the Netherlands in these international structures has brought our country great benefits. International stability and the proper functioning of the post-war multilateral world order are crucial for the rule of law in the Netherlands and for the strength of our economy. The Netherlands’ interests and our international duty to advance the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law are extensions of each other. That idea is also at the heart of Dutch policy on development cooperation and the deployment of our military personnel on missions abroad. It is partly thanks to them that we have now lived in peace and security for 75 years.
But the multilateral system is under pressure. The ground rules are changing rapidly. The position of countries like China and India as major economic and political powers and the stance adopted by Russia are changing the world’s geopolitical relations. Aspects of our old and cherished partnerships with the United States and the United Kingdom are being redefined. Global free trade is under threat from protectionism and trade conflicts. The Netherlands and Europe must respond with self-assurance and realism.
As far as the government is concerned, transatlantic cooperation and the European Union are unquestionably the cornerstones of Dutch foreign policy. Nevertheless, many aspects of the post-war multilateral system are in urgent need of modernisation. Examples include international protection of intellectual copyright, cybersecurity and the effectiveness of decision-making at the UN and the World Trade Organization.
A glance at a map of the world shows that the need for a strong, united European Union is only growing more urgent. That is the way to promote the interests of the individual member states, and not least of the Netherlands. Public support for and the effectiveness of the Union demand that it set clear priorities, seize shared opportunities and address cross-border problems that countries cannot solve alone. The Netherlands’ priorities are clearly reflected in the EU’s new Strategic Agenda: security, a strong and sustainable European economy, a common climate policy, respect for the rule of law, and last but not least, an effective policy on migration.
It is true that the number of migrants coming to Europe has fallen dramatically compared with 2015. But the sustained pressure on Europe’s external border, the appalling fate of many migrants who try to cross the Mediterranean and the lack of solidarity among EU member states all require that we take new steps. Every country must do its part. The Netherlands always takes in refugees, those who genuinely need our help, and gives them a chance to participate in society, with all the rights and obligations that this entails. And that is precisely why the issue of asylum seekers who have no prospect of obtaining a residence permit, some of whom are responsible for crime or nuisance, has to be addressed. Here, also, the EU must act in concert, particularly in our dealings with countries of origin. In this way we can preserve public support for a humane and fair asylum policy.
The political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela means that the Caribbean part of the Kingdom is also confronted with the threat of large-scale migration and its economic consequences. The Netherlands is offering practical aid and assistance in this regard.
Members of the States General,
Recently, a 96-year-old Engelandvaarder, who escaped the occupation and participated in the liberation of our country as a member of the Prinses Irene Brigade, said the following: ‘I feel a responsibility to pass the message to younger generations that you must engage in resistance if necessary.’ His name is Rudi Hemmes. As a young man this hero put his life on the line for the future of our nation. And now, 75 years later, the future is still what drives him. That is not only inspiring – it is a task we all share.
As members of the States General, you bear a special responsibility in this regard. 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.