Speech from the Throne 2020
Members of the States General,
I will never forget the Remembrance Day ceremony of 4 May 2020. It was simultaneously unreal and somehow hyperreal: an almost-empty Dam Square, the silence even more deafening than usual, and the knowledge that the celebration of 75 years of freedom would necessarily be more modest than envisaged. Because of coronavirus, everything this spring was suddenly different. A difference that’s also palpable at this year’s alternative Prinsjesdag, the state opening of parliament, held at a metre-and-a-half’s distance, not in the Knights Hall, with fewer people, less pageantry, and less red, white and blue.
I’d like to express my admiration and gratitude to all the healthcare workers and everyone else in our society who has done all they can to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Nurses and cleaners, special enforcement officers and military personnel, supermarket staff and public transport workers. I’d also like to express my support and sympathy to everyone who has contracted COVID-19, or has lost a loved one. But even for those who haven’t been ill or lost someone, the impact has been enormous. The coronavirus crisis affects us all. From Terschelling to Aruba. Young and old. With disabled people often being hit harder than others. We feel the crisis at school and at work. We feel the loss of physical contact. And above all, we feel less secure and less confident. Being unable to sit your exams, arrange more than a small-scale funeral, visit your husband or wife in the nursing home, keep your business alive or hold onto your job: these are all incredibly difficult experiences. It’s important to acknowledge that, and to give those feelings of stress, loneliness and loss the space they need. Soon, throughout the entire Kingdom, we will join together to give expression to that idea, under the motto, ‘Looking out for each other’.
Despite everything, a lot of good things have happened in the past few months. We have more appreciation for the country we live in. The fabric of our society has again proven strong. It’s always impressive to see how Dutch people help each other in times of need. It was impressive how, by working together, we were able to get the worst of the restrictions lifted within a couple of months. Equally impressive was the resilience of those entrepreneurs who, in all kinds of creative ways, kept their businesses up and running, of the teachers who supported their students online, and the parents who suddenly found themselves combining work and schooling at home. During the coronavirus crisis, the Netherlands has shown itself to be responsible, united and flexible. Let us keep that up for as long as necessary. And from it let us draw confidence for the future.
Because it’s precisely in times of sudden shocks that we need to think about the long term. We owe it to our young people, who in recent months have had to make sacrifices not only in their current lives, but also in terms of their future opportunities. A 94-year-old veteran prompted a heartfelt response when he wrote a letter to a newspaper calling on our country’s young people to stand firm and show solidarity with his generation. An 18-year-old student wrote back to him, expressing his gratitude for the freedom and opportunities that he and his contemporaries had grown up with. But he also spoke of how much they now missed that freedom, how they can only sit back and watch as key moments in their lives go by, and how the coronavirus crisis has made the future feel more uncertain than ever. That uncertainty permeates people’s education, housing and jobs. At the same time, concerns about overarching problems like climate change have become no less urgent in the current crisis. This young man’s letter touches at the core of Prinsjesdag, because prospects for the future always begin in the here and now. It is the mirror that tomorrow’s adults hold up to today’s.
In that knowledge, the government is opting not to cut spending at this uncertain time, but instead to invest in preserving jobs, good public services, a stronger economic structure and a cleaner country, both now and in the future. These are the pillars on which rest the government’s plans for the year ahead.
The Dutch economy and public finances are robust. In recent years we have built up a financial buffer, and we are now reaping the benefits. This public coin jar won’t make the virus’s impact on people’s health any less severe, but it does make us better able to deal with its immediate economic aftermath.
We now need to brace ourselves for the impact of a serious economic downturn, which will make itself felt in our economy and public finances in the longer term as well as the short. How exactly it does so will depend on how long and how severely COVID-19 continues to hold us in its grip. But the recent numbers and projections are unprecedented in peacetime. A historic contraction of over 5% in 2020. A historic swing from a budget surplus to a 7% deficit in a single year. And a doubling of unemployment, also in the space of a year. The economic setbacks facing our biggest European and global trading partners are in many cases even greater. For an open country like the Netherlands, with its focus on trade and exports, this is an extra complication, especially in the wake of Brexit.
The international consequences of the coronavirus crisis, both economic and geopolitical, are hard to overstate. Even deeper divisions seem to be appearing between the world’s biggest power blocs. In this year of the United Nations’ 75th anniversary, regrettably, national self-interest is increasingly the order of the day and the multilateral world order is under even more pressure. For the Dutch government it is indisputable that well-functioning international institutions and international cooperation are essential in order to tackle certain problems that no single country or region can overcome on its own. These include peace and security issues, poverty reduction, the climate crisis and our future energy supply, and now the fight against COVID-19 too.
Our country is taking responsibility in this regard. That is both a moral obligation and enlightened self-interest. The Netherlands will continue supporting the world’s most vulnerable regions, which have been hit hard by coronavirus. The government will also continue working to strengthen the operational deployment of Dutch military personnel. It’s clear that the world needs to look beyond the current crisis and prepare for a future pandemic or other external shock. COVID-19 has shown us that, at international level too, we stand stronger together in a crisis like this.
At European level, the growing geopolitical uncertainty and the coronavirus crisis have only increased the importance of cooperation and unified action in the wider world. For the Netherlands, being rooted in the European Union and the single market is fundamental to our prosperity, legal certainty and security. It’s true that European cooperation is often accompanied by fierce debate, and this sometimes magnifies the differences between countries. Yet our similarities and shared interests always bring the member states together again. The Netherlands is working closely with other European countries to speed up the development and distribution of a vaccine, for example. The European recovery fund will help member states cope better with the short-term consequences of the crisis and work on structural economic reforms in the longer term. It’s a form of solidarity that cuts both ways, with countries naturally helping their neighbours in times of need but also taking steps at home and making reforms to ensure we are all better prepared for the next crisis.
Thanks to extra public spending, our country was able to absorb the initial impact of the crisis on business and the labour market. Two packages of short-term support measures ensured that salaries continued to be paid and large-scale redundancies and bankruptcies were avoided as far as possible. A third package, available from 1 October, will run for a period of nine months. The goal is still to preserve as many jobs as possible. But following the emergency-support phase it’s also important that people take up education and training so they can make the switch to sectors experiencing labour shortages, and that companies can adapt to the new reality. With an additional package for art and culture worth almost half a billion euros, the government is underlining the huge importance of this sector to our society. Support for the public transport sector will continue, as many people rely on the bus, train, tram or metro in order to go about their daily business. Almost €800 million in extra funding will be made available to the municipalities for services such as community centres, sheltered employment and cultural institutions, and to help them organise ‘coronavirus-proof’ elections. In this way, subnational authorities and central government are working together as one through this crisis.
The government is talking with the hard-hit Caribbean parts of our Kingdom about what support can be offered, and under what conditions. The aim is to provide people with short-term support while contributing to future economic security and social stability. Humanitarian aid will continue to be available.
At the start of this period, the government decided to strengthen our country’s public services. The importance of this endeavour has, if anything, increased in this time of crisis. Investing in public safety, socioeconomic security and an attractive living environment will help us combat the crisis, make our economy more resilient, and foster confidence in the future. This approach is evident in various parts of the government’s plans.
Nowhere is the responsibility for the future of our children and young people felt and borne more directly than in our country’s classrooms and lecture halls. Extra money has been set aside so that in the major cities new steps can be taken to address the teacher shortage. Given this year’s extraordinary spring, with its empty classrooms, the government has also made available €500 million to help pupils and students catch up on what they have missed. This money can be used for extra tutoring, for example.
The government has allocated €5 billion to tackle nitrogen pollution in the years ahead. This money can be used, for example, for nature recovery and adapting livestock housing. This is needed to protect the natural environment, which we enjoy and must nurture for the future. It is needed to ensure a healthy and innovative future for the Dutch agricultural sector, which ensures a dependable food supply in good times and bad. And it’s needed to facilitate spatial development in the fields of house building and infrastructure.
Planned investment totalling almost €2 billion in infrastructure, housing construction and the maintenance and sustainability of government buildings will be brought forward. Good mobility is the backbone of the economy. The construction industry and housing market will be helped by the earlier implementation of construction projects.
Demand for housing remains high. Under the government’s supervision the building of new housing will be accelerated. For the next five years, first-time buyers will not have to pay conveyance duty. The government is proposing a reduction in the rent paid by low-income households living in expensive housing association accommodation.
The rule of law is society’s most important public good. It is the foundation of a democratic country that is socially and economically strong, where equality of opportunity is the norm. One year ago the brutal murder of the lawyer Derk Wiersum shocked the Netherlands. That day provided a stark reminder of how organised crime undermines society. Extra money will again be made available in the coming year in the unceasing fight against this scourge, including funds for a new specialised team combining expertise from the Tax and Customs Administration and the armed forces and the justice system.
There is another fundamental threat to the quality of the rule of law. Too often, still, a person’s name or the colour of their skin determines their opportunities in life. That is unacceptable. The public debate on this issue sometimes causes friction, but it can also help us move forward in the fight against discrimination, racism and unequal treatment. Overcoming differences begins with being prepared to listen to one another.
The government realises how crucial public trust in its own conduct is. The government must stand with the people, not against them. That’s why it’s so important that Groningen residents affected by earthquakes should be able to count on their damage being repaired and their homes reinforced as quickly as possible. The government is also determined to provide swift compensation to those parents who were victims of serious errors made in the childcare benefit system. Investing in the quality of our country’s public services remains essential.
In this period the government has made choices as part of the Pensions Agreement and the Climate Agreement that will determine our course over the longer term. If the necessary solidarity between young and old takes shape anywhere, it will be around these two issues. The elaboration and implementation of these agreements will be a lengthy process. Pensions will be made more personal and transparent. By making reforms now, we can ensure a good pension for everyone in the future. The government hopes to submit a bill for the modernisation of the pension system in 2021.
The goal of the National Climate Agreement and the Climate Act is to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 49% by 2030, with a view to a climate-neutral Netherlands by 2050. Later this autumn the first policy document on climate change will be presented. A number of different measures are planned for the coming year, including a carbon levy on industry, a smaller role for coal-fired power plants in electricity production, and measures to stimulate the circular economy, where waste is turned back into raw materials.
On top of all that, the government plans to make a flying start with the National Growth Fund. Its goal is to boost our country’s future earning capacity, and with it our future prosperity. The government will use this fund to invest in knowledge development, innovation and infrastructure. The last of these includes not only roads and rail but also digital and energy infrastructure. The Fund’s unique scale and timeframe will make it possible to hand over a wealthier, cleaner and more sustainable Netherlands to the young people of today. A total of €20 billion will be made available for the coming five-year period.
Finally, coronavirus has illustrated more clearly than ever how important it is to ensure that the best possible healthcare remains available – for future generations as well as today’s. International rankings have shown time and again that the Netherlands has a world-class healthcare system. But that doesn’t alter the fact that there are limits to what our healthcare institutions and personnel can cope with. In the short term we need to draw lessons from this experience so we are prepared for a possible second wave. In the longer term there will be different lessons. How we organise healthcare, for example, and the pressure of work that care staff face. How we create scope for more telemedicine, and address the need for prevention and innovation. The government will present proposals aimed at retaining as many healthcare workers as possible and persuading more people to work in this sector, for example through more career opportunities, less paperwork and greater autonomy. Public appreciation for healthcare workers will also be expressed in the form of a bonus for their extra efforts, both this year and next.
Members of the States General,
The coronavirus crisis is proving a severe test, in every area we care about: our health, our work, our families and our friends. And we realise that unity and responsibility are needed now more than ever. At this time, every generation has its own specific concerns and questions. But it is precisely in unity between the generations that everyone, young and old, can make their own contribution and overcome this difficult period. Our most important source of reassurance is the economic, social and psychological resilience our country continues to show. The task ahead in the parliamentary year that begins today is to stay focused on the future beyond this crisis, and to keep working to create new prospects for every generation. 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.