Speech from the Throne 2021
Members of the States General,
‘Every time is a time of transition,’ wrote the historian Hermann von der Dunk. He was expressing the idea that, when we look back on history, we often see continuity and constant themes. And yet many people, understandably, are experiencing our own time as a period of enormous and unavoidable change. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, which continues to impact our lives strongly. Because of big domestic issues, too, such as access to the housing market, reducing nitrogen emissions, equal opportunities in education and the labour market, and protecting and strengthening the rule of law. And above all, because of all-encompassing problems such as climate change and shifting global power relations.
These major international developments may feel abstract and distant, but they are not. This summer, climate change hit close to home when, in just a couple of dramatic days, residents of Limburg saw their houses and businesses submerged by extreme rainfall. Geopolitical developments were also brought home with the heartbreaking images and stories coming out of Afghanistan. For 20 years the international community worked in Afghanistan to foster international stability and security, democracy and human rights, and opportunities for women and girls. Now, once again, an uncertain future awaits the Afghan people.
For many Dutch Afghanistan veterans, this outcome – after a decades-long military presence and many sacrifices – is hard to take. For our military personnel and diplomats the final weeks were an extremely intense and anxious time, in which they did all they could to bring as many people as possible to safety. For that they deserve our deep respect and great appreciation. At the same time, we realise that this story is not over. Those who remained behind face an uncertain fate. Events unfolding five thousand kilometres away directly threaten our most deeply held values and our own security.
It is logical that people may wonder: what do all these developments mean for me personally? For our way of life? For my future and that of my children? For years now, research has shown that Dutch people enjoy high levels of life satisfaction, but worry greatly about the country and the world around them. This concern and uncertainty is exacerbated by the increasingly polarising tone of public debate, at both national and international level.
But despite these justified concerns, it is worth remembering that the Netherlands remains a fine country in which to live. A country that, in macroeconomic terms, ranks among the best. If we continue to face the future together, we can achieve a great deal.
The budget that the government is presenting to you today is concerned with the implementation of existing policy. This is in keeping with the caretaker status of the government, which in January of this year resigned and thus accepted responsibility for the serious failings in the childcare benefit system. Major new decisions for the long term must be left to a future government. But equally, this does not absolve the sitting government of its duty to do what is necessary. Some issues are so pressing that doing nothing now would needlessly put our country at a disadvantage. The government therefore believes that, where existing policy is concerned, it is right to take extra steps in the year ahead in areas such as climate change, the rule of law and housing.
Behind us is a period that was largely dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ahead of us is a year in which we hope to gradually return to a more normal situation. So it is an appropriate time both to look back and to look forward.
First and foremost, during the pandemic the Dutch people showed once again that we are willing to be there for each other – as family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Many are grieving the loss of a loved one. Others are still contending with the physical and emotional effects of the virus. And still others, whether old or young, are having to cope with loneliness and depression. Fortunately, many have been able to turn to the people around them for support. What is more, all over the country initiatives have been launched to help people and ensure they aren’t isolated. It is important that we continue paying attention to the consequences of the pandemic, even as we move into a new phase.
It was also impressive to see how many people continued working through the crisis, for the good of all, and often under difficult conditions. The Netherlands is grateful to you all. We thank the police officers and special enforcement officers who worked to keep us safe. We thank the military personnel who in various places stepped into the breach. We thank all those working in the education system and childcare centres, public transport and the logistics sector. We thank everyone, everywhere, who made a contribution. And, of course, we thank all those working in hospitals, nursing homes and home care. Their relentless efforts have been extraordinary. The period ahead will be about enabling these professionals to recover physically and psychologically from the strain, while at the same time ensuring that delayed operations and procedures can be performed.
During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen how crucial and effective regional, national and international cooperation and coordination in the healthcare sector can be. That is important as we look to the post-pandemic period and try to address two key questions. The first is: how do we make sure we are prepared for a future pandemic? The government is currently developing a plan for this. It is by definition an international issue, because a virus doesn’t stop at national borders. In the short term, the key priority is to make enough vaccines available around the world. The Netherlands is taking responsibility in this regard. For every vaccine dose given here, we are donating one elsewhere. The second question is: how can we arrange our healthcare system in the future so that it continues to offer accessible, affordable and high-quality care? This is the time to take the discussion forward and prepare decisions on this issue.
During the pandemic, already-vulnerable groups were hit extra hard by all the restrictions. Take vulnerable elderly people at home or in nursing care, or people with health problems or a disability. As the crisis unfolded, their quality of life suffered even more. And for many teenagers and young adults, 18 months with their lives on hold has meant a disrupted or delayed start to their education or career. In recent years, considerable attention has been paid to combating loneliness, tackling debt and promoting equal opportunities in education and the labour market. And those efforts are still needed today. Looking ahead to necessary long-term choices, the government is making more than eight billion euros available for the period up to and including 2023 to make up the lost ground in education due to the pandemic. It is important that schools also pay attention to the social and emotional effect that this period has had on pupils and students. Next year, an extra 1.3 billion euros will be made available for the youth care sector, to address problems and at the same time make systematic improvements. And additional funds have also been set aside to help people dealing with problem debt as a result of the pandemic or the serious failings in the childcare benefit system.
Fortunately the Dutch economy is in good shape, certainly in comparison with other countries. That is a testament to the Netherlands’ innovative business community, and it offers hope to people who are currently on the sidelines. The support measures put in place for companies were unprecedented in their financial scale and scope, but they achieved the desired effect. This year and the next, the economy is expected to pick up, and unemployment remains at a historic low. At the same time, the national debt has not spiralled out of control despite the support measures, and purchasing power remains steady on average.
In the Caribbean part of our Kingdom the pandemic has made life more difficult for many, as the island economies were hit hard by the dramatic fall in tourism. For Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba, which together make up the Caribbean Netherlands, economic support measures similar to those here are in place. And agreements have been made with the countries of Curaçao, Aruba and St Maarten to ensure that financial support results in more resilient economies that are better able to withstand shocks. In the course of those discussions, it is important always to seek consensus. That makes our Kingdom stronger as a whole.
The intrinsic strength of the Dutch economy gives us scope to build further towards the Netherlands of the future. The reality, of course, is that many issues transcend the boundaries of a government’s term in office. Or of our country itself. Or both.
The overheated housing market is a prime example of a domestic issue that cannot be solved in a single government term. How can we make affordable homes accessible again to everyone, and especially first-time buyers and renters? In recent years the government has been working on this by means of agreements with municipal and provincial authorities, and extra funding for new construction. The implementation of that policy will continue in the parliamentary year ahead. Thanks to previous financial stimuli, more than 100,000 new homes are being built. And the government will make another one billion euros available to ensure that construction can continue.
The National Growth Fund will also transcend the boundaries of this government’s term in office. This year, in the first round, approximately four billion euros were made available for projects in areas such as infrastructure, artificial intelligence and green hydrogen. More than seven billion euros has been earmarked for the next round.
For the period up to 2030, large sums have already been allocated for preserving nature and biodiversity, and reducing nitrogen emissions. In the coming year, too, that money will be invested in nature development, cleaner livestock sheds and buy-up schemes. It is important to safeguard the future prospects of Dutch farmers, who are so vital to our food supply and our rural regions. At the same time, it is also important that we identify what is needed and possible in order to create opportunities for infrastructure, the economy and housing construction. The government will continue working to that end.
Of all the topics that go beyond the boundaries of both the government’s term and the country itself, climate change is undoubtedly the most pressing. This summer the International Panel on Climate Change issued a stark and extremely grave warning. Climate change and sea-level rise are proceeding far more quickly and are far more serious than previously predicted. This impacts our safety and security, our nature and our living environment, but it also affects issues like global poverty and future migration flows. In the Netherlands, of course, flood protection has the highest priority. The serious floods in Limburg have prompted the government to review all planned measures in consultation with relevant parties, and to consider whether, and if so where, these should be accelerated.
In this term in office, the National Climate Agreement and the Climate Act have provided a major impetus for reducing CO2 emissions in the Netherlands. The implementation of these arrangements is now in full swing. Nevertheless, the court’s judgment in the Urgenda case – and the goals of the Climate Act itself – require us to speed up these efforts. The government will set aside an additional sum of almost seven billion euros for supplementary measures to that end, for example to make housing and industry more sustainable and provide a further stimulus for the transition to electric vehicles.
At EU level, the government has pressed for the CO2 reduction target to be raised from 49 to 55% by 2030. In addition it is supporting the goal of climate neutrality by 2050, as laid down in the European Green Deal. Clearly, in the coming years extra efforts will be needed to achieve these stricter objectives. At the same time, ambitious climate policy also presents opportunities. Above all, the chance to leave behind a safer, cleaner, more beautiful country. But also economic opportunities, for example when it comes to exports, or to applying Dutch expertise in the fields of sustainable technology and flood safety.
Today, on the International Day of Peace, we reflect on the fact that 75 years of peace and international cooperation have brought our country unprecedented prosperity and wellbeing. It is essential that the Netherlands remains an integral part of the post-war multilateral order, because the world around us increasingly resembles the famous Rubik’s cube. Everything is connected to everything else. Prosperity is linked to freedom, climate to security, human rights to poverty reduction, sustainability to the economy, and migration to international stability. Every turn of the cube, every decision that is made, affects other areas and levels. In that knowledge the Netherlands is, and will remain, a dependable international partner. Not only because it is in our own interest, but also because we feel solidarity with and responsibility for other parts of the world. Our military personnel abroad deserve our support and respect for the crucial and difficult work they do in this regard, both during and after a mission. The government will make extra funding available on a structural basis to ensure the operational readiness of our armed forces and to provide assistance to the veterans who need it.
The Netherlands’ membership of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations are the cornerstones of our foreign policy. It is clear that the Netherlands and the other EU member states face strategic decisions in regard to their relations with China and Russia, but also in their relationship with the United States. Transatlantic cooperation remains the foundation of Dutch security policy, but at the same time we will have to invest more in European security policy.
The European Union’s key priorities include post-pandemic recovery policy, the Green Deal’s common approach to climate change, efforts to safeguard the rule of law and the Union as a community of values. That community of values is fundamental. In the countries of the EU, someone’s age, skin colour, beliefs, orientation, gender or origin must never be a justification for unequal treatment, exclusion or other forms of discrimination.
The rule of law is the basis of the free and democratic society that has for so long been a hallmark of our country. But the rule of law in the Netherlands is under pressure. Organised crime is growing ever more ruthless and violent. The shocking assassination of Peter R. de Vries marked a new low in this dark trend. The government has been working for some time to develop a robust, long-term, multi-track approach, and is again making extra funds available for that purpose. Criminal organisations need to be taken down, their leaders caught and criminal gains confiscated. We also need to invest more in combating cybercrime and bolstering cybersecurity, because global cyber threats are increasing in all manner of ways. Furthermore, we need to strengthen vulnerable neighbourhoods. It is important that young people are prevented, through education and work, from falling into criminal lifestyles. And that those people who work to uphold the rule of law are protected. Strengthening the rule of law is by definition a long-term challenge. Around 500 million euros in additional funding will be made available for this purpose every year.
Lastly, in any discussion of the rule of law and legal certainty, the government must also hold up its hands. Its handling of the earthquake damage in Groningen has been too slow and laborious. And because of the critical flaws in the childcare benefit system, the government did people a serious injustice, both literally and figuratively. In both cases, the mistakes need to be remedied, and anyone eligible for compensation must receive it as soon as possible. For the government this remains an absolute priority. It is also important that everyone has access to justice. From next year, the government will make extra funds available for legal aid. Addressing the deeper question of how to restore trust will take longer and will require a greater focus on the feasibility of the policy that is made.
Members of the States General,
If every time is a time of transition, social change is a constant. Our history shows that too. The challenge is always, today included, to face each change that presents itself with an open outlook. That is how, together, we will build a better country for future generations. In striving to do so, the government will continue seeking to work in partnership with you, the members of the States General. 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.