The fall of Rutte IV seems near. After that comes an election campaign and a formation. It will soon be nine months before BBB has reached an agreement with its partners for the next cabinet.
In the meantime, the country is in the hands of the officials. And it should not be the case that Sigrid Kaag’s party will continue to rule for another nine months with all D66 officials in The Hague. (In 2017, according to a poll by Domestic Administration already the most popular party among civil servants; this will not have changed in the parliamentary elections of 2021).
Outgoing ministers and civil servants should stop with controversial new policies. I almost wrote: ‘as soon as the government has lost confidence’, but Rutte-IV has already lost that confidence.
Officials should have warned climate ministers
Nitrogen policy is controversial, and if minister Christianne van der Wal does not want to see that, the officials must stop her. That will hurt. Not only for the outgoing minister, but also for her helpers. They are asked to realize that for a long time they were blind to Arnout Jaspers’ arguments in his book The nitrogen trap. And that they remained blind because their NRC of hun Volkskrant did not take that book seriously and gave all credence to the six climate ministers.
Alarm bells should have gone off when it appeared earlier that North Rhine-Westphalia was not spending any money on nitrogen at all, and that the Dutch calculations did not want to distinguish between one-off or permanent nitrogen depositions. Even then, officials should have warned the six climate ministers.
You and I were not there, and we don’t know how that went, but after the fall of the cabinet we have to continue with those same failing civil servants. Are they big enough to tell outgoing minister Van der Wal that the unreleased amounts in the nitrogen fund will be frozen until a new minister gets her new policy approved by the new parliament?
The same goes for climate policy. If the officials have integrity, they must tell the six climate ministers that the climate fund has also been frozen for new plans that have not yet been approved. Painful for all those quality newspaper readers who nodded their approval in the first class train on their way home last week to a weighty comment about Minister Jetten. The NRCeditor-in-chief wrote to hope ‘that his enthusiasm [voor nog eens 28 miljard] spills over to citizens and businesses’ and praised ministers and civil servants: ‘The fact that the cabinet has succeeded in achieving unity deserves all praise’.
When that unity bursts, the cabinet subsequently falls, and Maurice de Hond publishes his opinion poll a few days later, it will again appear that there is little unity in the twelve provinces. Maybe the high officials should only be there for a few months The Telegraph and take out a (free!) subscription to the Agri Facts newsletter from Geesje Rotgers. I worked for a short time at a Swiss university where respectable travelers ask at the newspaper stand for ‘NZZ with…and then the popular newspaper Blick get folded in the quality newspaper The New Zurich Times – they can secretly in first class Blick read and learn what the yodelers in the mountains are concerned about. An idea for the officials: stop The Telegraph in your NRC.
D66 officials who advised last month about the possible banning of opposition media will have to do their utmost to stop party politics after the collapse of Rutte-IV. That is, of course, always their duty, but then it applies even more because otherwise the election campaign will become even more bitter. It would also be better if House of Representatives Vera Bergkamp (D66) makes way for Vice-President Martin Bosma (PVV). He gets a higher score for independence and is therefore better able to direct the House in a difficult interim period.
Remedy: the transfer of senior officials
What if senior officials refuse to properly mark time until a new minister issues revised marching orders? Then it is certainly possible to transfer them. We should not want an ax day for senior officials, as in the US and perhaps later this month in Turkey, every time the government changes. But it must be possible to deal a corrective blow to officials who know better than the voters and who continue to pursue their D66 policy, even when the climate ministers are outgoing and the voters want otherwise.
Fortunately, it’s not difficult at all. I refer to two case studies from twenty years ago. In the autumn of 2002 I spoke with Frank de Grave, who graduated in constitutional law and is now a member of the Council of State. As VVD minister of Defense in the second Kok cabinet (1998-2002) he had major problems with top civil servant B. The ministry had taken up office with De Graves as minister, it seemed, and had been free with information about the tragedy of Srebrenica.
Frank said: ‘I should have intervened as soon as I took office and transferred that man, just like you did’. Because a few months before our conversation about civil servant B., De Grave had witnessed my own as a Member of Parliament case study.
It concerned a top civil servant whom I had recommended for transfer in 2002 when I took up office as Minister of Health. Prime Minister Balkenende only had to confirm in the House that his minister saw no possibility of working well with this civil servant. (There were several reasons; one was that before the 2002 elections the civil servant had predicted disasters in healthcare if CDA, VVD and LPF were to govern together).
In the Netherlands, a minister cannot fire a civil servant. However, he can immediately designate a senior civil servant for transfer if, in the opinion of the minister, there is a lack of confidence. In my case, I had pre-notified the transfer of my own accord in three meetings with the relevant Director-General of the Interior, the Secretary-General of Health and the Prime Minister-designate. All three shared my opinion and gave my proposal the green light.
We cannot take the moral measure of senior officials. But we know the D66 bias from NRC, de Volkskrant, Fidelity and public broadcasting. If public opinion shifts even further, the media will probably move along, albeit slowly. The Volkskrant for example, will take time to rearrange its 55 columnists.
Directly in the refrigerator
But we can demand from civil servants that they immediately – from the day that Rutte-IV falls – make a careful effort to put all controversial, new policies on hold. And that they choose a clear position with which they can earn the confidence of the upcoming new ministers.
It is all the more important that the House of Representatives has a competent and independent chairman: to guarantee that Pieter Omtzigt and his 149 colleagues have every opportunity to keep a close eye on everything.
Eduard Bomhoff is a former professor of economics at EUR, Nyenrode and Monash University. In 2002 he was Deputy Prime Minister in the first Balkenende cabinet.
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