New Dutch coalition vows to spend big on broad reforms

FILE - In this file photo dated Friday, April 2, 2021, caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte leaves after surviving a no-confidence motion in parliament in The Hague, Netherlands. The four parties negotiating to form the next ruling Dutch coalition in The Hague, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021, plan to send a policy blueprint for the next term of government to lawmakers this week, marking another step toward the end of marathon talks that followed a March election. (AP Photo/Peter Dejong, FILE) (Peter Dejong, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

THE HAGUE – The leaders of four political parties set to join forces in the next Dutch ruling coalition pledged Wednesday to tackle thorny problems including climate change and housing shortages and to strengthen education and a health care system that has been stretched almost to breaking point by the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also vowed to work to win back public trust in government and politics that has been eroded by scandals, polarization, frustration in parts of society at measures to tackle the pandemic and at the nine months it took parties to reach the coalition accord following a March 17 election.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is now set to begin a fourth term in office early next year, said the coalition would seek to work together with “society and with our political colleagues” in parliament to implement reforms.

The plans that include tax cuts, almost free child care for working parents, a return of grants for higher education students, labor market reforms and a plan to build about 100,000 new homes each year, will cost billions in this country long known for its fiscal frugality.

The policies were outlined in a 47-page document titled “Looking after each other, looking forward to the future.”

One of its key goals is tackling the climate crisis and pollution emissions, including the ambition to cut carbon emissions by at least 55% by 2030 on the way to becoming climate neutral by 2050.

As part of the climate policy, the coalition said it would set up a 35-billion euro ($39 billion) climate and energy transition fund for the coming decade, appoint a minister for climate and energy and put in motion steps for the construction of two new nuclear power stations as well as stimulating renewable energy production.

Climate group Greenpeace welcomed parts of the plan, but said more was needed, including concrete measures to cut carbon emissions. It said it was “disappointed to see the emphasis on nuclear energy,” but voiced skepticism about whether the nuclear plan would materialize.

The coalition parties also pledged to invest in all levels of the education system, tackle inequalities and intolerance in society and to fight organized crime amid fears about the growing power of drug gangs. The issue was thrown into sharp relief over the summer with the slaying of well-known campaigning reporter Peter R. De Vries on an Amsterdam street.

While the parties pledged to invest in higher salaries for health care workers, opposition parties slammed them for what they called cuts in the long-term health budget.

On foreign policy, the coalition said it will work for a “more decisive, economically stronger, greener and safer” European Union with more transparent decision making. It also wants to promote international cooperation, strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance and tackle international espionage.

The document signaled the beginning of the end of a drawn-out process to form a new government.

Rutte is set to lead a coalition made up of his conservative People's Party for Freedom and Democracy, together with the pro-European D66, the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal and centrist Christian Union. Together, they command a narrow majority in the 150-seat lower house of Dutch parliament, but are in the minority in the upper house.

Rutte, 54, has already led three coalitions and is set to become the Netherlands' longest serving leader despite narrowly surviving a no-confidence motion in parliament in April.

His fourth Cabinet will be made up of the same parties as his third, which ended its term early in January when all ministers resigned to take political responsibility for a scandal involving the country’s tax department wrongly labelling as fraudsters thousands of parents claiming child benefits.

Rutte is now expected to be appointed to oversee the allocation of Cabinet portfolios. That process will likely last until early next year when the new government can be formally installed.

The presentation of the deal came just under nine months after the March general election, making the coalition talks the longest in Dutch history. But they were still well short of the record set in neighboring Belgium. In December 2011, Belgium cobbled together a government after 541 days of negotiations.

Johan Remkes, one of the officials who steered the talks, said the process needs to be examined.

“The run-up to the substantive negotiations was excessively long," he said. "Once the dust has settled, that requires a solid evaluation.”