To date, the country is still borrowing money at negative rates and, in the forecasters’ worst-case scenario, public debt would reach "only" 74% of GDP by the end of 2021. These are essential figures if we are to understand the Netherlands’ reluctance to help the countries of southern Europe, especially when it comes to debt mutualization, of which the Dutch, along with the Germans, would be the obvious losers.
All in all, the country has opted for a policy based on pragmatism and civic-mindedness (or, some would say, conformity and social control), which are the main features of Dutch society. These characteristics are blended with the legacy of Erasmus, Calvin and a solidary habitus forged in the collective fight against bodies of water and more powerful neighbors. Cooperation between the state and business, also deeply rooted in national values, has proved decisive on the vital issue of medical goods, the emergency supply of which is managed through a public-private partnership. Similarly, the immediate involvement of mayors in the lockdown measures reflects an old custom of dialogue between central and local authorities. Added to this is the importance of compromise in Dutch coalition-based politics: in the context of Covid-19 and as a sign of the times, a coalition of four parties, dominated by the liberals of the VVD, has been joined by Martin van Rijn, an individual from the Labor Party (PvdA). On March 23, he took over the dreaded portfolio of medical care (Medische zorg), which had pushed his predecessor past his limits. It may well be that in times of crisis, a coalition system, based on a fully proportional vote as it is in the Netherlands, offers a representativeness advantage over majority-party and ballot systems. The Dutch government now bears a strong resemblance to a cabinet of national unity, even if it clearly leans toward the center-right. As does public opinion, incidentally.
The coalition has also been able to manage its communication well, despite a few hiccups. Here, too, masks were initially labeled as "useless", even capable of provoking a sense of "false protection"; here, too, the closure of schools was ordered after having been excluded a few days prior. The March 23 press conference on the lockdown measures was "messy" (rommelig), according to Mark Rutte himself. But the government has repeatedly acknowledged mistakes and reversals. It has shown humility and, through the Prime Minister, admitted that it has had to take "100% of the decisions with 50% of the knowledge".
Humility is not mutually exclusive with solemnity: for the first time since 1973, the Head of Government soberly addressed the nation on March 16, and king Willem-Alexander delivered two messages of comfort to his people. The quality of their speeches, in a country not very prone to rhetoric, is notable: the brief discourses were characterized by the use of the collective "we" and struck a good balance between empathy and authority, warning and hope.
This is why, in the run-up to the general elections scheduled for ten months from now, Mark Rutte’s popularity currently seems to have grown through the crisis. His approval rating has increased by 30 points to reach 75% - one of the highest scores among western leaders.
In short, though the results are mixed, the Dutch collective resilience suggests that a crisis as devastating as that of Covid-19 operates, in the words of Marcel Mauss, as a "total social fact". Rather than ringing in the advent of a "new world", it first and foremost reveals the strengths and weaknesses of a community.
Copyright : Remko DE WAAL / ANP / AFP