After 112 days and now on their third “sherpa”, talks aimed at forming a new Dutch coalition government are under way again, this time including the ultra-conservative Protestant party Christian Union – in pursuit of a deal with intriguing echoes of the Tory-DUP pact in the UK.
In an increasingly desperate bid to exclude far-right leader Geert Wildersbecause of his “intolerant” views, the aim this time is to find common ground between prime minister Mark Rutte’s Liberals, the Christian Democrats, centre-left D66 and Christian Union.
On the face of it, it’s not a winning combination. In the March election, the Liberals won 33 seats, the Christian Democrats 19, D66 19, and Christian Union five, which means they can just cobble together the 76 seats needed for an overall majority in the 150-seat parliament.
So even though they could, in theory, form a majority government, that majority would be wafer-thin and constantly vulnerable not alone to challenge from the opposition benches, but also to stark differences of opinion from within.
Dutch society prides itself as liberal on social issues such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, abortion and toleration of soft drugs – but Christian Union opposes all four on religious grounds and could certainly be expected to pursue its anti-liberalisation agenda in government.
It favours religious schools, opposes Sunday opening for shops and believes the place of a married woman is in the home – although it has softened this to a “one-earner” policy where one parent works and the other, usually the woman, stays at home.
In addition, it is Eurosceptic. It believes the Netherlands should be sovereign within the EU, opposing any closer political or economic integration. Its single MEP, Peter van Dalen, sits with the European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament.
On all of those issues there is potential for friction, particularly between Christian Union and D66, which, for instance, supports broadening the euthanasia law to give elderly people who are not ill but who “feel their lives are complete” the right to assisted death.
D66 also supports embryo research and regulated marijuana cultivation for medicinal purposes – both of which Christian Union abhors.
Many believe that not alone would a Liberal-Christian Democrat-D66-Christian Union coalition not last the four-year term, but that it would be somehow politically inappropriate, including so many fundamentally conflicting positions that it would be impossible to agree a coherent programme.
While there are echoes in the Dutch negotiations of Theresa May’s “confidence and supply” arrangement with the DUP – not least, perhaps, in the sense of limited options and time running out – there are significant differences too.
If the talks succeed, Christian Union will become a party of government, unlike the DUP which remains on the sidelines. In the same vein, the Dutch talks aim to form a multiparty coalition rather than to support a single party as a minority government – although if these revived negotiations fail, the eventual outcome could well be a minority Liberal-Christian Democrat-D66 coalition.
Most of all, Christian Union does not have the DUP’s leverage so there will be no billion-pound payday – although for such a religiously motivated party the unexpected political influence of being in government could well be regarded as priceless.
This is not the first time, however, that the Liberal-Christian Democrat-D66-Christian Union option has been examined in the past three months.
The first “sherpa”, former health minister Edith Schippers, dismissed it as unworkable and said that, in her view, the only option was a Liberal-Christian Democrat-D66 minority government.
Her successor, retired judge Herman Willink, revisited the various combinations in search of a majority government – the best option for the country, he said – but failed to find one and stood down in June.
The third facilitator, Gerrit Zalm, former finance minister and chief executive of ABN-AMRO bank, who began work this week, is already treading the same well-trodden ground.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Partywon 20 seats in March to become the Netherlands’ second-largest party.
From his point of view, the next best thing to being in government is a government that will fail quickly – proving the point that it was always impractical, if not quite undemocratic, to exclude him.