Scandals tarnished the Netherlands’ reputation for clean government

Eva Maria Gonzalez realized that the Netherlands might not be the ideal model for fair play that was put on hold when a batch of state documents were accidentally sent showing a tax ministry “black list” of families wrongly accused of benefits fraud.

The Spanish-born lawyer, who was raised in the Netherlands, went on to successfully defend the families, exposing a scandal that rocked the country, caused the resignation of the government at the beginning of this year and, along with a series of other recent gaffes, tainted. The state’s self-image of good governance and accountability.

“This was not like Holland, where everything is supposed to be transparent and run well,” Gonzalez said of the scandal. “It was the first time I realized that there are two worlds at play.”

The country’s persistent reputation for fair play has helped successive governments act as custodians of integrity in the EU – just as Prime Minister Mark Rutte last year called on countries such as Italy and Spain to reform their dysfunctional government departments in exchange for billions of euros in aid from the European Covid-19 Recovery Fund.

But at home, that Dutch reputation for integrity has been shaken. Rutte, now interim prime minister, described the benefits scandal, in which the Tax Department allocated tens of thousands of families often based on their ethnic background, as a “massive disgrace”.

Critics say its root cause lies in the frugal spending and technocratic efficiency that the Netherlands advocates abroad but at home have emptied the country for a decade, hampering the country’s ability to deal with the pandemic.

Zeni Ozdel, a historian and former Green Left MP, said the benefits issue revealed a “cognitive dissonance” among the Dutch ruling class. We have cultivated a self-image of being a transparent country that adheres to the rule of law. But when facts don’t match reality, people don’t seem to change their views.

The government has suffered a series of embarrassments over its handling of the pandemic. It has been slower than its European Union neighbors to roll out the vaccine, despite its advanced healthcare system.

The Health Ministry in particular has come under fire over a €100 million purchase contract for face masks with a company set up by a political commentator with links to the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) that runs the ministry.

Sywert van Lienden, an expert, and two of the founders made nearly €20 million from this arrangement despite marketing themselves as a non-profit organization. Van Lienden has apologized and resigned last week from the CDA.

Joost Sneller, a member of parliament for the liberal D66 party, said the pandemic’s “stress test” had shown that most arms of the state were ill-equipped and under-equipped.

He attributed the shortcomings to the disintegration of the state that began in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. “The first Ruti government was defined in 2010 by Reganiti’s philosophy of keeping the state so small that you could drown it in a bathtub,” Sneller said.

The Netherlands ranks 20th out of 27 in the European Union in terms of percentage of central government spending, according to European Commission. It is also ranked eighth in Transparency International perceptions of corruption index , which is a thin site just below Norway and Sweden.

Rutte meets people caught up in the benefits case who have been mistakenly identified as fraudsters © Phil NijHuis / EPA-EFE

Dutch officials add that there has also been a notable shift by the liberal Rutte party over the past year, which is now promising to expand the government’s role and responsibilities.

However, the benefits scandal has been partly blamed on an obsession with government efficiency. Since 2004, the Dutch state has tasked its Ministry of Taxation with processing benefit claims using semi-automated systems managed largely by algorithms.

This helped enable ethnic profiling as families of Moroccan, Turkish and Dutch ancestry were largely targeted, according to National Data Protection Authority.

“There has been such a strong belief in automation and efficiency that algorithm-run government ends up being institutionalized racism in a predominantly white country,” said Wim Furmans, professor of constitutional law at Leiden University.

Moreover, subsequent attempts by civil servants to cover up their mistakes expose the culture of technocratic impunity that has become common over the past decades, Formans added. The latest revelations about the scandal last week showed that tax officials tried to quell internal dissent from civil servants who had raised alarm.

Furmans attributed this sense of impunity to the famous “Boulder” consensus culture that dominated Dutch society in the post-war era and has since spilled into politics. It is defined by opaque deals between the executive branch and interest groups such as trade unions and industry – with parliament assigned a marginal role.

At the top of the system is the Rutte. His preference for informal cabinet meetings and his claims to have little knowledge or memory of a series of recent scandals have been called by his opponents the “Rott Doctrine”.

Still, Rota remains popular, and is on track to lead a record-breaking fourth coalition government.

Sneller, the MP, said parliamentarians have struggled to hold the executive accountable because the multiplicity of parties has left them without staff or resources to deal with. A record 17 parties entered the 150-seat House of Representatives earlier this year.

For historian Özdil, consensus politics also generates a dangerous counter-reaction and risks fueling the discontent of the populist far-right, which is attacking the “cartel” of the major parties. Far-right populist parties won 28 parliamentary seats in the March elections.

“Europe should be concerned about what is happening in the Netherlands,” he said.


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