Published On: Thu, Sep 18th, 2014

The Dutch King’s speech – The peace and safety of our throne

King Willem AlexanderTHE troonrede, the annual speech delivered by the Dutch monarch to parliament, is in part an occasion for sounding the national mood, and in part an occasion for prominent women to wear exceptionally silly hats. It takes place on a day the Dutch call prinsjesdag, or Prince's Day, which also celebrates (or mourns, as the case may be) the presentation of the government's budget for the coming year. There are equestrian performances by mounted guards, King Willem-Alexander (pictured, with Queen Maxima) arrives at the ridderzaal (Knights' Hall) borne in the royal Golden Coach, and so forth. But this year the charming rituals of September 16th were enveloped by what the king called a "black border of mourning": the memory of the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July, and the deaths of 196 Dutch passengers on board.

That event, and the broader conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East that have dominated the news this summer, have caused a significant change in the Dutch public's attitude towards foreign policy. For more than a decade, commentators have bemoaned a Dutch "turn towards the interior", a growing distaste for the EU, foreign aid, defence spending or anything international that might cost money. That may be starting to shift. "The MH17 disaster and the situations in Ukraine and the Middle East make it clear how in today's world, everything is connected to each other," as Willem-Alexander put it in his speech. Referring to tensions at Dutch protests this summer over Gaza and ISIS, he vowed that the "hatred that drives people elsewhere in the world to ruin cannot be allowed to spill over into our streets." The speech is approved by the king, but is actually written by the head of the government. So Willem-Alexander was speaking for Mark Rutte, the prime minister, when he said that on difficult measures such as sanctions against Russia, "the government is thankful for the existence of broad political and social support."

He's right about that. Dutch public opinion polls show strong support for the EU's sanctions against Russia: in August 74% of Dutch said they either supported the current sanctions regime or wanted stronger ones. (On September 14th the public showed their resolve by staging a giant tomato fight in front of the royal palace in Amsterdam, to protest against Russia's import ban on European produce.) The Dutch have rushed to support the American-led military effort against ISIS in Iraq, and indeed experienced a moment of acute discomfort after it was first announced, when America did not list the Netherlands as a participant in the anti-ISIS coalition. In a TV appearance after the troonredeJeannine Hennis-Plasschaert, the defence minister, assured the public that Dutch officers were currently at an American military command centre in Florida working out how their armed forces could participate.

In another striking shift, the new budget the government delivered to parliament after the king's speech contains budget hikes for defence: €50m ($64m) in 2015, followed by a structural increase of €100m per year in subsequent years. It will be the first defence increase the country has seen in 24 years. But that will hardly undo even the effect of the most recent round of cuts, carried out as part of the country's recent austerity measures to meet deficit limits imposed by Brussels during the euro crisis. The military has shrunk from 100,000 in 1990 to just 43,000; in 2011 the army disbanded its last two tank battalions, selling their Leopard tanks to Finland. Dutch defence spending comes in at just 1.3% of GDP, far below the NATO target of 2%. Appearing in the same news broadcast with Ms Hennis-Plasschaert, Lodewijk Asscher, the vice-prime minister from the Labour party, said no one should expect the Netherlands to meet the 2% target anytime soon.

What does the Dutch government plan to do with the public's newfound willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of security? That question is hard to answer, in part because it's not entirely clear what a country like the Netherlands can do to act on a sudden sense of anxiety about the world. Its military is too small to be of use in a NATO response to the situation in Ukraine; in any case, NATO has ruled out intervening in Ukraine or basing permanent new ground forces in neighbouring countries. The Dutch will probably send a few F-16s to help in Iraq, as they did in Libya, but this will add little to America's capabilities, and the main purpose seems to be political. The Dutch have made significant recent contributions to anti-piracy patrols off of Somalia and to the stabilisation mission in Mali. But in Iraq and Syria, the most concrete Dutch fear is that the estimated 140 Dutch Muslims who have volunteered to fight with Islamist militias will return home and bring the war with them. This is a problem best solved by police surveillance, intelligence and border guards, not by the armed forces.

The Dutch contribution to sanctions against Russia is more substantial. The Netherlands was the largest importer of Russian goods in 2013, due in large measure to the role of Rotterdam as a European oil-and-gas hub. Many Russian shell corporations are domiciled here for tax purposes. But complaints that sanctions do little to change Russian behaviour, while hurting Europe's economy, are already being heard. In late August Jeroen van der Veer, the former chief executive of Shell, said the sanctions were only making Vladimir Putin more popular. In September the head of the Netherlands' politically powerful business lobby, the VNO-NCW, worried that the sanctions were accomplishing little other than driving Russian business away from Dutch firms towards Chinese and Brazilian ones.

Essentially, the problem for the Netherlands is the problem that faces Europe as a whole. It is not that the Dutch are not willing to make sacrifices to defend the European liberal democratic order against threats at its periphery. But on its own, the Netherlands is too small to accomplish much. It is difficult to sustain the voters' willingness to fight for their convictions when there is no practical way for them to do so. Unfortunately, this is true for many European countries, and that co-ordination problem has weakened Europe's response to Russian aggression.

One of the more interesting shifts in Dutch politics to come out of the MH17 disaster has been a tangential one: Dutch conservatives have shifted noticeably towards sustainable energy as a way of ending dependence on Russian fossil fuels. In budget debates in parliament on September 17th, the opposition Christian Democrats, who are currently trying to outflank the governing Liberals on the right, demanded new government policies to "get away from Putin and from CO2," and shift towards "truly clean energy". (To be sure, they also called for more nuclear power.) It may not be a direct response to what Willem-Alexander called "the protection of the international legal order", but it's something.

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