SINT MAARTEN/THE NETHERLANDS – The Netherlands is going through a time of ‘paradox and uncertainty’ that has shaken people’s trust in the government’s ability to solve society’s problems, king Willem-Alexander acknowledged in his annual speech from the throne.
The sombre tone of his speech, the centrepiece of the state opening of parliament, reflected the multiple challenges the cabinet faces: soaring energy bills, rising inflation, the war in Ukraine and farmers’ protests against plans to reduce nitrogen compound emissions.
The royal carriage carrying the king, queen Maxima and princess Amalia, attending for the first time since turning 18 in December, was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos on its way from Noordeinde palace to the Koninklijke Schouwburg Theatre.
Some protesters held up inverted flags, which has become the symbol of the farmers’ protests. ‘It is a paradox that in a period of economic growth and low unemployment, households face a cost-of-living crisis and poverty is on the rise,’ the king said in his speech, which was delivered in the theatre while the parliament complex is being renovated.
‘It is a paradox that people in a free country like ours feel unable to express their opinions for fear of hostile reactions or even threats. ‘And it is concerning that, in a mature democracy such as ours, people are losing faith in the problem-solving power of government and politics.’
Groningen and benefits scandal
The king also said the cabinet felt an ‘absolute duty’ to do justice to people living in Groningen whose homes had been damaged by gas extraction and the families whose lives had been damaged by the childcare benefits scandal that brought down the last government.
‘It remains a painful and shameful fact that so many individuals and families face serious problems as a result of mistakes and negligence on the part of the authorities,’ he said.
The speech was revised in the hours before it was delivered to include a passage about plans to cap energy prices, after an agreement with utility companies was finalised on Monday night.
The king said the government would present an ‘unprecedentedly strong package of measures’ worth over €18 billion to tackle the cost-of-living crisis, which is expected to include a limited cap on energy bills based on an average household’s consumption.
‘It is a painful reality that more and more people in the Netherlands are struggling to pay their rent, grocery bills, health insurance and energy bills,’ the king said.
Threat to peace
He said ‘Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine’ threatened the peaceful society Netherlands had built since the Second World War and had reinforced the need for unity with the European Union, Nato and the United Nations.
The king also outlined long-term plans to tackle inequality by raising the minimum wage and benefits while raising taxes on profits and wealth, while higher taxes on gas and oil companies will go towards paying low earners’ energy bills.
But he said the cabinet was still committed to its plans to switch from fossil fuels to ‘clean energy’ and reduce CO2 emissions, as well as creating a ‘new role for nuclear energy. ‘The future agenda cannot be postponed,’ he said.
The 50% reduction in nitrogen emissions, which has been the focus of the farmers’ protests, and a transition to sustainable farming is inevitable, the king emphasised, but he acknowledged this is ‘understandably an emotive subject for farmers, who fear for the future of the family businesses’.
They needed to be given viable options such as new working methods, technology, relocation, while in some cases ‘a buy- outarrangement will be the best option.’
More subsidies will be available for homeowners to make their houses more energy efficient, plans for wind and other renewable energy will be accelerated and the government is aiming to cut off Russian gas supplies completely by the end of the year.
Abolition of slavery
With the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery approaching, the king also gave the strongest hint yet that the government was ready to offer apologies for the wrongs of the colonial past.
‘If we want a society where there is no place for racism and discrimination, where everyone feels heard and appreciated, we must openly reflect on the less pleasant chapters in our history,’ he said.
‘The government has previously spoken out about the actions of the Dutch authorities during the persecution of the Jews, and about the extreme violence on the part of the Netherlands during the period of decolonisation in Indonesia.
As we approach next year’s 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, we need to acknowledge this part of our history, too.’
Full Speech from the Throne 2022
By His Royal Highness King Willem Alexander
Speech | 20-09-2022
Members of the States General,
We live in a time of paradox and uncertainty. It is a paradox that, in a period of economic growth and low unemployment, households face a cost-of-living crisis and poverty is on the rise. It is a paradox that, in a free country like ours, people feel unable to express their opinions for fear of hostile reactions or even threats. And it is concerning that, in a mature democracy like ours, people are losing faith in the problem-solving power of government and politics. What is more, people are feeling increasingly uncertain about both the immediate and the longer-term future. About purchasing power and housing shortages. About the reception of asylum seekers, and the war in Ukraine. But also about the major changes we’re facing in areas like the labour market, our climate, energy supplies and nitrogen policy. Each of these issues will determine the way we and our children live, work and do business, and the kind of society in which we will live in the future.
And yet, we may draw strength from the way in which our country, proceeding step by step, has undergone major changes in the past. The gradual nature of that process is essential. Not everything can or need be done at once. Nor must it all be done right now. Often we realise only in hindsight how dramatically things have changed. Take the Industrial Revolution or, more recently, the rise of the internet. Take the massive process of land consolidation and the construction of large new housing developments in the second half of the 20th century. Or the challenging period of post-war reconstruction.
At her investiture in 1948 my grandmother said the following words to the Dutch people:
‘At this moment in world history we find ourselves in a situation in which everything depends on how we conduct ourselves in the face of new dangers. The Netherlands must not merely remain afloat on the stormy seas of global events. It must determine its own course, and furthermore it must endeavour, together with the other peoples of the world, to set a course for the entire global fleet.’
In those years of uncertainty our parents and grandparents showed unity and resilience. Today, albeit in very different circumstances, the same is being asked of us. And the Netherlands is not alone in this task. Other countries face similar challenges. No one can say what the world will look like when today’s children have children of their own. But it will be different, because our current way of life is reaching its economic, social and ecological limits. We will need a different economy and labour market. A different approach to the natural world and our living environment. Different ways of living, working, travelling and doing business. And different ways of functioning as a society. But one thing will stay the same: cooperation makes the Netherlands stronger than polarisation. That will never change.
The government realises that people are critical when it comes to the workings of our system of government and politics. At the same time, a large majority remains satisfied with the functioning of our democracy. The government sees this as an encouragement to take the measures, however difficult or controversial, that are truly necessary, and to be open and transparent about them. At the start of this year the government launched an ambitious future agenda for 2030 and beyond, in the conviction that future generations, like us, should be able to lead good lives in a clean, safe country with opportunities for all. That prospect must be available to people of every religion or belief, orientation, age, origin, educational background and profession. To people in both town and country. To people here and in the Caribbean Netherlands, together with Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten.
Previous generations laid the foundations for the prosperity and free way of life that are the hallmarks of our country. Today that way of life is threatened by Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine. Since 1945 we, in the Netherlands, have lived in peace. Now there is a war close by. The international legal order – and with it our own freedom – is under attack. Every 4th and 5th of May we are accustomed to saying that we must not take the values of freedom and democracy for granted, and that they should be actively upheld and passed down to future generations. Now we are confronted with the question: what are those values worth to us – in both moral and material terms? The outpouring of hospitality and support the Netherlands showed as the war broke out goes some way toward answering that question.
The government is committed to military and humanitarian support for Ukraine, to international sanctions against Russia, and to unity and collaboration in the European Union, NATO and the United Nations. Ukraine has every right to defend itself. Yet again, the EU, NATO and the UN have proven to be the anchors of the Netherlands’ foreign and security policy. With broad parliamentary support, the government has been able to accelerate and increase its planned extra investments in the Dutch armed forces. That is necessary, given that various countries are now striving for a world in which might makes right – a world view that seeks to erode democracy, sovereignty and freedom, and one against which the Netherlands and its international partners must work to erect a dam. This requires well-equipped armed forces to ensure Europe’s security and NATO’s strength. It requires a goal-oriented, democratic and self-assured European Union that takes a greater role on the world stage. And it requires the Netherlands to continue shouldering its broader international responsibilities. International cooperation through aid and trade contributes to peace, security and lives of human dignity around the world.
One direct consequence of the war and the international sanctions against Russia is the soaring price of gas, electricity and food. The impact on individuals, families and businesses is severe. Financial problems lead to rising debts, bankruptcies, health problems and child poverty. It is a painful reality that more and more people in the Netherlands are struggling to pay their rent, grocery bills, health insurance and energy bills. To address this, the government is introducing an unprecedented package of measures worth more than €18 billion and aimed primarily at low- and middle-income households. But even with a package of this magnitude, not everyone can be compensated fully for all the price rises.
Some measures are intended for the short term. The government is working on a price cap for energy, so that people can continue to pay their energy bills. The tax reduction on fuel and the energy allowance will continue in 2023, and healthcare benefit and the basic student grant will increase in the coming year. These measures will be financed in part by a temporary extra contribution from oil and gas companies. In addition, people on low and middle incomes will see their incomes rise on a structural basis. From the 1st of January, the minimum wage and associated benefits will rise by 10%. Housing benefit and the child budget will also rise. For working people, income tax will be cut and the employed person’s tax credit increased, so that it pays more to work. These measures will be paid for in part by higher taxes on profits and wealth, with small and medium-sized enterprises being spared as much as possible. And naturally the government will support the residents of the Caribbean Netherlands – the islands of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba – who are also dealing with the impact of rising prices.
In pursuing these measures the government will continually seek to maintain the right financial balance. While enhanced purchasing power is sorely needed, it would be irresponsible to simply pass on the bill to the younger generation, or delay necessary policy. The future agenda cannot be postponed.
The government will do everything possible to build broad support for its approach to the nitrogen emissions issue. Industry, the mobility sector and agriculture will have to reduce their emissions. The goal is nature recovery, healthy rural areas and a bright future for Dutch farmers. We have no choice but to halve our country’s nitrogen emissions, not least in order to comply with the legal judgments handed down by the courts and prevent the granting of permits for new projects from coming to a standstill. At the same time, this is understandably an emotive subject for farmers, who fear for the future of the family businesses they are so proud of. Businesses that, in many cases, go back generations. The transition to circular agriculture will be demanding, but will also offer farmers the prospect of a bright future and a decent income. It is important in the year ahead to take the time to explore what precisely is needed in each area. In some cases, running a business along different lines will be a solution. In others, new technology, relocation or a buy-out arrangement will be the best option. Banks, feed producers, supermarkets and consumers also have their own responsibilities in this regard. In the year ahead, the government will be working with all parties towards joint solutions.
The urgency of climate action and the energy transition has only grown recently, as questions have arisen about our gas supplies for the coming winter, and about our dependence on Russian gas. This problem requires various actions. Together with the other EU member states, the Netherlands is working on both energy-saving measures and a quicker transition to clean energy. The Netherlands’ gas storage facilities are well stocked and are being filled further. The goal is for the Netherlands to no longer be dependent on Russian fossil fuels by the end of 2022. In the meantime, we must stay focused on the longer term, because the future will not wait. Reducing CO2 emissions by 60% by 2030 requires action now. The government is focusing on the rapid greening of Dutch industry, more wind power and green hydrogen, and a new role for nuclear energy. People who wish to make their homes more energy-efficient can obtain a grant for that purpose. This summer’s drought has again underlined the vital importance of being prepared for extreme weather and adapting to climate change.
One important, enduring question for the future is how to ensure that high-quality, personalised healthcare remains available and affordable. New solutions are needed. The concept of ‘appropriate care’ is pivotal in this regard. This means everyone receiving the right care at the right location at the right time. Strengthening the primary care provided by GPs and home-based nursing care services will enable more people to be treated close to home. Under the National Prevention Pact, the government will continue promoting sport and healthy lifestyles – after all, prevention is better than cure. Furthermore, COVID-19 is still circulating and the government is of course preparing for the possibility of a new pandemic in the future.
The Netherlands is facing an acute housing shortage. Buying or renting a decent, affordable home is out of reach for more and more people. Especially for first-time buyers and renters, and young people. This is not a situation we can just accept. Everyone has the right to a home in a safe, accessible and attractive neighbourhood, and this is a core task for the government. The government will take back control of housing and spatial planning policy. The National Housing and Construction Agenda sets out the ambition to create 900,000 new homes between now and the end of 2030. The practical challenges may be great, but so is the urgency, and thus the construction of new homes must be accelerated without delay. Working with provinces, municipalities, housing associations and the construction industry, the government aims to achieve that acceleration, including the accompanying infrastructure and transport links.
Another core task of the government is providing security, and ensuring that the rule of law is strong and functions properly. Combating organised crime has the highest priority. It is vital to disrupt the business model of organised crime, both at home and abroad. It should be far easier to confiscate criminal assets and stop offenders managing criminal enterprises from inside prison. The government is investing heavily in protecting the guardians of democracy and the rule of law, such as lawyers, judges, politicians, public administrators and journalists. There is scope across the board for more personnel and new technology, from the Public Prosecution Service to the courts, from the police to the financial investigation authorities, and from the prison system to the probation service. In the field of prevention, partnerships are working to ensure – through education, jobs and mentoring – that young people do not embrace lives of crime. In addition, the government is working to provide better access to the justice system. For members of the public and small and medium-sized enterprises, court fees will be reduced, while payments received by legal-aid lawyers will be increased.
Everyone in the Netherlands should have access to justice, and the government feels an absolute duty to do right by the residents of the earthquake-affected part of Groningen and by the victims of the serious failings in the childcare benefit system. It remains a painful and shameful fact that so many individuals and families face serious problems as a result of mistakes and negligence on the part of the authorities. All efforts are focused on arranging compensation and redress as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this takes time, despite the efforts of many people and the use of considerable resources to that end. In order to prevent such acute problems in the future, the government is working in the meantime to improve the provision of public services and, by extension, to rebuild trust if possible. The rules can and should be made simpler and less rigid, so that, for example, a social assistance benefit recipient does not immediately run into problems if they receive a little extra.
This summer saw a sudden shortage of reception places for asylum seekers, resulting in distressing and unpleasant situations affecting not only those seeking refuge in our country but also reception centre staff and local residents. The government accepts full responsibility for this situation, and is working with municipalities and other relevant organisations to find solutions. Our asylum system is and will continue to be based on the principle that there is always a place in the Netherlands for people forced to flee war, violence and oppression. Anyone who is entitled to remain will have all the rights and obligations associated with participating fully and integrating in our society.
Investing in our country’s future starts with good, accessible education. Equal opportunities mean that every child is able to make the most of their talents, and that begins with reading, writing and arithmetic. This is a top priority for the government. Money is available to ensure, in collaboration with municipalities and social institutions, that services like homework tutoring, sport and other opportunities are made available to children and young people who may not otherwise have access to them. In addition, the government is investing in more opportunities for transferring between educational levels. This will enable pupils to take the step to the most suitable level for them, at a time of their choosing. Major investments in secondary vocational education, higher education and research will create breathing space for staff and students alike. For young people, the reintroduction of the basic student grant in the 2023-2024 academic year should remove as much as possible the financial barriers to entering higher education.
The only way to build an innovative and enterprising future is with a highly skilled labour force. Dutch businesses and their employees showed resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fact that so many companies are again facing major problems due to soaring costs is an especially hard blow. Small and medium-sized enterprises, which are so important to our country, are finding the situation particularly difficult. The business climate for such companies needs to be enhanced, for example by ensuring they have better access to financing and support when taking measures to improve sustainability. The government will also continue investing in our country’s future earning capacity. Important tasks in this regard include fostering an attractive business climate, creating space for the top sectors and innovative startups, and seizing the many opportunities presented by the digital transformation. Equally important is a well-functioning labour market – particularly now, with many companies facing personnel shortages. The government believes that having a permanent job should be the norm, and is therefore working to strike a new balance between open-ended and flexible employment contracts. Good employment practice pays dividends, and labour migrants deserve decent treatment too. In order to encourage people to work more hours, over the course of the government’s term in office the cost of childcare will be almost fully reimbursed for all working parents. The government is developing a new pension system that is fit for the future and more in keeping with a labour market in which most people will have multiple jobs over the course of their lives. The new system will offer greater scope for indexation and give people a better idea of the pension sum they have accumulated.
It is unavoidable that policy plans are often expressed in terms of money, figures and timeframes. But the underlying aim is always to enhance the quality of our society. With that aim in mind, a vibrant, universally accessible cultural and creative sector is essential, and cultural life was hit hard during the coronavirus crisis. The government is therefore investing in the sector’s recovery, renewal and growth, because culture confronts thorny issues, makes it possible to discuss difficult topics, and helps people find common bonds.
If we want a society where there is no place for racism and discrimination, where everyone feels heard and appreciated, we must openly reflect on the less pleasant chapters in our history. Not to judge our forebears through the prism of modern values, but to understand what our history means to various groups and cultures that form part of our society. That goes for the entire Kingdom, and for all the countries with which we share special historical ties. By engaging in a dialogue about the past, the government hopes to foster necessary recognition, and help people connect with each other. However difficult and emotional such a dialogue may be, our view of the past cannot remain static. The government has previously spoken out about the actions of the Dutch authorities during the persecution of the Jews, and about the extreme violence on the part of the Netherlands during the period of decolonisation in Indonesia. As we approach next year’s 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, we need to acknowledge this part of our history, too.
Members of the States General,
‘Together we will work for the good of the Netherlands,’ my grandmother said in 1948. They are words that remain as fitting today as they were all those decades ago. In these uncertain times, let us find hope and renewed faith in the knowledge that change in our country has always been a gradual process, and one achieved through cooperation. So it was in the past, and so it is today. With that idea in mind, the government, together with you and all the positive forces in our country, will continue working to find solutions to today’s challenges, and to ensure a bright future for everyone in our Kingdom. In discharging your duties, you may feel supported in the knowledge that many are wishing you wisdom and join me in praying for strength and God’s blessing upon you.