Note: This article was revised on January 30, 2021, to correct a hyperlink and statements that incorrectly cited evidence of the FfD’s ultranationalism rather than nativism within the PPFD and, more broadly, socially conservative parties in the Dutch political landscape. 

On January 15th, the third Rutte cabinet, which formed a minority coalition government in the Netherlands, resigned over a recent child welfare scandal two months ahead of the general elections. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the leader of the centre-right party People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (PPFD), has handed his resignation to King Willem-Alexander. 

The Netherlands is known as the vanguard of progressive policies in Europe, such as decriminalizing recreational cannabis use and legalizing prostitution decades before many European countries. The Dutch government has long advocated for equal opportunities for all, establishing generous social welfare policies that provide Dutch residents with financial assistance for healthcare insurance and child support. Additionally, in a bid to attract high-skilled labour, the government has exempted foreign workers from paying payroll and income taxes on 30 per cent of their annual revenue for a period of 5 years.

Welfare Surveillance

However, the “Bulgarian fraud” scandal in 2013 has sparked waves of xenophobia against immigrants on Dutch soil, prompting the Second Rutte Cabinet to tighten control over welfare fraud. The scandal involved Bulgarian migrant workers who received financial assistance in the Netherlands and withdrew the money in Bulgaria. As this scandal has shed light on welfare fraud, it has led to the creation of Systeem Risico Indicatie (SyRI), an automated surveillance system aimed at mitigating social welfare fraud using personal data.

SyRI was managed by a consortium of private companies, which reported potential fraudsters based on three criteria: possession of property abroad, irregular income reports, and their home environment. Tax authorities then conducted physical visits to households suspected of fraudulent activity, examining their living conditions, behaviour, and physical appearance. This public-private partnership has raised concerns about government accountability and transparency, and digital welfare surveillance systems. 

After official reports have shown that half of targeted households were not Dutch, child and human rights groups have denounced SyRI’s discriminatory algorithm and intrusive government measures. In February 2019, the Hague District Court ruled that SyRI was unconstitutional under the European Convention on Human Rights for breaching rights to privacy and to social security. The automated surveillance system had in fact self-learned a biased algorithm, singling out poorer neighbourhoods and people with dual citizenship or non-Western European immigration backgrounds.

Although the Dutch government guarantees social assistance to all, their methods for combating welfare fraud have proven otherwise. More than 20,000 families have been wrongly accused of fraud and, as a result, were ordered by district and appeals courts to pay restitution to the state. Many victims have been evicted, have filed for bankruptcy, and have died by suicide, resulting in broken families, emotional trauma, and alienation.

National Identity and Integration

This scandal exposed systemic racism and classism in Dutch state institutions, and yet the third Rutte cabinet has garnered more praise for resigning than criticism for causing irreparable damage to thousands of families. Perceived as a sign of accountability by most, the resignation of cabinets is often nothing but a symbolic act in Dutch politics. Change is unlikely to happen as social conservative parties spouting nativist rhetoric continue to instill a xenophobic attitude in the electorate. 

Dutch scholars, artists, and celebrities have denounced the normalization of xenophobia in mainstream politics. A notable example is the Party for Freedom which is led by social conservative politician Geert Wilders. In 2016, Wilders was convicted for hate speech after declaring that “Islam is not only a religion, it is a way of life.” Similarly, PM Rutte has addressed people who apparently clashed with traditional Dutch values, telling them to “act normal, or go away”, in reference to a popular Dutch expression: “act normal.”

It is worth noting that the growing presence of social conservative parties has forced the PPFD to toughen up its stance on immigration. A significant share of the electorate rallies around socially conservative parties not only for their liberal stances on issues such as gay marriage and prostitution but also for their nativist rhetoric which hails the West as morally and spiritually superior to non-Western societies. The spread of nativist views has made it harder for a portion of Dutch society to let go of the controversial Zwarte Piet tradition. However, reducing the popularity of social conservative parties to identity politics would be a simplistic view of Dutch politics.

Rather, scholars have argued that a “principle of deservingness” may also guide the politics of welfare policy. This principle establishes a conditional hierarchy that ranks individuals as deserving and undeserving of social assistance. Since the 9/11 attacks, this principle has been twisted by Dutch social conservative parties to vilify non-Western European immigrants and anti-racist activists as threats to the well-being of society. As such, welfare beneficiaries who fail to integrate into Dutch society are cast as undeserving individuals. These standards were operationalized in SyRI to detect fraud, discriminating against those who possessed property abroad, unknowingly misreported their income, and had ways of life that did not conform to Dutch culture.

The Dutch government has promised a $30,000 compensation to victims of the SyRI scandal, though no amount of money could relieve broken families from this ordeal.  A growing presence of white nationalists in the Dutch political landscape has pushed a damaging ideology that has teetered on the edge of fascism far too long. While the world has fixed its gaze on the pitfalls of American democracy, the rise of ultranationalist rhetoric in long-standing democracies such as the Netherlands has gone relatively unnoticed. The hidden agenda behind welfare surveillance has undermined cohesion in Dutch society, legitimizing the alienation and privacy breaches of already marginalized communities. Unless public opinion on welfare benefits and immigrants shifts, the Dutch government will not face accountability for upholding systemic inequality.  

Edited by Dana Malapit.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Photo by Valerie Kuypers and obtained via Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-NC 1.0 license.