Speech by Prime Minister Rutte at the special joint session marking the bicentenary of the States General
Speech by the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, at the special joint session marking the bicentenary of the States General, The Hague, 16 October 2015.
Your Majesty, Mesdames Presidents of the Houses of Parliament, Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, and of course – and I say these words with some trepidation – members of the States General,
Let me begin with the most important thing: on behalf of the government, I would like to congratulate the House of Representatives and the Senate on their two hundredth anniversary. It’s an anniversary that deserves to be celebrated. The Binnenhof can be a noisy and adversarial place. Nevertheless, we have a parliamentary democracy to be proud of. And cherish. Because if events like the MH17 disaster and the Syrian refugee crisis highlight one thing, it’s that democracy, freedom and the rule of law are the mainstay of a country’s strength.
We have just seen how, in the space of 200 years, the Netherlands has developed a health and welfare system that is virtually without equal. That is one of our parliamentary democracy’s collective successes. It is associated with the names of Liberals like Samuel van Houten, Social-Democrats like Willem Drees and Christian-Democrats like Marga Klompé, who – according to tradition – was called Our Lady of Perpetual Help by her colleague Joseph Luns. Although she introduced the Social Assistance Act, she never claimed benefits herself. ‘Father’ Drees, who introduced the Old Age Pensions Act, did, however, enjoy his old age pension for many years, as he lived to the age of 101. A pension well deserved. And as a sensible, thrifty social-democrat, he wisely foresaw that the retirement age would have to increase in line with life expectancy.
All our achievements over the last 200 years can in fact be ascribed to our collective endeavour, rather than to any one party or movement. In the Netherlands, legislation is always supported by several parties. In retrospect, that may well be our parliamentary system’s greatest strength: our focus on cooperation, and on seeking common ground, which in the end we nearly always find. The spirit of sensible compromise is never far away, and this has certainly done us no harm.
We live in one of the most prosperous countries in the world. That is something we have accomplished together. But we cannot take our prosperity for granted. Laws, rules and social provisions require maintenance. They need to be constantly adapted to the changing needs of the people and to the changing requirements of the time. Only then can we preserve our country’s great achievements.
In this way continuity and change always go hand in hand. That was also true 200 years ago, when the bicameral parliamentary system was laid down in the 1815 Constitution. The new parliament was named the States General, a familiar term dating from the time of the Dutch Republic, but with the Binnenhof as its meeting place.
If the parliamentarians of 1815 could have seen what the Netherlands looks today, they would not have believed their eyes. Spatially, socially, politically, technologically, economically – everything is completely different now. And whatever the next 200 years may bring, the process of change will continue unabated. Instead of fearing the future, let us continue working together to keep our constitutional democracy, our economy and our society strong and up-to-date.
I believe there is every reason to have confidence in the future. Our economy ranks fifth worldwide on the Global Competitiveness Index. Our institutions are robust. Our people have a strong sense of solidarity. And our parliamentary democracy has brought us far, and will bring us even further.
It is precisely at a time like the present, when many people feel uncertain and divisions seem to be widening, that our parliamentary democracy must demonstrate its unifying force. That was also the call that King Willem I made in his speech from the throne exactly 200 years ago, on 16 October 1815. He urged the members of the States General, who at that time were still ‘mighty noble lords’, to work together to protect the national interest and to remain steadfastly calm.
Since then, our system has more than proved its worth. For two hundred years the States General have served the general interest. And on this special occasion, there is only one wish that I would like to express to you and the Dutch public: ‘Long live the States General.’