April 25, 2018 / 11:09 PM / 3 months ago

Dutch PM Rutte survives censure vote over dividend tax row

* Confidential memos on scrapping of tax released

* Big firms Shell, Unilever lobbied for dividend tax cut

* Confidence vote supported by most opposition parties

By Bart H. Meijer and Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM, April 26 (Reuters) - Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte survived a censure vote in the early hours of Thursday called by lawmakers who believe he withheld information about how his Cabinet reached an unpopular decision to scrap a tax on dividends.

Almost all opposition lawmakers believe Rutte misled them when he said in November he did not remember there being any memos prepared during negotiations on the issue. On Tuesday, the government released nearly 60 pages of documentation uncovered after a freedom of information request.

A motion denouncing Rutte’s handling of the matter failed to gain a simple majority in the 150-seat house with 67 votes in favour and 76 against. Seven legislators did not cast votes.

The decision to scrap the tax was part of a successful campaign to entice Unilever to choose the Netherlands, rather than Britain, for its head office. The documents showed Unilever considered the tax cut “decisive”.

The affair became the centre of a political storm for Rutte, who had repeatedly said he had no memory of documents showing the decision-making process.

Rutte admitted during roughly eight hours of debate that ran past midnight Wednesday that he had “made a mistake” by telling parliament he could not remember and later finding out the memos had been used in negotiations.

“The Prime Minister has given us no transparency, no full answer, but has twisted around the truth like a slippery eel”, opposition leader Geert Wilders said in parliament before the vote.

But coalition partners defended Rutte’s lack of memory, saying the decision to drop the dividend tax was not a contentious topic during the government talks.

“There was no long clash about the proposal, so I have no strong memories of the process,” Christian Democrats leader Sybrand van Haersma Buma said.

The cut was announced in October as part of the governing pact of Rutte’s new centre-right government. The government explained the decision as a step to promote employment and attract foreign businesses, while the opposition criticised it as a 1.4 billion euro ($1.71 billion) boon to foreigners.

Until last week, Rutte maintained he could not remember seeing any detailed written documents prepared during coalition talks last summer explaining pros and cons of the tax cut.

After a freedom of information request revealed that such documents did exist, Rutte said they could not be released because they were confidential.

He bowed to pressure on Tuesday night, and the government published a file of 12 memos, totalling more than 50 pages, outlining a months-long internal decision process.

The documents, prepared by officials in Rutte’s previous cabinet for the coalition talks that kept him in power, showed senior politicians initially opposing scrapping the tax only to be persuaded as big firms made their case.

Royal Dutch Shell has said it consistently opposed the tax. The press office of Unilever in the Netherlands was not immediately available to comment on Wednesday. ($1 = 0.8208 euros) (Editing By Cynthia Osterman)

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