THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Dutch parliament approved extending the powers of the euro zone’s rescue fund in a crucial vote on Thursday, leaving Slovakia and Malta as the last two euro zone members whose legislatures have yet to approve the scheme.
The vote in favor of widening the role of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), as agreed by European leaders in July, is considered an essential move for stabilizing financial markets.
“The support was very broad. That is very important for the government, obviously because we are minority government,” the Dutch finance minister, Jan Kees de Jager, said. “Now we can go forward in Europe.”
The minority coalition government, composed of the Liberal and Christian Democrat parties, secured a majority with the help of the biggest opposition party, Labor, which is also pro-Europe. The government’s main ally, Geert Wilders’ populist Freedom Party, is firmly opposed to bailouts.
In the course of an 11-hour parliamentary debate on the rescue fund and other issues, de Jager stressed the government will listen to the conditions demanded by the parliament and that any changes to the EFSF will be presented to the parliament for approval.
“In principle, for important decisions in the EFSF . unanimity is required,” de Jager said, as he tried to soothe concerns that the Netherlands would be required to continue stumping up money for ailing peripheral euro zone members.
Sylvester Eijffinger, financial economics professor at Tilburg University, said: “The Dutch parliament was aware of its responsibility of keeping the euro zone alive. But a new vote asking for more money for euro zone rescue funds would be much more difficult for the Netherlands.”
A succession of opinion polls has shown that public backing for euro zone bailouts is wearing thin.
In a Maurice de Hond poll published last month, 63 percent of those surveyed said the Netherlands should refuse to continue to cooperate in supporting Greece, up from 56 percent in May. Half of those polled regretted giving up the former Dutch currency, the guilder, for the euro.
A fresh poll by Synovate, published just hours before Thursday’s vote, showed that almost half those surveyed expect Greece to go bankrupt within six months; 54 percent said the Netherlands should not give more aid to Greece.
More than six out of 10 Dutch people said they were worried about the possible consequences of the sovereign debt crisis for the Netherlands, and three out of 10 said they planned to save more because of the crisis.
Several lawmakers expressed their concerns about the crisis in the course of the debate.
“I just heard the minister say you don’t solve a debt crisis with more debt,” said Teun van Dijck, from the euroskeptic Freedom Party.
“What the emergency fund does is use a larger sack of money to try and instill confidence in the financial markets and prevent contagion. But we have seen in the past year and a half that it has only stirred up a lack of trust and unrest in the financial markets.”
The parliament was widely expected to vote in favor, especially after the Labor party reiterated its support this week.
“A very strong Europe is in the interests of all of us and will certainly help us to remain prosperous,” said Christian Democrat MP Elly Blanksma before the vote.
“Unfortunately, Europe is not in good shape, a number of countries, but also a number of banks are not in good shape. We need to be alert, and restoring confidence in countries and the financial markets must take priority. It’s all hands on deck. I urge all those involved to take responsibility,” Blanksma said.
De Jager kicked off Thursday’s debate by reiterating that although euro zone members must stick to the budget rules, failing to support Greece could worsen the crisis.
He stressed the Dutch government’s demands that Europe needs a budget tsar with the power to kick out those members of the euro who do not abide by the rules.
“We need to have greater European powers to enforce the budget rules that we have agreed upon and to deal with budget sinners,” de Jager said.
“It cannot happen again that Greece, Portugal or Ireland spoil it for everyone else.”
Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block, Greg Roumeliotis; Editing by Sara Webb and Leslie Adler