Saturday September 26th, 2020 8:41PM

Dutch government to unveil budget overshadowed by virus

By The Associated Press
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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The Dutch government plans to invest in protecting jobs during the coronavirus crisis but warned Tuesday in a speech delivered by King Willem-Alexander ahead of the unveiling of the national budget that the country must brace for the harsh economic impact of the pandemic.

The country's finance minister will unveil details of the budget to lawmakers later Tuesday, in a speech that will highlight how one of Europe's most prosperous countries is dealing with the economic fallout from the virus outbreak that has killed more than 6,200 and sickened more than 750,000 in the Netherlands.

The king laid out the broad themes in his annual “speech from the throne” to lawmakers from both houses of the Dutch parliament. The speech is written by the government.

“The government is choosing not to make cuts in these uncertain times, but rather to invest in job retention, good public facilities, a stronger economic structure and a cleaner country now and in the future,” the king said.

“Now we must brace ourselves for the consequences of a severe economic downturn, which will also affect the economy and public finances in the long term,” he added. “How exactly depends on how long and to what extent the coronavirus continues to hold us in its grip.”

He said there would be a “historic” economic contraction of 5% in 2020 while the government's budget will slump from a surplus to a deficit of 7% in a year and unemployment is forecast to double.

While the Dutch budget will underscore the devastating impact of the virus outbreak, the four-party coalition led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte will not deliver only bad economic news - it faces national elections next year and will be keen to give voters something positive ahead of the vote.

Rutte’s coalition already has pumped billions of euros into propping up hard-hit sectors of the economy in an attempt to safeguard jobs. It also is investing in programs to help people who lose their jobs find work in other professions such as health care and education.

Measures to rein in the virus outbreak meant that the pageantry that normally accompanies the traditional state opening of Parliament was dialed back significantly to ensure lawmakers adhere to the government’s social distancing guidelines.

There was no horse-drawn carriage ride through the city by the king and no joint meeting of the two houses of the Dutch parliament in the historic Knights Hall. Instead, lawmakers gathered in a church near parliament for the king's speech.

The Dutch budget announcement comes a day after the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said that the gross domestic product in the world's 20 major industrialized nations dropped by a record 6.9% in the second quarter from the previous three-month period.

The Dutch statistics office said in August that the national economy suffered an unprecedented 8.5% contraction in the second quarter, calling it “an economic catastrophe of exceptional proportions.”

Usually, thousands of people line the streets and gather outside a palace in the city to catch a glimpse of the royal family, but this year police and local officials have urged people to stay away.

Early Tuesday, there was just one man standing outside the Noordeinde Palace.

Resplendent in orange suit, tie and shoes and a black hat with gold bow and protected by a homemade “corona bumper" decorated with a model carriage, Johan Vlemmix said he drove three hours to get to The Hague, as he has done every budget day for more than 20 years.

“It's surreal,” he said. “You see the red carpet has been rolled out, the king has arrived and there's nobody here. I've never experienced this.”

Later, he was joined at the palace gates by about 100 people to watch the king and his wife, Queen Maxima, get into a limousine to be driven to the Great Church.


Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at http://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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