The Netherlands

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte claimed victory early Thursday for his conservative VVD party in national elections widely seen as a referendum on the Netherlands’ commitment to Europe.

With 92 percent of municipalities reporting, the VVD was set to take 41 seats in the 150-member Dutch Parliament, two more than its largest rival, the center-left Labor party. Rutte said Labor leader Diederik Samsom had called him to concede.

“Tonight let’s enjoy it, and tomorrow we have get to work to make sure a stable Cabinet is formed as soon as possible,” Rutte told cheering supporters at a beachside hotel in The Hague. “Then I’m going to get to work with you to help the Netherlands emerge from this crisis,” he said, referring to Europe’s debt crisis, which has left the Dutch economy in the doldrums.

The result sets the stage for the VVD and Labor — both pro-Europe parties — to forge a two-party ruling coalition with Rutte returning for a second term as prime minister.

Formal coalition talks can’t start until official results are verified on Monday and the new parliament is seated, next week at the earliest. Rutte said he wouldn’t comment on possible coalitions for the time being.

Both top parties booked gains far greater than polls before Wednesday’s election had predicted, as voters strayed from smaller parties to support the two front runners.

Labor leader Samsom, who shot to prominence in the past month due to strong performances in televised debates, was jubilant.

He told supporters in Amsterdam that Labor was willing to help form a government “as long as the result from tonight is translated into the plans of a new Cabinet.”

But Rutte also called the vote an endorsement of his previous government’s right-wing policies and austerity platform, while Samsom ran on a platform of change.

“This is a strong boost for the agenda that we have laid out for the Netherlands, to go on with our policy in this splendid country,” Rutte said.

The election was cast as a virtual referendum on Europe amid the continent’s crippling debt crisis, but the result was a stark rejection of the most radical critic of the EU, anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party was forecast to lose 8 seats, dropping to 16.

Wilders’ calls to ditch the euro may have been too radical for voters, or he may have lost support for walking out of talks with Rutte in April to hammer out an austerity package to rein in the Dutch budget deficit.

“The voter has spoken,” an emotional Wilders told supporters in a Hague cafe. The Socialist Party, which briefly led in polls on its anti-austerity platform, wound up unchanged at 15 seats.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt welcomed the result.

“Looks as if populist anti-Europeans are losing big time in Dutch election. Distinctly good news,” Bildt tweeted.

The VVD’s campaign manager, lawmaker Stef Blok, did not want to speculate about coalition talks, but said the result “shows the VVD has an unbelievable amount of support.”

Ronald Plasterk of Labor said voters responded to his party’s more compassionate social policies.

“It’s an honest platform,” he said. “On the one hand we’re for a strong euro, for solid government finances, but also for a real social policy and welfare net.”

The result was a victory for pro-European forces in the Netherlands, a founding member of the EU whose export-driven economy has benefited from the bloc’s open market.

Whatever form the new government takes, it is not likely to derail the current Franco-German compromise approach to solving Europe’s sovereign debt crisis.

Both the VVD and Labor endorse cost-cutting for most governments to keep them within European budget deficit rules. But they also support exceptions or even bailouts for fiscally stressed countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy — as long as they adhere to externally mandated cost-cutting targets and labor market reforms.

While critical of a strict austerity-only solution to the debt crisis, the parties can work together. Labor backed Rutte at crucial moments in the past year to approve bailout funds and endorse European-level solutions to prevent the debt crisis from spinning out of control.

Rutte is closer to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in his outlook, and Samsom closer to French President Francois Hollande, but in a coalition those differences would likely balance out.

By not flocking to Wilders or the euro-skeptical Socialist Party, Dutch voters signaled at least an acceptance of the importance of a healthy Europe: in national polls, voters said that no election issue was nearly as important as the state of the Dutch economy and the effect Europe’s sovereign debt crisis is having on it.

For the Dutch, the elections are something of a return to normalcy after a decade of upheaval.

For the first time since the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a Muslim radical, the election focused on economic policies such as mortgage deductions and the retirement age, rather than Muslim integration and immigrant crime.

AMSTERDAM — A policy barring foreign tourists from buying marijuana in the Netherlands went into effect in parts of the country Tuesday, with attention focused on the southern city of Maastricht, where a cafe was warned over violating the ban and around 200 smokers marched in protest.

Weed is technically illegal in the Netherlands, but it has been sold openly for decades in small amounts in designated cafes known as “coffee shops” under the country’s famed tolerance policy.

Under a government policy change, as of May 1, only holders of a “weed pass” are supposed to be allowed to purchase the drug in three southern provinces. Nonresidents aren’t eligible for the pass, which means tourists are effectively banned.

The policy isn’t supposed to go into effect in Amsterdam, home to around a third of the country’s coffee shops, until next year — and it may never be. The city opposes the idea and the conservative national government collapsed last week, raising questions about whether a new Cabinet will persevere with the policy change after elections are held in September.

Most attention Tuesday was on the city of Maastricht, which borders both Belgium and Germany and which has suffered the effects of a constant flow of traffic from more than a million non-Dutch Europeans driving to the city annually just to purchase as much cannabis as possible and drive back home.

Most shops in Maastricht plan to refuse to use the pass and kept their doors shut Tuesday.

BRUSSELS — For more than a year, European Union officials have called for austerity, austerity and more austerity as a means to solve Europe’s debt crisis. Now people who don’t want to pay the price are taking their fight from the streets to the ballot box.

Governments have fallen, more are at risk and in some places, a stark streak of nationalism is on the rise that could swing Europe ever deeper into a fortress mentality.

At stake is the future of the continent, where countries rich and poor are struggling with mountains of debt and moribund economies — a toxic combination that often seems to require contradictory remedies of belt-tightening and economic stimulus.

Increasingly, the long focus on austerity is convincing Europeans that the German-led mantra of fiscal responsibility is creating a vicious circle of more misery leading to lower growth — leading to even greater debt distress.

“What is happening in Europe is the austerity drive is actually slowing down the necessary rebalancing of European economies,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist at the Center for European Reform.

Austerity measures aimed at balancing national budgets have led to drastic spending cuts by governments across the continent, including layoffs and pay cuts for government workers, slashing of key services including welfare and development programs, as well as tax hikes to boost government revenues.

Many in Europe have had enough of this harsh medicine.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, one of the architects of the EU’s response to the financial crisis, is in danger of being turned out of office in next month’s runoff with Francois Hollande — a Socialist who is promising not to cut, but to increase public spending by €20 billion by 2017.

Hollande is also promising to re-negotiate a much-vaunted budgetary pact among 25 EU countries meant to enforce national fiscal discipline.

Greece votes in elections next month in which fringe parties hostile to international bailouts requiring steep austerity are expected to make big gains — possibly endangering efforts by the current technocratic government to rein in the nation’s debt.

And the Netherlands’ 18-month-old conservative coalition resigned this week after it failed to agree on cutting its own budget deficit to meet the EU limits it had demanded so fiercely of other countries.

Beyond that, in the Czech Republic, almost 100,000 people rallied in Prague’s downtown Wenceslas Square last weekend to protest government reforms and cuts, calling on the government to resign in one of the biggest demonstrations since the fall of communism. And earlier this year, tens of thousands of Romanians bitter about savage public-sector wage cuts took to the streets and the government collapsed.

Analysts say it’s no surprise that people are fed up.

“I don’t think there are any examples of countries accepting endless austerity and downward standards of living,” Tilford said. “There has to be light at the of the tunnel.”

Voters may have good reasons to reject unrelenting cuts. But in their desire to avoid pain, they may also be prompting politicians to put off decisions that Europe must take to remain competitive globally.

Many experts say government protections for workers need to be loosened — for example, by making it easier for employers to hire and fire workers — in order to halt the flight of jobs from Europe to regions deemed more business-friendly.

And the anger appears to be driving voters to the extremes. In the first round of the French presidential election last weekend, nearly one voter in five cast their ballot for the National Front, a hard-right party previously known primarily for its anti-immigraton platform.

That, along with the 11 percent showing by far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon, shows a high level of anger, said Piotr Kaczynski, a research fellow at the Brussels-based Center for European Studies.

“The big winners of the French elections are the extreme parties — extreme right and extreme left,” which together won more than 30 percent of the vote, Kaczynski said.

The rise of the fringes is not limited to France. In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party is marching ahead in the polls — and may win a dozen or so seats in parliament. And it was a right-wing politician stridently critical of Islam who brought down the government of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte this week. Geert Wilders, whose support was critical to Rutte’s minority government, decided to withdraw his support over the government’s budget-cutting plans.

“With the Rutte government’s resignation, the pro-cyclical austerity course in Europe has once again proven to be the biggest disposal program for governments in recent history,” Germany’s Financial Times Deutschland commented in an editorial Tuesday.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble criticized Wilders’ actions in acid tones.

“We have always known that, if one votes for radical right-wing euro-skeptic parties and xenophobes, one makes democracy not more stable but more unstable,” Schaeuble said. “That can be seen now in Holland. So my advice is, don’t vote that way.”

But as Europe evolves, the Germans may wind up the big losers. They have been the most insistent on enforcing austerity, warning of the “moral hazard” of helping out countries that have not endured sufficient pain as a result of past lapses in discipline.

Now, it is possible that the future of Europe may lie with politicians like Hollande, who is favored to defeat Sarkozy in the presidential runoff. Hollande has promised to increase taxes on the rich, create 60,000 new teaching jobs and subsidize 150,000 jobs for young people.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was still staunchly defending her insistence on austerity.

“I want to say clearly, it is not the case that we say saving solves every problem but, if you at home talk about how you want to shape your life tolerably, then one of the first conditions is that you somehow get by with what you earn,” she said.

Still, at least some economists are now calling for a return to priming the pump — even at the cost of higher deficits.

“There can be no fiscal sustainability across Europe as a whole without a return to economic growth,” Tilford said.

Printed on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 as: Europeans tired of austerity are voting for extremists

AMSTERDAM — Dutch coffee shop owners went to court Wednesday in a last ditch bid to block a government plan to stop foreigners from buying marijuana in the Netherlands.

Lawyers representing the coffee shops oppose what would be the most significant change in decades to the country’s famed soft drug tolerance: turning marijuana cafes into “members only” clubs open solely to Dutch residents.

Members would only be able to get into the coffee shops by registering for a “weed pass” and the shops would only be allowed a maximum of 2,000 members.

The move comes into force in the south of the country May 1 and is scheduled to roll out nationwide on Jan. 1, 2013. Whether it will be enforced in Amsterdam, whose coffee shops are a major tourist draw, remains to be seen.

The city has strongly opposed the pass idea and mayor Eberhard van der Laan says he wants to negotiate a workable compromise with the country’s Justice Minister Ivo Opstelten.

Lawyers for the cafe owners told a judge at The Hague District Court that the move — aimed at reining in problems caused by foreign “drug tourists” who buy marijuana in the Netherlands and resell it in neighboring countries — is “clearly discriminatory.”

Lawyer Ilonka Kamans argued that Dutch drugs policy gives citizens “the fundamental right to the stimulant of their choosing” and should not deprive visiting foreigners of the same right.

He said the government wants to bring coffee shops back to what they were originally intended to be: “small local stores selling to local people.”

Marc Josemans of the Easy Going coffee shop in Maastricht said he expects the government will lose because it hasn’t thought through consequences or tried other ways of achieving its aims.

“We understand that this topic is something that’s of interest to tourists, but it’s equally important to our Dutch customers, which is most of them,” he told the AP ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.

“The limits on membership are going to lead to immediate problems in cities that don’t have enough coffee shops.”

Josemans said that if the court’s April 27 ruling goes against them, the Maastricht coffee shops plan to disregard the ruling, forcing the government to prosecute one of them in a test case.

Though the weed pass policy was designed to resolve traffic problems facing southern cities, later studies have predicted that the result of the system would be a return to street dealing and an increase in petty crime — the original reason for the tolerance policy started in the 1970s.

Printed on Friday, April 20, 2012 as: Weed tourism in Amsterdam to end in 2013

Texas took a step back, then two steps forward.

After announcing that guard Sterling Gibbs planned to transfer following the spring semester, the Longhorns inked two big names in high school basketball for the 2013 season.

The addition of guard Demarcus Holland and center Cameron Ridley gives the Longhorns a six-man recruiting class that includes guard Javan Felix, forwards Connor Lammert and Ioannis Papapetrou and center Prince Ibeh.

At 6-foot-10, Ridley is the source of much excitement for Texas fans because he was a high school standout. He brings size to a Texas team short on shot blockers and power players and is ranked as the No. 8 overall recruit in the nation by ESPNU. The Richmond, Texas native averaged 21.5 points, 15.2 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game while helping Bush to a 25-5 record his senior year.

Holland, a guard from Garland, Texas averaged a team-best 11.3 points to go along with 4.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and two steals per game as a senior. He was teammates with Ibeh, already a Texas signee, at Naaman Forest High School. Holland helped pace his team to a 29-8 record and advance to the Class 5A state semifinals in 2011.

Head coach Rick Barnes loves the versatility the incoming players bring to the table and sees Texas being successful in the long term with the addition.

“We’re so excited as a staff when you look at our returning players from this past year and combine them with the four players we signed in the fall and the addition of Demarcus and Cameron,” Barnes said. “All these guys come from winning programs and backgrounds, and they all want to win a championship at Texas. When we look at our roster, we see skill, character and work ethic, and we’re excited to have them get on the floor together this summer and get to work.”

Published on Thursday April, 12, 2012 as: Ridley, Holland add needed depth to squad

The UT business student who fell from his apartment balcony Monday night is one of at least four students who have died from fall-related injuries since 2006.

Richard Holland of Plano was pronounced dead at the University Medical Center Brackenridge after falling from his fifth-floor balcony at The Block apartments on Pearl Street, according to the Austin Police Department. Unlike the deaths of former students Tyler Cross in 2006, Daniel Toole in 2007 and Maximiliano Rodriguez in 2010, Holland’s friends said they do not believe alcohol or drugs were related to the accident. APD could not comment on whether or not there was alcohol at the scene.

According to previous Daily Texan news coverage, toxicology reports found Cross had a blood alcohol level of .19 when he fell from his fifth-floor balcony at University Towers. Rodriguez had a blood alcohol level of more than three times the legal limit when he fell from the fifth-floor of the Jefferson 26 apartments.

Medical examiners found traces of LSD and marijuana in the body of Toole, who also fell from the fifth-floor balcony of his Goodall-Wooten dormitory.

Sarah Scott, chief administrative officer for the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office, said an autopsy was conducted on Holland’s body Tuesday and examiners are currently processing the results. Scott said toxicology reports on the body will not be available for four to six weeks.

“Sometimes, when there is an obvious case of an injury, such as blunt force trauma, we’ll go ahead and assign a cause of death because the cause will be the same regardless of the toxicology report,” Scott said. “A toxicology report will tell us what kind of substances were in the individual’s blood stream and an alcohol presence will be confirmed or eliminated from the report.”

APD public information specialist Helena Wright said police are almost certain Holland’s fall was accidental but are currently looking into the case.

“If a death is ruled accidental, there will be no further investigation,” Wright said.

“But something like this isn’t open and shut that quickly, and they may still be gathering information.”

City residential inspector Byron Kurka said patio guardrails are required to stand 42 inches above the floor surface, and pickets along the railing cannot be more than four inches apart.

“Your average person’s center of gravity is below 42 inches,” Kurka said. “The rail hits you at above your center of gravity, but unfortunately, a lot of times people sit on the edge or on a barstool next to it. When you’re sitting on a barstool right next to it your center of gravity is going to be over that limit.”

The Block management did not return phone calls inquiring whether building codes are up to standards.

Funeral services for the UT sophomore friends described as loyal and energetic are scheduled for this weekend in the Dallas area. Visitation for Holland will be held Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Ted Dickey West Funeral Home in Dallas, and the funeral will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano.

Finance junior Ali Mavrakis, close friend of Holland, created a Facebook event to inform people about the arrangements. Mavrakis and other friends of the former student gathered Tuesday night at the University Catholic Center to remember Holland and share sentiments. An additional Facebook event has been created, inviting approximately 2,000 students from UT and other schools to wear yellow, Holland’s favorite color, on Sept. 6 in his honor.

Printed on September 1, 2011 as: West Campus has history of fall-related accidents

University Catholic Center director Edward Nowak read prayers and scriptures in an otherwise silent chapel where loved ones of business sophomore Richard Holland gathered to remember him.

Holland, 19, accidentally fell from the fifth floor balcony of his apartment at the Block on Pearl Street Monday night, according to the Austin Police Department. He was transported to University Medical Center Brackenridge and later pronounced dead. APD could not comment on if there was alcohol involved.

Approximately 40 of Holland’s friends attended the prayer service honoring him at the UCC Tuesday. Holland was a graduate of Plano West Senior High School. More than 100 friends and acquittances left notes on his Facebook page, many of them expressing what a happy, upbeat person Holland was.

Nowak blessed the people who attended the service, many of whom shared hugs and tears among the candlelight.

“All of the campus ministries, whatever people’s background, have ministers always available for counseling,” Nowak said after the service. “It’s good that we could provide a place where people could gather together and comfort one another.”

Sam Tillery, a sophomore at the Colorado School of Mines, said he caught the first flight from Denver to Austin when he learned of his friend’s death.

“I’ve known Richard since kindergarten,” Tillery said. “We played on every sports team together growing up and lived along the same block. I don’t think there was a day we didn’t see each other [until college].”

Tillery said he and Holland were members of a close-knit group that included finance junior Ali Mavrakis, who also attended the service. Tillery said while his real family is overseas and communication with them is difficult, he takes comfort in his friendship with Mavrakis and others who were close to Holland.

“Towards the end of the service people started to remember fond memories,” Mavrakis said. “People that were sobbing, they were laughing. It’s helped to be able to come together, and he’s going to be remembered well.”

Printed on Wednesday, August 31, 2011 as: Friends honor UT sophomore at memorial.