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article imageDutch king opens parliament, vows to help Caribbean isles

By AFP     Sep 19, 2017 in World

Dutch King Willem-Alexander Tuesday vowed his nation would stand with hurricane-hit Caribbean islands to help rebuild, as he officially opened parliament even though no government is yet in place.

"Our thoughts are first and foremost with the people of St Maarten, Saba and St Eustatius, which were hit so hard by the destructive power of hurricane Irma. Our hearts go out to them," the king said at the start of his traditional annual speech in The Hague.

"The government will do all in its power to alleviate the islands' acute distress," he pledged, adding "the Caribbean part of the Kingdom will not stand alone as it faces the task of reconstruction."

Willem-Alexander saw first hand the destruction when he toured the islands to view a military aid operation put in place after the deadly storm Irma hit on September 6.

With Hurricane Maria, a Category Four storm, now powering across the Caribbean, a new red alert has been issued for St Martin -- which is shared between The Netherlands and France.

The aid and rescue effort for the islands has come as outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte is struggling to shape a new government following March elections.

His is now the longest serving cabinet in the Netherlands since World War II, a milestone reached largely due to the difficulties in forming a viable coalition after his Liberal party emerged with the largest number of MPs in the parliament.

Talks involving three other parties have dragged for 189 days, and are fast approaching the country's record for coalition talks of 208 days set in 1977.

With no government in place, the king -- who arrived at the centuries-old parliament complex in a horse and carriage greeted by hundreds of flag-waving citizens -- had no big spending plans to unveil for the coming year.

But he hailed the country's progress since the outgoing government took the helm five years ago, at a time of economic turbulence.

"Our country is in far better shape than when the government took office in 2012," the king said, praising "the adaptability, hard work and resilience of the Dutch people".

The economy is projected to grow at 3.3 percent in 2017 and 2.5 percent in 2018, and unemployment is falling and expected to reach 4.3 percent next year.

The king also revealed extra funds would be budgeted in the coming year to fight cyber crime, as well as to boost primary education and ensure standards are met in nursing homes.

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