Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is stuck between European partners urging him to engage in Europe at this critical moment and a growing chorus at home threatening to punish him if he does so.
After the four-day European Council meeting on the EU budget and covid-19 recovery fund, held on 21 July, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was happy that “Europe can find new ways in a quite unique situation”.
French President Emmanuel Macron also framed the deal’s significance in clear European terms: “it is the most important moment in the life of our Europe since the creation of the euro”.
Then Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was asked what he appreciated most about the agreement. He quipped: “I’m just very happy that the Dutch contributions to Europe will more or less remain the same.”
This is typical of the Dutch attitude in Europe nowadays: Rutte focuses almost exclusively on the financial side of EU membership, ignoring the political context of European integration.
Merkel and Macron emphasised the (geo)political dimensions of a large budget and the issuance of common debt during what she calls “the worst crisis the European Union has even known”. They prepared the public for a big step.
Rutte’s discourse, in contrast, was national and transactional. Rutte – who, as leader of the right-wing liberal Freedom and Democracy (VVD), has served as prime minister since 2010 – focused on the Dutch rebate and conditions for spending Dutch taxpayers’ money in southern European countries. To this day, many Dutch citizens have never heard anyone explain how the pandemic destabilises Europe’s internal market because companies in rich countries are better off than those in poorer countries. To understand why this undermines the EU, they have had to tune into German television.
The Dutch have long been ambivalent Europeans. The post-war Franco-German reconciliation story has always made them uneasy.
The Dutch have long been ambivalent Europeans. The post-war Franco-German reconciliation story has always made them uneasy, as they are fearful of political diktats from their larger neighbours. The Dutch talk about the EU as a market, often resisting further integration. This tendency has been reinforced by Brexit.
The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU has catapulted the Dutch into a more prominent role on the European stage. The British often helped them fight for a market-oriented, less political, and leaner EU. Together, they vetoed EU budgets several times. Usually, London got the flak. With the British gone, the Netherlands continues the fight with some smaller countries, weathering the storm alone.
All this is summed up beautifully by the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Coalition Explorer. It shows that, for European experts in the 27 EU capitals, the Netherlands is now the third most important EU country, after Germany and France. The Netherlands is also, tellingly, viewed as the fourth most disappointing country after Poland, Hungary, and France. No country is so often perceived as punching above its weight as the Netherlands.
Germany and France have also gained power after Brexit. In the old Franco-German “power triangle” with the UK, the Netherlands used to float in the middle. There was always leverage somewhere, depending on the issue. Today, as the July Council meeting has shown, France and Germany can prevail when they really get their act together. As a member state, the UK could have killed the recovery fund. Rutte and his “frugal” allies just modified it, leaving its structure and volume intact. Rutte received money, but lost prestige.
This shows how Brexit has changed the political ballgame in Europe. Rutte is fully aware that solid strategic thinking is required. But, firstly, he is stuck between European partners urging him to engage in Europe at this critical moment and a growing chorus at home threatening to punish him if he does so. And, secondly, he has a general election coming in March 2021.
Two far-right opposition parties loudly denounce Rutte’s approval of the recovery fund. Centrist and left-wing parties are increasingly critical of him. All of them try to draw him out on the bigger, political story of Europe that no one talks about. Why didn’t the Prime Minister veto the deal? And hasn’t Europe become a transfer union, crossing VVD red lines?
Rutte refuses to be challenged on this, defending his gains at the summit and sticking to his narrow economic story. As is so often the case during Dutch election campaigns, “Europe” has become a toxic word.
Two of Rutte’s coalition partners, Christian Democratic Appeal and the tiny Christian Union, share his ambivalence about the EU. The third – the left-leaning liberal D66 – is staunchly pro-European but cannot undermine the government.
In the Netherlands, the Finance Ministry – not the Foreign Ministry – dominates European affairs. The finance minister happens to be euro hardliner Wopke Hoekstra, a Christian democrat and probably Rutte’s biggest political rival. Rutte and Hoekstra seem locked in a race to be the “toughest” on Brussels. Both try to win back votes from the far right in this way.
And so, the Dutch government supports the EU but acts in an increasingly Eurosceptic fashion. Some see parallels between Rutte and former British prime minister David Cameron. Cameron opposed Brexit, but was so afraid to provoke eurosceptics that he failed, in the end, to make any pro-European case at all – and lost the 2016 referendum.
The Netherlands is not an outlier like the UK. It is in the heart of Europe, participating in all EU programmes. It can ill afford to drift away.
Most Dutch citizens support the EU. In a recent poll, 79 percent of them said EU membership is a good thing, and only 5 percent that it is a bad thing. But, below the surface, sympathy for the EU is eroding, including in parliament and institutions. Just half of Dutch voters approved of Rutte’s performance at the July Council meeting. Only 10 percent said he should have been more lenient.
In some European capitals, Rutte is called “Mr No, no, no” – after a truck driver asked him not to send money to Italy, and the prime minister assured him “no, no, no!” But, at home, Rutte is known as “Mr Yes” for having “given away too much” in Brussels. This is the bind Rutte is in – a bind largely of his own making.
What would the mood in the country be had he held a broader, political European discourse as Merkel and Macron have? And what role should the Netherlands play in Europe after Brexit? We probably won’t know the answers to these questions before March.
Caroline de Gruyter is an ECFR Council Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations and the Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.