The Greek crisis may have claimed an unexpected new victim: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
The Greek crisis may have claimed an unexpected new victim: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In a five hour debate last week on the Dutch support for the latest bailout for Greece, the leader of the largest government party VVD was attacked by members of parties from across the political spectrum. The man who is often called the 'tefal-premier' for his ability to sail through debates unscathed seemed visibly unsettled. Since the position of the main parties was clear before the debate, support for the Greeks was never in real danger. Interesting is what the various U-turns and reverse U-turns of Dutch politicians indicate about the effect of the Greek crisis on one of the founding countries of the EU.
The main problem the opposition parties - many of them pro-bailout - had with the decision on Greece was that Mark Rutte very openly broke an election promise. In 2012, the VVD ran with a programme centred on attacking economic problems as soon as possible and not pushing them to future generations. In their manifesto, they limited support for struggling EU member states to those who have taken all measures to get their affairs in order. In a debate, Rutte famously said that he was against new bailout measures for Greece ("not a cent more for Greece"). The only other politician willing to make such stipulations at the time was Geert Wilders, leader of the eurosceptic PVV. The success of the PVV, known for their anti-immigration views and for pushing the Netherlands towards a 'Nexit', had been taking other parties towards the euro-critical. For Rutte, his tough stance on the Greeks was a way to prove that he was willing to stand up to Brussels.
During the debate last week, Rutte doggedly stuck to his explanation for his change of heart on money for Greece, claiming that in 2012 he thought that the Greek economy was on the mend, and that a new bailout would not be necessary. His promise was more a 'won't need to give more money' rather than a 'won't give more money'. “Sometimes this is how things go in politics”, he explained to the parliamentarians as they rushed to the interruption microphones. “I had to take responsibility and do what is in the interest of the Netherlands”.
The Greek issue has highlighted how politicians are becoming conflicted about the interest of the Netherlands regarding the European Union. The country was there at the start of the Coal and Steel Union, signed the Treaty of Rome, was one of the drivers of the expansion into the European Community and later the European Union, and applauded the start of the European Monetary Union. It was a way for a small country to grow quickly and make its voice heard on the international stage. Successive editions of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard show the Dutch at the centre of decision making on issues like human rights policy and transatlantic cooperation.
Meanwhile, whilst the government consistently supported further expansion and integration of the European Union, Europe wasn't really on the agenda for voters. Although there were complaints about the democratic deficit, agricultural regulations and immigration, until recently the EU was not a key issue during election campaigns. As in many countries in Europe, the economic crisis has aggravated existing grievances for the Dutch people. It appears that there is now a new kind of pragmatism for the Dutch leading parties, where being critical towards Brussels can help during elections and is popular for soundbites, but where any changes in decision making at the European level are not yet viable.
The opposition is also struggling to find its feet in this new situation. A vote of no confidence (which would have most likely have led to a resignation from Rutte) got very little support, and a motion against a Dutch agreement for the bailout was rejected with 86 votes versus 52. Interestingly, this last motion was put forward by the Christian Democratic Party CDA, who went against their European Parliament party group EPP, and caused a dispute in the leadership of the party. Alexander Pechtold, the leader of centrist party D66, attacked the prime minister at length and accused him of pulling the wool over the eyes of his voters but also defended the new deal with Greece. The VVD itself only agreed on the deal internally a day before the debate, and one of its MPs voted against it on the day.
The day after this debate, and the German Bundestag’s vote for the bailout, Greek prime-minister Tspiras resigned and called for new elections. This will undoubtedly provide fodder for the growing anti-bailout group. Rutte's U-turn has overloaded the opposition with ammunition for the next elections, and he can't hold a lot of hope that his election promises will convince any voters. But will he have a legacy of a responsible politician with the Dutch interest at heart? The outcome of the Greek crisis could be the deciding factor that leads politicians in Europe from rhetorics to a real change in decision making.
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.