Sunday

22nd Jul 2018

Opinion

Rutte - from 'Mr No' to 'next Tusk'?

  • While Rutte has attempted to brush of his 'Mr No' reputation, he has become no less obstructionist on migration and the euro (Photo: Consillium)

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte's A Deal is a Deal: A Union of Rules in an Unruly World speech earlier this month to the European Parliament was received as one in which he declared love for the European project domestically, as well as one of pragmatism.

However, some European and international media have been more careful in judging the speech on its merits, and rightly so.

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Whereas a trend can be noticed in the rhetoric on the EU (which has changed in the Netherlands somewhat – not just from the prime minister and his Liberal Party (VVD) but also the Christian Democrats (CDA) that had shifted to a soft-nationalist tone during the last national and European elections), the substance has not changed much.

The Dutch government's approach to the EU and the two important challenges of migration and the common currency it faces, shows a rather consistent principled approach.

Whereas Rutte has attempted to brush of his 'Mr No' reputation, he has been no less obstructionist on these issues.

One must make no mistake – Rutte, sometimes considered as a potential candidate to succeed Donald Tusk, is one of the toughest of the EU's current heads of state.

When it comes to eurozone reform, he and his government have continuously blocked any attempt that would imply a eurozone budget and financial transfers between eurozone members in times of need and considered as the 'most hostile' to such ideas.

Forced euro exits

Rutte had been one of the first leaders to suggest in 2011 countries could be forced to exit the eurozone if they did not adhere to the rules.

In the subsequent election year of 2012, he promised to refuse giving a penny more to Greece.

In 2015, he had been one of the firmest in demanding the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras rollback some of his planned legislation, leading a group of hawkish member states.

This stance has continued – just recently, his finance minister Wopke Hoekstra on behalf of 12 EU states torpedoed a thin Franco-German compromise on establishing some form of fiscal capacity that could help deal with potential future financial crises.

Rutte and his government have been no less compromising in the other essential crisis the EU is facing.

Whereas Rutte has mostly deflected demands for solidarity in the eurozone reform, he has continued to push countries unwilling to take in migrants in the ongoing migration crisis that is currently tearing apart the EU.

Instead of accepting flexible forms of solidarity through providing funds and staff, the Dutch government pushed, together with Sweden and Germany, to link the EU budget with migrants, as well as pushed for a majority decision on a refugee relocation mechanism in 2015 and to have it respected by all - which in effect has polarised relations with the Visegrad states, where refugees have no plan to settle anyway.

In effect, this has led to a non-functioning refugee relocation mechanism and increased support for populist parties.

This does not mean the prime minister does not see added value for the EU.

On the contrary, it pursues realpolitik by committing itself to the unity of the EU and ruling out any referendum on the country's membership of the club, often referring to the disaster case of the UK that has pursued this path, as well as emphasising the EU's geopolitical importance in the current more instable world in which Russia is violating Europe's sovereignty, China is becoming more assertive and Donald Trump is challenging the liberal world order.

Nonetheless, Rutte shows little appetite to upset voters and sticks to a narrow national interest focused idea of the EU.

When it comes to the country's financial contribution to the EU, he and his government have been opposing an increase in this, despite the looming departure of the UK and the increased tasks of the EU, for instance in the area of migration.

Therefore, the Dutch stance is rather a principled one, one that has almost led to a break-up or serious damaging of the Eurozone before.

Regarding the migration crisis, Rutte helped divide the EU with his insistence on obligatory quotas for refugees.

Problematic here is that whereas his obstructionist and principled approach might control populist forces in his own country, it has fueled such tendencies in other EU states.

From the rise of both Syriza in Greece and the Five Star Movement and the League in Italy, to the consolidating of conservative authoritarian forces in Poland and Hungary.

This paradox in Rutte's approach unfortunately undermines the EU's unity and "ever-more perfect union" he has committed himself to.

One can only hope Rutte and his government find out soon that preserving unity whatever it takes (to quote the president of the European Central bank that saved the euro) serves narrow national interests as well.

Robert Steenland is an associate at the Warsaw-based Centre for International Relations

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