Mark Rutte, the Dutch PM cycling into EU headwinds

The Hague (AFP) –


Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte famously likes to cycle to work, but in Europe he is increasingly known for slamming on the brakes.

The lanky 53-year-old has been in power for a decade, thanks to a modest image that chimes with traditional values in the bike-mad Netherlands.

A bachelor, he lives in the same flat he bought after graduating, drives a second-hand Saab when not cycling, and volunteers as a teacher.

His cheery persona has meanwhile allowed the liberal leader to make friends and build coalitions across the fragmented Dutch political landscape.

But his frugal side will put Rutte on a collision course with EU leaders at a summit on Friday as he leads opposition to a 750 billion euro ($855 billion) coronavirus bailout.

As they seek a deal, however, his counterparts in Brussels may find what opponents at home have found -- he is harder to read than they think.

"He's able to be a bit of a chameleon," Pepijn Bergsen, a research fellow in the Europe programme at Chatham House in London, told AFP.

"The story always goes that he shapes his opinion to the prevailing consensus in the room."

- 'Overcaffeinated vicar' -

Likened to an "overcaffeinated vicar" by The Economist, Rutte portrays an image of energetic openness, while keeping his private life guarded.

The self-described "man of habit and tradition" has lived his whole life in The Hague, where he was the youngest of seven children.

His father Izaak was a trader, while his mother Mieke was the sister of Izaak's first wife, who died in a Japanese internment camp in World War II.

Rutte initially wanted to be a concert pianist, but graduated in history and went on to work for Anglo-Dutch consumer giant Unilever as a human resources manager, including for its peanut butter division.

That burnished his credentials to enter the liberal, pro-business VVD party he has led since 2006, becoming premier in 2010.

Since then the bespectacled Rutte has led three coalitions as prime minister, his affable personality hiding killer political instincts.

He has been criticised for chasing votes, such as when he went tough on immigration to see off far-right leader Geert Wilders ahead of elections in 2017.

But more recently he won plaudits during the pandemic for his "intelligent lockdown".

"What he's always had has been that perception of being a competent governing figure," said Bergsen, a former economic policy advisor to the Dutch government.

The so-called "Teflon premier" has also been good at managing his personal image.

He has become a cult figure through viral videos of him riding his bike, even for meetings with foreign leaders.

His bachelorhood sparked media speculation about his sexuality a few years ago but he has deflected questions, saying merely that he was "happy" with his life.

During the lockdown it emerged that Rutte had followed government rules and avoided visiting his mother in a nursing home until hours before she died.

Rutte has also spoken about crying after the deaths of his father, a brother who died of AIDS in 1989, and a sister.

- 'Not made of marzipan' -

Internationally, Rutte sticks to the straight-talking image, but it has not always won him friends.

He interrupted Donald Trump on a visit to Washington in 2018 with an abrupt "no" when the US president made a comment about an EU trade deal.

Rutte's hardline stance on the Greek debt meltdown and EU migration crisis in the 2010s meanwhile irked many in Europe.

He is now cast as a villain as the unofficial leader of the "frugal four" of the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Sweden, which oppose the virus fund.

"I don't think he relishes" the role of villain, a Dutch diplomat told AFP.

"He'd rather be perceived as someone who is making things better, standing tall for his taxpayers," said the diplomat of Rutte -- who at 1.93m (6ft 4in) is a towering figure even for the world's tallest nation.

Leaders including France's Emmanuel Macron and the premiers of Italy and Spain have rushed to The Hague in recent weeks to try to get him to back down.

Rutte however said he would not melt under pressure, saying that he was "not made of marzipan".

With the virus row apparently ruling out a long-mooted top EU job, Rutte is now mulling whether to go for a fourth term as PM in elections next March.

"I kind of suspect he'll do it again. He can't go back to his peanut butter factory, as he used to say," Bergsen said.