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Dutch PM Mark Rutte, the thrifty europhile holding Europe hostage

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte takes off his protective mask at an EU summit in Brussels on July 18, 2020.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte takes off his protective mask at an EU summit in Brussels on July 18, 2020. © REUTERS pool

Europe’s longest serving leader after Angela Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte plays a paradoxical villain in the EU’s latest budget cliffhanger: lambasted for thwarting the bloc’s ambitious recovery fund, he is nonetheless cherished for holding eurosceptics at bay.

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When France’s Emmanuel Macron won Chancellor Angela Merkel over to the idea of collective EU borrowing, breaking with decades of German economic orthodoxy, advocates of greater solidarity across the 27-nation bloc felt they had finally topped Mount Everest.

They did not expect the Low Countries to raise an even higher obstacle in the shape of Mark Rutte, the lanky and thrifty — some would say, stingy — Dutch prime minister.

With EU talks on a massive coronavirus bailout now in their second day of “extra time”, Rutte has been singled out as the one responsible for the impasse — and promptly nicknamed “Mr. No, No, No.”

The Dutch premier is leading opposition to the recovery fund, which involves a mix of grants worth €500 billion and loans of €250 billion, financed by the EU issuing debt collectively and then handed to individual member states.

Picking up the mantle once worn by Britain, he has taken on the role of naysayer with calculated determination as the unofficial leader of a group of smaller "frugal" nations, consisting of Sweden, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands, with the recent addition of Finland.

‘Mr. No’

The bicycle-loving 53-year-old has been in power for a decade, thanks to a modest image that chimes with traditional values in his liberal, industrious and parsimonious nation.

A bachelor, Rutte lives in the same flat he bought after graduating, drives a second-hand Saab when not cycling, and volunteers as a teacher. Now in his third term as PM, he continues to dominate the Netherlands’ fragmented political landscape, having formed coalitions with parties both to his left and right — and, like Merkel, bled his junior partners one by one.

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

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

This time, Rutte has challenged the unusually broad consensus prevailing among Germany, France and every other big nation in Europe. While the move has made him unpopular abroad, and perhaps damaged his hopes of securing a senior EU post in the near future, it is solidly grounded in public opinion and politics at home.

Dutch taxpayers are aware that they are proportionately among the largest contributors to the EU budget, and the idea of giving more, with little or no strings attached, is deeply unpopular.

Rutte’s "Mr. No" moniker derives from an April video clip, frequently retweeted, that shows a Dutch rubbish collector shouting at the prime minister not to give money to "those Italians and French".

"Oh, no, no, no." Rutte replied. "I will remember this."

Bane of the eurosceptics

Critics say the Dutch reluctance to spend now is misplaced, given the country's large trade surplus with the rest of the EU. UniCredit economist Erik Nielsen argued in a note on Sunday that the Dutch 2018 net budget contribution of 2.4 billion euros "tells only a small part of the real financial story".

He added: "According to the Tax Justice Network, that same year, the Netherlands’ tax haven structures helped them grab 6.7 billion euros in tax receipts from Germany, France, Italy and Spain.”

However, conversations in the Netherlands focus on whether Dutch prosperity is the result of a tougher work ethic, and whether it is fair to share funds with countries that have a lower retirement age when the Dutch have recently raised theirs from 65 to 67.

Domestic politics also play a role. With national elections looming in March, Rutte's centre-right VVD Party is weary of giving ammunition to eurosceptic far-right parties in the opposition. In addition, his current centre-right coalition lacks a majority in parliament, meaning that any EU compromise that goes too far in the eyes of the Dutch might not be ratified later in The Hague.

That threat is perhaps Rutte’s best card on the negotiating table in Brussels, where EU officials are grateful to the Dutch leader for his record in keeping parties hostile to Europe at bay.

Though he has played the eurosceptic card at times when addressing Dutch audiences, Rutte has been a darling of Brussels since he saw off the far-right’s Geert Wilders in a 2017 vote. His hard-fought re-election, soon to be followed by Macron’s defeat of Marine Le Pen in France, helped steady the EU boat after the shock of Britain’s Brexit vote. 

His past achievements have “allowed the Dutch leader to play an outsized role in EU politics", wrote Italian daily La Repubblica on Sunday. They explain why his peers have been willing to accommodate such a demanding partner in the past, and why they may well do so again.

(With Reuters, AFP)

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