In the run-up to the Dutch elections on 22 November, it is worth taking stock of the achievements of the man who has dominated Dutch politics for 13 years: Mark Rutte.
Rutte became Dutch prime minister for the first time in 2010. Throughout his four terms in office, he has shown himself to be a true political chameleon. He was not shy to depend on seats of the right-wing populist Geert Wilders in his first cabinet — or to make major concessions to the increasingly left-green party D66 in his third and fourth cabinet.
Economically, the Netherlands has experienced moderate growth under Rutte, which also has to do with the fact that the tax burden has invariably increased — something a liberal politician can hardly be proud of. The COVID-19 crisis, where Rutte went along with the failed lockdown model, can only partly excuse this.
In terms of energy policy, the Rutte governments were ambiguous, with openness to CO2-neutral nuclear power on the one hand but closing Europe’s largest gas field (in Groningen) on the other. The latter decision, according to opponents, came about “without rational cost-benefit analysis”.
Certainly in terms of EU politics, Mark Rutte’s lack of fortitude came full circle. He was the man who threatened not to send any more money to bankrupt Greece, which could have exploded the Eurozone, but in the end he did sign off on bailouts in 2015, and in 2020. During the COVID crisis, he gave up his opposition to the so-called “Corona Recovery Fund”.
The latter could prove to be the biggest blemish on Rutte’s record within a few years. The European Court of Auditors is now critical of the audit of the recovery fund, including “a lack of accountability” for the spending of EU citizens’ money. This should come as no surprise, given the warnings that were voiced when it was created. The biggest problem, however, is that the fund risks becoming permanent.
This fund provides €800bn in loans and grants to EU member states. The difference from most other European spending is that this so-called “Recovery and Resilience Facility” (RRF) is not financed by remittances from EU member states. On the contrary, it has been financed by common debt issuance by the European Commission — something that was the subject of legal doubts that, of course, ultimately proved no obstacle to going ahead with it nonetheless.
Within several years these debts will have to be repaid by the European Commission to the creditors who bought these de facto “eurobonds”, and so far it has not been decided how member states will pay for this. It is written in the stars that the increasingly cash-strapped member states will want to avoid a simple transfer to the Commission, and they may not be keen on allowing the European Commission to directly charge European citizens to collect the money. That leaves only one option: taking out a new loan to repay the old one, which is already standard practice for national governments.
Essentially, this means that the Corona Recovery Fund will become a permanent fund. Avoiding such a thing was Rutte’s condition in 2020 for accepting this fund, which was desired by Angela Merkel.
Poland understood the UK’s geopolitical importance, unlike Rutte
We do not know for sure whether it will turn out this way, but the national leaders, who will have to decide, will have every incentive to do so. On top of that, they have an incentive to finance future European expenditure through this recovery fund rather than through the traditional European budget. It would avoid the constant bickering about net contributors and net recipients — with the Corona Recovery Fund, this is all much more unclear — and no money needs to be found in the national budget in the first place. The grandkids will foot the bill, via more European debt. Even if there were too little interest from international investors to buy the European debt, there is a solution: the European Central Bank (ECB) can simply print money. Then savers will foot the bill via inflation, which is not always easily reflected in statistics.
Mark Rutte may already see himself in a prominent international position, such as NATO secretary-general, but his international record is not that impressive. In the run-up to Brexit, Rutte was considered by British Prime Minister David Cameron to be the most reliable and sympathetic ally to bring in EU reforms to ensure the British stayed in the EU. These amounted to strengthening national control over EU policy making and preventing a dangerous centralisation of power. Throughout Mark Rutte’s 13 years in power, the number of Dutch people wanting fewer powers for the EU increased from 46 to 54 per cent, but in practice the EU only gained more power.
Actually, in the years leading up to the 2016 UK referendum, Rutte barely made an effort to help Cameron, as did Angela Merkel. The only government making an effort was that of the Poles — by allowing EU member states to have slightly more control over certain social benefits for migrants from other EU member states from now on. With so many Poles living in the UK, it was to be expected that this would affect some of them, but the Polish government understood the UK’s geopolitical importance, something Rutte and Merkel simply ignored, but which has since become clear with the war in Ukraine.
After the Brexit referendum, Rutte did seem to wake up, playing an important role in avoiding disruption and certainly a “no deal” Brexit. What Rutte also deserves credit for is his support for the European Commission’s “Better Regulation” agenda, including during the Dutch EU presidency in 2016. Unfortunately, that initiative got watered down. The Dutch Eurocommissioner responsible for this agenda, the social democrat Frans Timmermans, turned out soon afterwards to be a true climate zealot for whom there could never be enough new climate rules. Rutte also deserves blame for this, as it was he who nominated Timmermans as European commissioner in 2019, even though this was completely unnecessary. Timmermans’ party was not even in the Dutch government at the time.
Rutte’s lack of assertiveness at the European level also had major consequences at the domestic political level. The Rutte government’s extreme nitrogen measures ranged from a nationwide 100-kilometre-per-hour restriction on motorways to plans for large-scale farm closures. The idea is that the taxpayer will pay EUR 25 billion to compensate these farms. All this led to such huge protests that the farmers’ party BBB became the largest party in the country in provincial elections in spring 2023. The issue is still unresolved.
Even if national mistakes were made in terms of nitrogen policy, the core of the problem still lies at the EU policy level, where it is made extremely difficult to change natural areas after they have been established on the demand of EU regulations. Back in 2020, former Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen, then chairman of the Dutch construction industry, pleaded for Prime Minister Rutte to go to Brussels to talk about Natura 2000 areas, stating, “Natural areas must be more robust and less vulnerable” and “Use your veto”.
Apart from some half-hearted attempts at consultation with the European Commission, however, Rutte never dared to put this issue on the table with his fellow government leaders. This was despite its great importance for the Dutch economy — and despite the fact that the Netherlands is just about the largest European net contributor per capita.
Where Rutte did show strength was in terms of support for international free trade. Despite the fact that the Dutch parliament growled about the Mercosur, a free trade agreement with Latin American countries, his party remained unflinchingly supportive. After a referendum on the EU–Ukraine treaty in 2016 highlighted concerns that it would include some kind of political cooperation with Ukraine, including ambiguous passages on military cooperation, Rutte was creative and obtained a statement that made it clear the intent was purely economic.
The Dutch political landscape is hopelessly fragmented
Earlier this month, in his final weeks, Rutte made a meritorious case at EU level for recognising the standards used by Southeast Asian palm oil exporters to combat deforestation. The EU’s refusal to do so had triggered a high-level trade dispute with Malaysia and Indonesia, with the latter even deciding in May to freeze trade talks with the European Union. This is particularly problematic because it is of paramount importance for the West to maintain good ties with that region in times of rising tensions with China. The ITC, a joint agency of the UN and the World Trade Organisation, warned earlier this year that the EU’s approach could have a “catastrophic” effect on global trade, as smaller producers in particular risk being “cut off” from trade flows.
On the contrary, the UK does recognise the local “Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO)” certification programme. This may serve as further evidence that such an approach is the right thing to do. In addition, earlier this year Global Forest Watch revealed that Malaysia was making great progress in reducing deforestation. It’s nice to see that Rutte is countering the European Union’s tendency to undermine trade relations through ever-increasing environmental and social regulation requirements, even though the past proves that more trade just improves environmental and social concerns locally.
Difficult government formation looming
The Dutch political landscape is hopelessly fragmented. The obvious solution to this would be a change in the electoral system, towards a majority voting system or some kind of bonus for the largest party, but no such thing has come about.
At the moment, the farmers’ party BBB has already fallen back in the polls. According to the same polls, Pieter Omtzigt’s Nieuw Sociaal Contract (NSC) will become the biggest party. Omtzigt is a widely respected Christian Democrat politician who managed to bring down the third Rutte cabinet over a scandal and subsequently started his own party. Omtzigt is ideologically in the centre, but he gave the impression of being more interested in a centre-right cabinet, before then denying it. What Omtzigt prefers will be all-important for the chances of Frans Timmermans, who left the European Commission hoping to become Prime Minister for the alliance of Social Democrats and Greens. He has little chance of succeeding, though, according to experienced journalist Syp Wynia.
For his part, Omtzigt also states that he does not necessarily want to become that function, out of appreciation for Parliament. He also does not shy away from the Scandinavian model of minority cabinets, especially as this could strengthen the role of Parliament, forcing politicians to make decisions based on substance.
In all likelihood, it will be a particularly complex formation. Even if a number of centre-right parties were to win a majority together in the Lower House, then govern with the right-wing populist Geert Wilders — who has openly sent signals that he wants to moderate — it is quite possible that such a constellation would still not enjoy a majority in the Upper House. For this reason, Dutch political parties reportedly expect fresh elections in 2025.
Whoever comes to power will at least have to address the nitrogen crisis. Even climate zealot Frans Timmermans has already pledged to drop the target of halving nitrogen by 2030. However, because Mark Rutte has failed to put this dossier on the European diplomatic table, any government will face the same constraints as the outgoing administration. Gentle healers make stinking wounds.
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