Mark Rutte’s imminent European Union leadership opportunity
Mark Rutte - also known colloquially as Teflon Mark - is a force to be reckoned with, both inside and outside the Netherlands. His People's Party for Freedom and Democracy has emerged from the general elections as the largest party in the Dutch parliament, meaning that the 54-year-old Rutte will be first in line to form the country's next governing coalition and begin a fourth term in office. This makes him the longest-serving Dutch prime minister, overtaking the 12-year tenure of Ruud Lubbers.[I]
On the European scene as well, Rutte is due to prolong his membership in the European Council - making him one of the most experienced members in the collegiate body that defines the overall political direction as well as the priorities of the European Union. With Angela Merkel stepping down from her Chancellorship in September, and Emmanuel Macron’s re-election being at stake in 2022 - this is a fact that will certainly be considered in the next European Council meetings. Expect Rutte to return as an emboldened and increasingly assertive leader. And, in doing so, perhaps establishing himself as the new leading figure within the European Union.
Rutte’s domestic domination
To get a better understanding of who - politically speaking - Mark Rutte exactly is, it is useful to first look to his domestic record.
After taking over as party leader in 2006 and serving one term in opposition, Rutte has helped establish the Party for Freedom and Democracy as the most popular party in the Netherlands - serving three terms as Prime Minister.[ii]
His latest government, a coalition with three centrist parties (Christian Democratic Appeal, the left liberal D66, and the smaller Christian Union party)[iii], fell because of a social policy scandal that had gone on for years.[iv] Horrifying many, tax officials wrongly accused thousands of parents - many poor and/or with immigrant backgrounds - of fraud, forcing them to pay back child care allowances received over several years. Unable to pay, they faced new fines and penalties - plunging many families into debt.[v]
Notwithstanding the ensuing social unrest, Rutte - due to his previous experiences as a crisis manager – was able to navigate the surface of the crisis and bend it to his advantage.[vi]
In addition, despite his frequent health policy turnarounds leading to days of protests, looting and rioting in the country, Rutte’s election win can also be ascribed to the “rally around the flag” effect - due to the remaining challenges from the coronavirus. As in several other countries, in times of crisis, the Dutch clearly prefer to be led by experience and experts, rather than by populist slogans.[vii]
Nevertheless, in spite of Rutte’s domestic domination in the last decade, the Netherlands still remains a politically fragmented country. As such, the right-wing populist Party for Freedom will command almost 11 percent of voters, while the Christian Democratic Appeal comes fourth with only 10 percent.[viii] Having ruled out a coalition with the Party for Freedom, Rutte needs four parties to form a new government - no easy task.[ix] But if history is there to judge, a task tailor-made for Rutte.
The European Union’s imminent leadership vacuum
On to the European Union level then, where one could say that - notwithstanding the daily grind being done by the European Commissioners - a leadership vacuum is imminent. The reason for this being that member states steer the European Union’s direction, and as a consequence, it is the European Union’s heads of government that wield most of its actual power.
For most of its history, the Union’s power and de facto leadership was provided by Germany and France - almost always acting in cohesion. This leadership has been at the heart of all key decisions and achievements - from the emergence of the single market to the adoption of a single currency as well as numerous other developments.[x]
Come September, however, the political landscape of the Union is at risk of being overtaken by a huge vacuum. That is when Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down after 16 years of steering the German and European ships, often through troubled waters.[xi]
One would expect French President Emmanuel Macron to take over as leading figure. But he is facing a tough challenge at home as he prepares for elections in 2022. With the far-right Marine Le Pen rising up to the challenge, he has a strong contender to face. As a consequence, Macron’s focus is mainly going to be domestic until the final vote.[xii]
In Brussels’ circles, there are high hopes for Mario Draghi. With his experience at the helm of the European Central Bank, it is presumed that he is uniquely positioned to drive change at home and in Brussels. But, given the complex domestic situation - which could undermine his position and power, there are worries that the high expectations will fail to take place, with inevitable risk of disappointment.[xiii]
Undoubtedly then, all eyes will turn to Mark Rutte, who during his decadelong Prime Ministership has built a strong reputation in Brussels. Other than him being one of the most experienced members of the European Council[xiv], a personal fact that undoubtedly strengthens his position, there are two other reasons that attest to this:
Firstly, there is Rutte's personality and leadership style. He speaks fluent English, has good dossier knowledge, is accessible, pragmatic and a good networker. With these capacities, he has managed to build a good rapport with his colleagues.[xv]
Secondly, there is the Netherlands’ tactical positioning in Europe under Rutte’s leadership.[xvi] More concretely, Rutte has aligned the Netherlands with the New Hanseatic League[xvii], the Frugals[xviii], The Benelux[xix], the European liberal political family, and many more ad hoc groupings depending on the situation. In all these groupings, his capacity to network meant that many countries have sided with him, and it provided smaller countries the opportunity to hide behind him.
Consequently, given the clash for power that will inevitably occur, expect Rutte to appear as a stable choice for many. His uncontroversial conduct and pragmatic centre-right positioning infers that many will find themselves in a rather comfortable position to back him - including other probable contenders, such as Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
According to a new biography on Rutte[xx], his main credo is “meeveren” - go with the flow, and let time do its work. With this mantra, he has survived everything that has come his way and manifested himself firmly as the Dutch Prime Minister for over a decade. He is a manager and a floater - good at keeping the ship more or less on course in stormy weather. But, someone who is unlikely to embrace deep structural reforms.[xxi] Consequently, expect to see a different European Union looming in the imminent leadership vacuum.
Whereas President Macron established himself as a visionary, who called for prompt and large-scale changes and reforms; and Chancellor Merkel established herself as an often pragmatic but hesitant political leader[xxii] - Rutte will want to be seen as a stable and secure force to the European Union. Someone, who can overcome the internal clashing within the European Council - between left and right, Eurosceptic and Europhile, and in doing so hopes to establish his centre-right liberalism as the guiding ethos for the future of the European Union.
[i] Corder, Mike. “Dutch PM's Popularity High but Eroding as Election Looms.” Associated Press, March 2, 2021. https://apnews.com/article/mark-rutte-netherlands-health-general-elections-coronavirus-pandemic-eb8cd135b4a4155452d4252580734fa2. [ii] Bergman, Matthew E. “What the Manifestos Tell Us about the 2021 Dutch General Election.” London School of Economics and Political Science European Politics and Policy Blog (blog), February 9, 2021. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2021/02/09/what-the-manifestos-tell-us-about-the-2021-dutch-general-election/. [iii] Bergman, Matthew E. “What the Manifestos Tell Us about the 2021 Dutch General Election.” London School of Economics and Political Science European Politics and Policy (blog), February 9, 2021. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2021/02/09/what-the-manifestos-tell-us-about-the-2021-dutch-general-election/. [iv] “Dutch Government Resigns over Child Benefits Scandal.” Deutsche Welle, January 15, 2021. https://www.dw.com/en/dutch-government-resigns-over-child-benefits-scandal/a-56233081. [v] Gruyter, Caroline de. “Mark Rutte's Legacy of Failure-and Winning.” Foreign Policy, February 19, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/19/mark-ruttes-legacy-of-failure-and-winning/. [vi] Gruyter, Caroline de. “Mark Rutte's Legacy of Failure-and Winning.” Foreign Policy, February 19, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/19/mark-ruttes-legacy-of-failure-and-winning/. [vii] Gruyter, Caroline de. “Mark Rutte's Legacy of Failure-and Winning.” Foreign Policy, February 19, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/19/mark-ruttes-legacy-of-failure-and-winning/. [viii] “Nieuwe Voorlopige Prognose: VVD 35 Zetels, D66 Tweede Met 24 En Bij1 Tóch 1 Zetel.” NOS, March 18, 2021. https://nos.nl/collectie/13860/artikel/2373088-nieuwe-voorlopige-prognose-vvd-35-zetels-d66-tweede-met-24-en-bij1-toch-1-zetel. [ix] Gruyter, Caroline de. “Mark Rutte's Legacy of Failure-and Winning.” Foreign Policy, February 19, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/19/mark-ruttes-legacy-of-failure-and-winning/. [x] Krotz, Ulrich, and Schramm, Lucas. “An old couple in a new setting: Franco-German leadership in the post-Brexit EU.” Politics and governance 9, (2021), 55. [xi] Nayar, Ranvir S. “Germany and EU Will Badly Miss Merkel's Leadership.” Arab News, February 23, 2021. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1814566. [xii] Nayar, Ranvir S. “Germany and EU Will Badly Miss Merkel's Leadership.” Arab News, February 23, 2021. https://www.arabnews.com/node/1814566. [xiii] Nardelli, Alberto. “Merkel Is Leaving and Macron Is Flailing, But the EU Has a New Heavyweight in Draghi.” Bloomberg, February 25, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-25/merkel-is-leaving-and-macron-is-flailing-but-the-eu-has-a-new-heavyweight-in-draghi. [xiv] Werts, Jan. “Mark Rutte in De Europese Raad: Nederlandse Invloed Groter Dan Ooit.” Europa Nu, December 21, 2020. https://www.europa-nu.nl/id/vleono1n62js/nieuws/mark_rutte_in_de_europese_raad. [xv] Werts, Jan. “Mark Rutte in De Europese Raad: Nederlandse Invloed Groter Dan Ooit.” Europa Nu, December 21, 2020. https://www.europa-nu.nl/id/vleono1n62js/nieuws/mark_rutte_in_de_europese_raad. [xvi] Werts, Jan. “Mark Rutte in De Europese Raad: Nederlandse Invloed Groter Dan Ooit.” Europa Nu, December 21, 2020. https://www.europa-nu.nl/id/vleono1n62js/nieuws/mark_rutte_in_de_europese_raad. [xvii] A group of economically liberal and trade-oriented member states - composed of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden, who called for a larger role for the EU institutions in scrutinizing national budgets and enforcing fiscal discipline. See: “Northern Member States Unite on Euro-Zone Reform.” The Economist, December 8, 2018. https://www.economist.com/europe/2018/12/08/northern-member-states-unite-on-euro-zone-reform. [xviii] Composed of Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands – Member States who demanded a more limited fiscal support package and pushed for a higher ratio of credits to grants. See: Khan, Mehreen. “Frugals Refuse to Finance the EU's Budget Ambitions.” Financial Times, February 21, 2020. https://www.ft.com/content/3864989a-544a-11ea-90ad-25e377c0ee1f. [xix] Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg. See: Benelux. “Over De Benelux.” Accessed March 19, 2021. https://www.benelux.int/nl/benelux-unie/benelux-een-oogopslag/. [xx] Hurenkamp, Menno. “Een Krokant Portret over Het Leven Van Mark Rutte.” NRC, October 15, 2020. https://www.nrc.nl/nieuws/2020/10/15/een-goede-herder-loopt-achter-de-kudde-a4016178. [xxi] Gruyter, Caroline de. “Mark Rutte's Legacy of Failure-and Winning.” Foreign Policy, February 19, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/19/mark-ruttes-legacy-of-failure-and-winning/. [xxii] Drozdiak, William. The last president of Europe: Emmanuel Macron’s race to revive France and save the world. New York: Public Affairs, 2020, 89–110.