THE HAGUE — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has had a rough ride since he took office for a third time a year ago this week. Tensions in his coalition, drama in his party, struggles with deeply unpopular policies — and very little success to show for it all.
As insiders fret that Rutte’s third term will not last very long, speculation has begun as to whether the prime minister’s future ultimately lies in Brussels. This is not particularly good news for Rutte. History shows that early speculation about a Dutch leader’s move to Brussels is unlikely to translate into reality. What it does do, however, is underscore the idea that his best days in national politics are over.
Rutte, leader of the fiscally conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), is known in the Netherlands for his prowess at building all-but-impossible coalitions. In his eight years in power, he has managed to strike deals all across the spectrum, from far-right populists to the Greens. Even his political enemies tend to really like him as a person.
But working with Rutte has a downside: Any party that joins forces with him gets pummelled by voters. After the center-left Labor Party suffered a historic shellacking in the 2017 election, having worked with Rutte for five years, the conventional wisdom in Dutch politics was cemented: Joining a Rutte administration is close to political suicide.
As a consequence, the formation of Rutte’s third government was a sluggish affair. The prime minister ultimately managed to present a four-party coalition in late 2017 — but with Christian democrats (CDA), social liberals (D66) and evangelicals (CU) all trying to govern together, it has suffered from internal discord, much of it played out in the open.
Rutte has changed his tone about Brussels — from a fierce critic of EU bureaucracy five years ago to an avid admirer of the European project.
Rutte’s own party made matters worse. His first foreign minister, Halbe Zijlstra, a long-time confidante, had to resign within three months after it emerged that he had made up a story about a 2006 visit to see Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Zijlstra’s replacement, Stef Blok, another Rutte confidante, also got into deep trouble. During a closed door session with NGOs, he said he knew no example of people of different cultural backgrounds living peacefully together anywhere in the world. His many critics pointed to a country close at hand: the Netherlands. The coalition closed ranks, but probably only because it wanted to spare Rutte the embarrassment of having to find a third foreign minister within a year.
A little later, the most experienced VVD member of parliament, foreign policy specialist Han ten Broeke, resigned after admitting to having had a brief sexual relationship with a subordinate.
All this created a sinking feeling among party ranks, and some in the prime minister’s party started whispering that his leadership style — he routinely supports colleagues in trouble — is putting the party under strain.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel upon her arrival in The Hague | Bart Maat/AFP via Getty Images
Things took a turn for the worse earlier this month when Unilever announced it had decided against moving its headquarters to Rotterdam. Rutte had suffered intense blowback for a proposed tax break for companies like Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever and had defended the measure by arguing it could lure the firms into establishing permanent headquarters in the country. Rutte was forced to withdraw the proposal, and two close allies in his previous administrations, the far right Party of Freedom (PVV) and social democrats (PvdA), both supported a vote of no confidence against Rutte last week.
Rutte’s coalition was further weakened when Alexander Pechtold, leader of D66, announced his immediate retirement from politics on October 9. Pechtold’s successor, Rob Jetten, will be keen to differentiate himself from Rutte.
All this raises the possibility that Rutte’s third administration will collapse after midterm elections in March, when the coalition will likely lose its majority in the Senate. Rutte has already suggested in backroom talks that he is ready for a fourth term, but it’s not clear his party would support him in the effort.
That leaves Brussels — and there too things are complicated.
Rutte has changed his tone about Brussels — from a fierce critic of EU bureaucracy five years ago to an avid admirer of the European project. But his new foe on the far-right, rising star Thierry Baudet, routinely attacks him for angling for a top EU job. So Rutte has been forced to repeatedly deny any such ambition for more than a year.
More importantly, in the Dutch experience, ambitions for high European positions have historically ended in disappointment. The Dutch tend to have lots of self-confidence and very little leverage abroad, so what usually happens is the prime minister loses his job at home only to be overlooked in Brussels.
Once again, the Dutch are fully confident that their prime minister is uniquely qualified to lead Europe.
In 1994, for example, Dutch politicians and journalists were all but certain that outgoing Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers was going to head the European Commission. Nope. Sixteen years later, in 2010, a similar drama played out with outgoing Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende. He too wanted to become Commission president, and he too was never seriously considered.
This time, the Dutch government, and Rutte in particular, are taking a more measured approach.
For now, the Netherlands’ candidate for the Commission will officially be Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans. That will remain true as long as Timmermans has a serious chance of another high-ranking position in the Commission. If that changes, the Dutch will likely drop Timmermans.
As for Rutte, he cannot afford to openly campaign for a top job. If prominent European leaders try to draft him, he might be tempted. But until then, he will play hard to get: no speculations, no hints, nothing.
Here’s the bottom line: Once again, the Dutch are fully confident that their prime minister is uniquely qualified to lead Europe. Once again, they sense his prospects are slim. And once again, they know that all the talk probably only means that the prime minister’s best days in national politics are over.
Tom-Jan Meeus is a political columnist for NRC Handelsblad.