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Dutch PM: More EU is not the answer

Bernd Riegert Strasbourg
June 13, 2018

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte gave a clear yes to the EU, but a clear no to German and French reform proposals during his speech at the European Parliament. Throwing money at the problem is not a solution, he argued.

Mark Rutte at the European Parliament
Image: Getty Images/AFP/F. Florin

Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte speaks not only for his own country but also, at least unofficially, for the "Seven Dwarfs" — the joking moniker given to the seven smaller European Union member states that have gathered around the conservative-liberal Dutchman. The governments of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are as unimpressed with many of the currency and EU reforms proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron this April in Strasbourg as Rutte is. The comparatively mild reforms proposed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel have left the Netherlands prime minister cold as well.

Read more: Merkel and Macron present competing EU reform proposals

The 51-year-old Rutte roundly rejected a eurozone budget as well as a new investment fund for the currency union. Speaking in Strasbourg, he said it would be sufficient if member states would simply uphold the currency union's existing budgetary rules. That being the case, only in an emergency would neighbor states jump in to help a member in dire straits — then, and only then. "The basic promise of the euro was that it would bring us all greater prosperity — not a redistribution of prosperity. That together we would achieve greater affluence. The pleas now being made to establish a transfer union fly in the face of this promise." He argued that an own budget for the eurozone is also unnecessary because hundreds of millions of euros are already included in the current EU budget. Those, he said, are funds that could be used to increase economic performance.

Rutte argued that it was imperative that the EU start spending less on the agricultural sector and the funding of structurally weak regions, saying: We have to "deliver."

Infografik Karte EU-Haushalt: Nettozahler- und Nettoempfängerländer 2016 ENG

Less cash for the EU

The prime minister received little applause from parliamentarians after declaring that he would only support a smaller EU budget after Brexit had been wrapped up. The European Parliament, however, has set an aim of increasing the EU budget from current levels of 1 percent of EU member states' economic output to 1.3 percent after the United Kingdom — a net contributor — leaves the bloc. The European Commission has called for an increase to 1.18 percent, yet that is too much for Rutte and the Seven Dwarfs as well. Addressing skeptic observers at home, Rutte said the Netherlands is willing to pay its share but that the burden must be fairly distributed. The budget, he said, must reflect a willingness to reform, adding, the answer cannot always be: "More Europe."

Read more: Macron's EU: Most Germans support reforms... to a point

Rutte also gave a direct warning to parliamentarians: "If you want to continue to strengthen right-wing populist parties, then by all means, insist upon your 1.3 percent. That is the best recipe." Mark Rutte has served as Dutch prime minister with different governing coalitions since 2010. Thus, he is one of the longest-serving heads of government in the EU. Most recently, he was able to hold far-right populist Geert Wilders and his associates in check during his country's 2017 elections.

Speaking in Strasbourg, Rutte quoted the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Mastery is revealed in constraint." He argued that the answers to the EU's problems would not be found in a tighter integration of the bloc, but rather by making the EU a "more perfect union."

Newspapers after the 2017 Dutch elections
Rutte managed to fend off the far-right populist Wilders in the 2017 Dutch electionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinhardt

Circling the wagons

"The debate about the future of the EU should not be about more or less Europe. It should be about where the EU can add value," said Rutte as he summed up his own view of the bloc. "We need to under-promise and over-deliver." He claimed that was the only way to convince the skeptical citizenry of many EU countries about the true purpose of the bloc. Rutte said the most important promises that citizens could expect would be those of security and international cooperation. He then went on to invoke John Wayne westerns, in which settlers "agreed to stick to certain rules" when heading west. "And when evening fell, or danger threatened, the settlers circled their wagons. Their unity gave them strength, stability and security."

Read more:  EU: 'Protectionism the biggest threat to growth'  

The EU's wagon train, added Rutte, must protect citizens against Russia but must also deal with China and India, two emerging powers. "Russia," he said, offered, "a stark reminder of how much we depend on all parties uniting." He also pointed out that the EU is the world's largest economic bloc and as such must play a global role, adding that the United States is no longer a reliable partner in a multilateral world. Rutte said the rules-based international order is under "severe pressure," adding, that is why: "Today, I stand before you with a real sense of urgency."

G7 Gipfel Kanada Merkel vs Trump
The rifts between the EU and US were on full display at the recent G7 summit in CanadaImage: Reuters/Bundesregierung/J. Denzel

A series of keynote speeches

As if to quell suspicion that he might be openly campaigning against the Franco-German duo of Macron and Merkel, Rutte reiterated that he is in agreement with many of the EU reforms proposed by Macron. For instance, Rutte said he was in agreement with the French president when it came to the environment, going so far as to urge the EU to be even more ambitious in its aims and proposing a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030 rather than the 40 percent reduction agreed to in Paris.

Throughout the year, heads of state and government from every EU member state are scheduled to deliver keynote speeches at the European Parliament outlining their visions for the future of the bloc. German Chancellor Merkel is scheduled to speak in November. The next to address the chamber will be Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has declared changes to immigration policy the most urgent issue at hand. Speaking on the future of the EU, Rutte quoted Winston Churchill, who once said, "Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week and next year. And to have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen." Rutte agreed with the sentiment, saying: "We can't predict the future. Unexpected events will always occur. But as politicians, it's our job to lead and chart a course." Then, added the prime minister: "The European Union needs to make choices." The next chance it will have to do so will be when heads of state and government come together for the EU summit in late June.    

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union