Mark Rutte | The consensus man

The Dutch Prime Minister, known for his survival skills, announced his resignation after failing to reach consensus among coalition partners on his government’s refugee policy

July 16, 2023 01:56 am | Updated 03:21 pm IST

Mark Rutte hardly lets ideology stand in the way of a good deal. The Dutch Prime Minister has, in the course of his 13 years in the top office, aligned with parties from across the political spectrum. He has been described as ‘Teflon Mark’, capable of emerging from sticky situations with no grime on him, and as “something of a chameleon”, sniffing out the prevailing opinion and not just making it his own but championing it.

His ability for political survival is also what makes his decision to quit office, and active politics, surprising. On July 8, he announced that his entire Cabinet was resigning over “irreconcilable differences” in the ruling four-party coalition on the issue of asylum seekers. He will stay on as caretaker PM till a new government takes shape after elections in November. His current term — his fourth as PM — was to end only in 2025.

Many analysts have expressed surprise that Mr. Rutte proved intractable on the issue of asylum. His conservative People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), along with the Christian Democrats, held fast to a proposed tightening of asylum rules, while their coalition partners Centre-Left D66 and ChristenUnie opposed rules that would differentiate between refugees fleeing conflict and those fleeing persecution. This impasse should not have been unbreakable for Mr. Rutte, a master of the months-long negotiations for coalition building that follow Dutch elections. In the four coalition governments that Mr. Rutte cobbled together, he has managed to garner support from those in the political extremes such as anti-Islam Geert Wilders and has aligned his centre-right party with the centre-left Labour Party.

His third coalition collapsed following a massive scandal over racial profiling by the Income Tax department and false accusations of childcare fund fraud, but Mr. Rutte emerged unscathed in the 2021 general elections, and went on to form the fourth coalition after about 10 months of negotiations. Recently, his party faced setbacks in local elections at the hands of an upcoming populist party and, as per political observers, it would have made sense for the PM to hold on to power till the end of the term.

The refugee question

However, his decision to resign rather than compromise on the refugee question might be another example of Mr. Rutte reading the room right on an issue. Popular opinion in Europe on refugees and national identities have hardened since the 2015 ISIS days and right-wing politics have been ascendant in many countries. While the Netherlands has not faced as much of an influx of asylum seekers as some other countries, the sentiment among the population is not radically different. Analysts say Mr. Rutte might have found at this juncture a perfect exit, supported by popular opinion.

We might not have seen the last of Mark Rutte the politician. The 56-year-old veteran of European politics has often been touted as a potential NATO Secretary-General or as in line for a top EU job. However, Mr. Rutte himself has stayed clear of confirming any such ambitions, saying he is happy to continue taking social studies classes at a local high school in The Hague. A single man, Mr. Rutte still lives in a house from his younger days when he was a Human Resources manager with Unilever. He entered active politics in 2002. He cycles to work, giving a sense of frugality that the Dutch see as setting them apart from the more “financially careless” south European nations.

This Dutch sense of frugality has also been a defining principle of Mr. Rutte’s interactions with the EU. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, he was one of the champions of austerity, calling for drastic spending cuts in troubled economies such as Greece. Mr. Rutte earned the moniker of ‘Mr. No, No, No’, fighting larger contributions to the EU during negotiations for a common European post-COVID recovery package – an astute reflection of domestic opinion. At the EU, the Netherlands, along with Austria, Denmark and Sweden, formed the “frugal four” that advocated thrift and tight budgets. However, even as he played hardball on EU finances, Mr. Rutte was far from being a Eurosceptic. It remains to be seen whether his exit paves the way for right-wing forces to gain power in the Netherlands, undermining the EU project and pushing a much harder line on immigration.

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