Tom-Jan Meeus is a political columnist for NRC Handelsblad.
THE HAGUE — Even for a country known for its straight-talking approach, the Dutch response to the coronavirus epidemic — and its unwillingness to consider a European solution to mitigate the fallout — seemed over the top.
It was, by any account, a major PR disaster. But even as it prompted angry reactions within the EU, it should not have come as a surprise. Both the government’s dissenting strategy to fight the virus and Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra’s blunt comments about the question of corona bonds are easily explained once you take into account the country’s domestic political context.
For years now, some diplomats have predicted the Dutch would mishandle their communication with southern Europe. It was an accident waiting to happen, hastened by two ongoing developments.
The first: Brexit. The Dutch have always sympathized with the U.K. on financial EU matters. When former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher loudly demanded her money back, the Dutch took note and adopted that position as their own. As long as the U.K. and Germany were on the same team, the Netherlands was generally able to reach its goals without having to wade into the fray, and with little loud-mouthing involved.
Dutch politicians tend to be really eager to keep in touch with their voters.
Then Brexit happened. As Germany began to take a more measured public stance on EU finances, Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his finance minister, Hoekstra, realized it would fall to them to push for fiscal conservatism in the EU — and that they had strong domestic reasons to do so.
The second ongoing development is that elections are coming up early next year, and Rutte and Hoekstra could very well end up competing for the highest office. Hoekstra is a relative newcomer, a member of the Christian Democrat Appeal party with an impressive resumé. It’s a political brand that had been producing Dutch prime ministers for almost a century until Rutte came along in 2010. To many in his party, Hoekstra is the one who could lead a comeback for Christian Democrats.
But to take his party back to the good old days, Hoekstra will need to make electoral inroads among the voters of his main competitor, the liberal-conservative VVD, led by Rutte.
Rutte’s main strength over the years has been his ability to compromise on pretty much every topic with pretty much every party. But that quality has also become his main weakness: He is widely seen as a dealmaker with no ideological backbone.
It’s a point of criticism he’s faced from within his own party too, particularly when it comes to his handling of financial EU matters. Insiders know it almost broke his career in 2015, when he backed a new package of EU support for Greece despite having promised during his campaign he would never do so. His party’s No.2 at the time, parliamentary leader Halbe Zijlstra, had the votes to force Rutte to retract his support, which most likely would have ended his years in office, but he ultimately backed off.
It’s this weakness of Rutte’s that Hoekstra has been trying to exploit since he became finance minister in 2017, suggesting that Rutte has a natural willingness to compromise with Brussels and will eventually give in.
Rutte, aware of this perception, has made sure to show meticulous support for his finance minister’s blunt positions in an effort to show he will not cave.
The power struggle between the two men helps to explain why they went completely off track last week. Their strategic positioning for domestic advantage not only damaged the image of their country; it also means they’re no longer likely to be able to influence the outcome of talks within the EU — which is probably good news to Italy and Spain.
There’s also another element that makes the Dutch position with the EU even more complicated, undermining trust in the Hague and its proposals to the fight the virus. That’s the fact that The Netherlands initially took a very different approach from most of its EU peers in managing the epidemic.
While others imposed strict restrictions, Rutte, in an address to the nation on March 16, opposed a general lockdown and promoted the idea of herd immunity — the deliberate decision to allow the virus to spread, so that enough people develop needed to stop future outbreaks in their tracks.
That plan quickly derailed as the epidemic took root in the country. It wasn’t long before the government put in place stronger measures, and in two weeks it was pretty much in line with rest of the EU. Rutte, who never mentioned herd immunity again, said last week his country is now in “an intelligent lockdown,” thus collecting the support of the general public and almost all parties.
The approach to all of this was very Dutch. As a Dutch leader, you can never be an authoritarian. You first figure out what people are willing to accept, then you put out measures that push the public just a little bit further. You watch their behavior. You follow the polling. You monitor the public’s response to new developments. And you factor that in to all your policies.
Several of those cycles follow, and at some point you reach a general agreement between the public and its leaders. That is how Dutch democracy usually works.
There are obvious disadvantages to this process. Many EU countries saw only Rutte’s delay and missed the part where the government pretty much shut down public life. Domestic critics also argue that there was even confusion among Dutch citizens about the exact policies, given the fuzzy decision-making process.
Dutch politicians tend to be really eager to keep in touch with their voters. From that perspective, it is a strong democracy. But the PR disaster Hoekstra and Rutte got themselves into this week is an excellent example of the downside of all this — it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Both politicians did pretty much what their Euroskeptic supporters wanted, only to find out far too late that they had lost the goodwill of most other EU countries in the process.