strong? When a British Mark Rutte asks on Thursday afternoon to choose “to be strict” or “conciliatory”, the prime minister seems almost suddenly. “I think we should be strong!” says Rutte, about the EU’s attitude towards Poland. “The question is how do we get there!”
A ‘strict’ Rutte: in Brussels it is indeed not something that people are very surprised about. Last year, the prime minister referred to a group of “thrifty” countries as “the strictest” that oppose a higher EU budget and an overly ambitious corona recovery fund. But for about a year now it is mainly that other ‘strict’ side of Rutte that attracts all the attention in Europe. Now that the subject of the rule of law is more predominant there, the Prime Minister has reinvented himself in Brussels from ‘sovereign miser’ as the ‘rule of law sheriff’.
This week, all eyes were again on Rutte, in the run-up to a summit where the escalating rule of law situation in Poland was discussed. Last December, the Dutch Prime Minister attracted a lot of attention as the staunchest defender of a new instrument to cut EU subsidies to violators of the rule of law. And at the end of June, it was Rutte who of all EU leaders turned against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in response to a controversial ‘anti-LGBTI law’.
It is an attitude that earns him applause from MEPs and rule of law experts, as one of the few EU leaders who actually speaks out clearly. But the toughness also serves a clear domestic purpose for Rutte, as prime minister of perhaps the only EU country where the European rule of law crisis is so prominent in the national public debate. ahead of every European summit, a broad majority of the House of Representatives gives Rutte a clear order not to give way. Certainly since D66 can certainly claim a prominent role in a new coalition, the prime minister must clearly show how seriously he takes the issue.
Also read: Battle between judges shakes Polish rule of law
In the run-up to an EU summit, the question is now buzzing in Brussels: what is Rutte going to do, and what assignment did he receive from his parliament? At the same time, it is the prime minister, and thus the Netherlands, in the European constitutional state discussion in countries such as Poland, and the Community comes to be central. And that position also brings growing discomfort over a conflict that seems to be becoming more bilateral or even personal.
You saw a clear example of this last week, when Rutte, as the only EU leader, turned to Twitter to ensure that his Slovenian colleague Janez Jansa can go there. Jansa had circulated an image of general Dutch (former) MEPs as ‘marinettes’ of the American-Hungarian billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. Rutte’s critical tweet elicited a fierce reaction from Jansa, in which he called on the prime minister to “protect journalists from being murdered on the street” – a reference to the murder of Peter R. de Vries.
It is not the first time that EU countries have returned criticism by pointing out flaws in the Netherlands – tax avoidance, liquidations and benefits scandal were featured prominently on the Polish public broadcaster this week as reasons why it meets the standards of the European Union”. But the image of the ‘tough’ Rutte pulling another EU leader into the ring is also starting to cause concern in Dutch circles. People in The Hague were also very unhappy with the so open twitter quarrel with Jansa.
Rutte a little later also in the House of Representatives. “The biggest risk is that this will become a matter between the Netherlands and Poland,” said the prime minister. He said it was a “lesson” from the discussion about gay rights in Hungary where he had “played hard”. “I don’t think that a number of other countries thought: oh, that’s actually nice, we even withdraw behind Rutte’s back.”
Rutte’s tone in Brussels was different this week than in June. When he called Orbán “blatantly” and he about the importance of “getting Hungary on.” Now he chose more cautiously, Polish Prime Minister Mattheus Morts begins to speak to colleagues. Yet countries were the first word it and with whom others.
Also read: EU quarrel is not bad for Rutte
The quarrel with Poland is also more difficult for Rutte than the one with Hungary. The latter mainly because of individual civil rights – a theme that is taken from the heart of the liberal Rutte. In Poland it is all about political political interests with the judiciary and the question of European laws over national status. Not only does that sound more abstract, but it is also a very large theme – and for large themes and vistas, it is preferable not to go up the barricades. It is also less easy to explain. In the Netherlands, to start with, that distinction from gay is not possible. But when it comes to the tension between Europe and national sovereignty, you soon hear: aren’t the Poles right after all?
“You have to be very careful”, Rutte recently said in the House, “that you, coming from one of the countries in Western Europe that belong to the founders of the Union, do not tell others who later have come to: this is how you should do it.” Now that the crisis surrounding the rule of law in Europe seems to be escalating further for the time being, this remains a permanent task for Rutte.
In collaboration with Stéphane Alonso.
A version of this article also in NRC Handelsblad of October 23, 2021
A version of this article also in NRC in the morning of October 23, 2021