Strict? When a British journalist Mark Rutte asks on Thursday afternoon to choose between “being strict” or “conciliatory steps”, the prime minister seems almost surprised. “I think we should be strict!” 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 led a group of “thrifty” countries as the ‘most strict’, which 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 theme of the rule of law is increasingly predominant, the prime minister in Brussels has reinvented himself 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 among MEPs and experts on the rule of law, as one of the few EU leaders who does speak out explicitly. 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. Prior to every European summit, a broad majority of the House of Representatives always gives Rutte a clear order not to give way to her. Certainly since D66 has grown and can probably claim a more 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 constantly buzzing around in Brussels: what is Rutte going to do, and what assignment did he receive from his parliament? At the same time, it means that the prime minister, and thus the Netherlands, is increasingly taking center stage in the European debate on the rule of law as the antagonist of countries such as Poland, Hungary and Slovenia. And that position also brings growing discomfort over a conflict that seems to be becoming more and more bilateral or even personal.
The clearest example of this was last week, when Rutte, as the only EU leader, turned to Twitter to reprimand his Slovenian colleague Janez Jansa. Jansa had sent an image of mainly Dutch (former) MEPs as ‘puppets’ 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 shortcomings in the Netherlands – tax avoidance, liquidations and the benefits scandal were prominently featured on the Polish public broadcaster this week as reasons why the Netherlands is “undetermined to say the least.” meets the standards of the European Union”. But the image of the ‘tough’ Rutte who keeps 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 himself recently named some of this in the House of Representatives. “The biggest risk is that this will become a matter between the Netherlands and Poland,” said the prime minister. According to him, it was a “lesson” from the discussion about gay rights in Hungary, where he had “played hard”. “I noticed that a number of other countries thought: oh, that’s actually nice, we’re going to retreat behind Rutte’s back.”
Rutte’s tone in Brussels was different this week than in June. Then he called Orbán “shameless” and spoke of the importance of “bringing Hungary to its knees.” Now he chose his words more cautiously, barely mentioning Polish Prime Minister Mattheusz Morawiecki and constantly insisting on raising this “together with colleagues”. Yet countries such as Germany, France and Italy were much more reserved in the final conversation, and it was once again Rutte who first spoke and others joined in.
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 revolved around individual civil rights – a theme that the liberal Rutte grabbed from the heart. In Poland it is all about political interference with the judiciary and the question of whether European laws take precedence over national ones. Not only does that sound more abstract, but it is also a very large theme – and Rutte usually prefers not to go up the barricades for large themes and vistas. It is also less easy to explain. In the Netherlands, everyone immediately understands that discrimination against gays is not allowed. 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 do not, coming from one of the countries in Western Europe that belong to the founders of the Union, 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 only seems to be escalating further for the time being, this remains a complicated task for Rutte.
With the collaboration of Stéphane Alonso.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on October 23, 2021 A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 23, 2021