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Monday, 4 January 2016

Chairmanship of the EU might force Dutch PM Mark Rutte to put his cards on the table. Will the ‘smiling’ PM finally be able to lower his armour made of teflon, opportunism and insignificance?!

Since the 1st of January, The Netherlands is again the chair of the European Union for half a year. Consequently the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the liberal-conservative party VVD is the man, who should make a difference in a conflict-laden European Union, that threatens to collapse under the multitude of nearly unsolvable issues that is on the agenda: issues that probably all need to be dealt with within the first half year of 2016.

Please hold the seat of your pants for this worrisome list:
  • The refugee crisis, which acts as a fission fungus in the core of the EU.
    • Should the admitted refugees stay forever in the EU or should they go back to their home countries at any given moment in the future?!
    • And where should these refugees live within Europe when all the smoke clouds have lifted?
    • How can they be divided more evenly over the EU countries, without alienating especially the Eastern European countries by forcing them to accept refugees at gunpoint?
    • And how to stop new refugees in their attempts to reach the shores of the EU, if that is what you desire?
  • The mounting nationalism and the unstoppable emergence of populist parties all over Europe. These are all parties, which combine a social-conservative program with lots of (often unfeasible) promises to both the elderly and the native, white, disadvantaged population, with a strong disliking of the EU and a sheer hatred for minorities from other religious groups and/or other continents;
  • The collision course of the leading politicians in a.o. Poland and Hungary against the rest of the EU, with their new, ultra-conservative policies, their politically dangerous exclusion of religious/sexual/political minorities and their increasingly tight grip on the national press and media;
  • The mounting agitation between the individual countries in the EU, which distrust each other’s motives and seem less and less willing to believe each other at face value and help one another through arguably the most difficult times since the establishment of the (predecessors of the) Union in the Fourties and Fifties of last Century;
  • The Greek euro-crisis, which acts like a smouldering forest fire – ready to blaze up again when enough financial or political fuel is present – and for which a structural solution is not possible within the current legal/political framework of the currency union;
  • The British government blackmail against the other EU countries ‘to either make a number of intrusive changes in the EU framework on British behalf or to be confronted with a political advise from PM David Cameron, in favour of a Brexit of the United Kingdom away from the European Union’;
  • And last but not least: the regional outbursts of nationalism, in which provinces and federal states want to dissociate themselves from the nation of which they are a part: Scotland and Catalunya to mention a few.

Boy, is that a scary list indeed.

It is a list which requires an elephant skin, sheer persistence in the hardest of times, top-notch political manoeuvering capabilities and a political instinct for attainability that would put former European Council president Herman van Rompuy to shame.

All these features are demanded from the temporary chairman of the EU, in order to keep the whole European Union together in the next months. And “Reddite ergo quae sunt Caesaris, Caesari” (i.e. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar),  these are all specific qualities of Dutch PM Mark Rutte, which he has proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ on numerous occasions during the last five years of his leadership.

  • his background as human resource manager and schoolteacher, 
  • his minute ambitions and nearly total lack of grand visions, 
  • his enormous loyalty to the people that supported him and to his political friends, 
  • his ‘teflon coating’ of which all problems and political blunders seem to glide off effortlessly 
  • and his seemingly excised grin that never fades in public, 
Mark Rutte has proven himself as both a political survivor and a very capable bridge builder. Someone, who can connect the most different personalities and opinions within a group of people, without alienating his allies.

At first glance Mark Rutte is an extremely capable captain to guide the EU vessel through the biggest of political tidal waves and keep all sailors aboard and safe. An extremely good manager, who keeps everybody more or less happy.

Except for... the general public: in The Netherlands both the intellectual elite and Joe Sixpack (in Dutch Jan Modaal) get increasingly fed up with the fact that Mark Rutte has no clear grand vision, no red line for what is and what is not acceptable and no visible principles whatsoever.

Rutte’s ability to morph into every cabinet with nearly every possible partner, stretching from leftwing to rightwing is both his strength and his fatal weakness, as it eventually leaves people puzzled about what Rutte’s own opinions and fundamental principles are.

Rutte’s lukewarm reactions to the constant flow of insults against muslims coming from PVV leader Geert Wilders, alienates people among these minorities and makes them feel like second rate citizens. And also when Geert Wilders alienates his fellow MP’s and the cabinet, Rutte is never the person to draw the line and strongly reply to Wilders.

Mark Rutte’s responses seem to state that even though he is offended at occasions, he is the last person in the world to do something about it. Everybody is on his own and must solve his own political problems. This stance often disappoints his fellow politicians and (perhaps) even his cabinet members.

And even when Rutte is ‘angry’ and speaks swollen words about certain political events (hence: the MH17 incident), he never makes the impression that his words should be taken seriously and that they will lead to decisive actions on his behalf. After he expressed his anger and speaks the words that he deems necessary, he continues with the order of the day as if nothing happened. Business is business and an elephant’s memory is rather a handicap than an asset for a pragmatic politician!  

The general picture of Rutte is that of an extremely capable, but ultimately spineless politician, who would even cooperate with the devil out of pure opportunism and pragmatism, if there would not be any strong reasons against that. And more and more people notice this sheer fact and lose their confidence in Mark Rutte as a genuine ‘spiritual’ leader and see him instead as a capable manager without fantasy and without an all too strong conscience.

The Dutch (slightly religious) newspaper Trouw printed a very interesting essay by Belgian thinker and lecturer Jonathan Holslag about this lack of a grand vision and clear principles within the Dutch cabinet, and the influence that this might have upon the EU leadership in the next six months. I print here the pertinent snippets of this essay, which was much, much longer:

PM Mark Rutte has little sympathy for grand visions, where Europe itself longs for this. This is the reason that the Dutch chairmanship might even slow down the EU, instead of accelerating its pace.

On January 1st The Netherlands took over the chairmanship of the EU; a frugal chairmanship, frugal in both budget and ideas. “We go for the pragmatic solution”, as Mark Rutte emphasized his stance. “Europe does not long for a grand vision”. The Netherlands first and foremost wants to make a difference with practical proposals to spur innovation, safety and competitiveness of our European industries.

Yet, the 500 million Europeans are absolutely not waiting for practical proposals; they want a new image of the future and a new spot on the horizon: a clear story about how we all will be able to build a stronger, safer and more cooperative community.

When we fail to make that image of the future more palpable, we will be less and less able to convince Europeans of the general interest of all kinds of practical solutions. I am afraid that Europe will not survive, when we not better explain why Europe is a necessity and when we not use the combined weight of 500 million Europeans to support positive initiatives.


What we need is an understanding that technology is not the standard for progress, but humans itself are; the way in which we are able to realize the versatility in needs that we have, by optimally deploying our talents. That is progress. The point is not to produce the same goodies more efficiently, but to give people time for important matters, like cooperation, creativity, identity and self-development.

Of course politicians cannot achieve this all on our behalf, but they could rearrange the economy in such a fashion that it becomes a building spot for a better society, instead of politicians offering the economy to the highest bidder and marginalizing interesting initiatives by the people.

Earlier, The Netherlands dared to start such discussions, but nowadays it seemed to have lost track. That such a strong country does not even dare to look at the future with hope and imagination makes me gloomy. Europe now does not need pragmatism. This business-like stance has become the ultimate justification of stagnation... and in this world stagnation is actually deterioration.

According to me this whole article is a must-read, even if you don’t agree with its contents, or with the general direction of it. Myself, I fullheartedly agree with the general direction of the article.

While Mark Rutte is the ideal manager / shopkeeper to keep the EU shop open and to smooth out the various misunderstandings within the European Union, he has not been the politician to make people enthusiastic again about the political EU.

Yet, we need such a politician dearly as the long, long list of issues and the soaring nationalism everywhere can work as a wrecking ball against the constitution of the EU as a whole.

The general public in The Netherlands and in the EU as a whole deserve brave politicians with a clear political stance and a clear vision on what the EU should be all about. No more general managers, but cooperative leaders who bind people together, instead of alienating people from their fellow Europeans.

Although I have few hopes left regarding the backbone, as well as the political imagination and determination of PM Mark Rutte, it is a fact that the current situation within the EU requires from him that he finally puts his political cards on the table. 

Hopefully, this very talented and capable PM drops his armour of teflon, inappropriate opportunism and insignificance and finally choses the direction for the EU to go to. For the simple reason that he must...!

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