Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was portrayed as the king of the frugal faction in the EU’s marathon budget talks, but back home they think he wasn’t frugal enough.
As the figurehead of a group of small, rich countries urging restraint during the summit — dubbed the “Frugal Four” — Rutte succeeded in changing the balance of grants and loans in the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund. He also got a discount on the annual budget contribution and extra income from customs duties for the Netherlands.
It earned him a great deal of criticism from fellow leaders.
French President Emmanuel Macron compared Rutte to David Cameron — the former U.K. prime minister who often took an obstructionist position in EU talks — and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said he didn’t know why the Dutch leader “hate[s] me or Hungary, but he is attacking so harshly.”
But Rutte appeared more concerned about not upsetting Dutch voters and keeping the Euroskeptic opposition at bay ahead of national elections next March.
Support for his liberal VVD party has increased during the coronavirus crisis, with the party currently projected to win 41 seats in the election, up from its current 32. A poll in March rated Rutte, one of Europe’s longest-serving heads of government, as the country’s greatest postwar prime minister.
However, his four-party coalition no longer holds a majority in the Dutch parliament. That means any deal struck in Brussels might not be ratified in The Hague.
Public opinion seems to back Rutte’s hardline stance: A recent poll found that 61 percent of Dutch voters did not support the EU recovery plan as proposed by the European Commission (before it was amended by Rutte and his fellow EU leaders), while only 4 percent said they were fully happy with the proposal. Resistance was highest among voters on the far right.
The Dutch have a deep Euroskeptic streak (they rejected the European constitutional treaty and did the same to an EU-Ukraine Association Agreement), and Rutte has been fighting in Brussels for years for a smaller EU budget and less lofty ambitions.
Now he has to defend a deal in The Hague that does neither of those.
Far-right Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders said Tuesday’s deal was a “horribly bad result.”
Another far-right party, the Forum for Democracy, also said that far too much money was going to Southern European countries and denounced the amount of spending in the European budget.
Anne Mulder, an MP from Rutte’s party, told the newspaper NRC that the prime minister would “rather not interfere at all with Italy’s pensions, but the Italians are forcing us to do so. Because the European Commission isn’t doing its job, Mark Rutte has to be the bogeyman to enforce those reforms.”
Pro-Europe parties, meanwhile, lambasted Rutte for agreeing to a deal that cut funding proposals for EU climate and research programs, as well as watered down a wording linking the rule of law to EU funding.
“Unfortunately, once again insufficient reform in agriculture and regional money has been achieved, which limits the necessary modernization of the European budget,” said Rob Jetten, leader of the D66 party.
Dutch MEP Bas Eickhout, from the Greens, scolded the frugal group during an extraordinary session of the European Parliament in Brussels on Thursday morning, asking: “What were you thinking?”
“Dear frugals, you had your rebates. But we are discussing the future of Europe here. And that is in everyone’s interest and certainly in yours,” he said.
Attacked by all sides, Rutte has a get-out clause: He announced earlier this month that he will only decide in December, three months ahead of the election, if he wants to carry on as party leader and run again. By then, the EU budget could well have been replaced as a major talking point.
This article is part of POLITICO’s coverage of the EU budget, tracking the development of the seven-year Multiannual Financial Framework. For a complimentary trial, email [email protected] mentioning Budget.