international analysis and commentary

Mark Rutte: a lost manager in times that require real leadership


Little could be so predictable as the reactions of the various factions in the Dutch Parliament to the outcome of the long and heated debate on the EU budget, including a Corona Recovery Fund. The coalition parties hailed Prime Minister Rutte’s long held resistance and extra demands for checks and balances, while the opposition accuses him of surrendering to Southern Europe’s demands. As a critical observer, I have sadly watched a very poor domestic exchange of arguments, on an even poorer performance of Mark Rutte during the debate in Brussels.

The truth is that the vast majority of Dutch Members of Parliament does not understand Europe and its great importance to The Netherlands – which reaches far beyond the limited horizon of economics. Born and raised in a Calvinistic culture in which public government is regarded little more than bookkeeping, many Dutch politicians see Europe merely as a cost item rather than a community they are privileged to live in. Navigating through such a political landscape is not easy, especially if you are sent to Brussels to negotiate one of the biggest budgets in European history – for which of course there is a growing contribution to pay, also by The Netherlands.

Mark Rutte during a debate in the Strasbourg European Parliament


Mark Rutte knows this, as he is already one of the longest serving Prime Ministers in Dutch history. His various governments cover more than a decade of great political division and whether you like or dislike him, he should be acknowledged for successfully steering his multiparty coalition governments through troubled waters time and again. In doing so he brought a level of political stability that some other countries in Europe could only dream of.

Mark Rutte is a great manager. When a shepherd is needed to keep a political flock together, Rutte is the right man for the job. But when times require the flock to walk towards new lands, beyond its current horizon, it needs an inspiring leader with a vision people can believe in. Sadly, vision is something Rutte clearly lacks. In fact, he doesn’t even see the need for developing one. So much he made clear in various interviews on Dutch television where he said things like: “In politics, a vision is like an elephant who blocks the view” and, more jokingly: “if you are looking for vision, you better visit an optician”. A great manager he may be, but this doesn’t make him the kind of leader Europe (as well as The Netherlands) needs today – quite the opposite in fact.

So let’s focus on what Europe needs. Our continent faces multiple challenges that reach far beyond the capacities and resources of any Member State, large or small, rich or poor. To name just a few: we face a migration crisis, an ecological/climate crisis, a slumbering cyber war and a demographic challenge, while we still have to deal with a very unstable financial and monetary system that is in desperate need of structural reform.

If we even want a serious chance to address these challenges, there we only have one way: doing this together, on a European level. While policymakers and government leaders may all stress the importance of such an approach, it is understandable that the average voting citizen will not accept an argument for his country losing a part of its fiscal sovereignty or paying extra money to funds and institutions they do not know, let alone understand. An important aspect here is the lack of either acuteness or EU-wide synchrony of the various crises I mentioned above. In this aspect they all differ from the Covid-19 crisis, which is not only threatening every European citizen, but has been developing swiftly and almost simultaneously. The current pandemic is a school-example (so clear that  the average voter can understand it) showing the importance of a strong, united, cooperative Europe, A Europe that has to reform, for sure. But a Europe, not a France or a Germany or Netherlands.

EU leaders ought to fully live in the Twenty-First Century in terms of their mindsets. They should realize that the old days are over; days in which “Europe” was a club run by nation states. Today, Europe needs to be much more. It needs its own budget, central coordination of key-infrastructures and, above all, connection with all its citizens. Leaders like Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, despite all the flaws they may have, know this and they have decided it’s time to stand for this. Sadly, Mark Rutte has not crossed the Rubicon yet. Instead he keeps living with blinders that block his view, which makes it possible for him to uphold an old reality with outdated ideas on economics, on the politics and policies of the Dutch nation state.

With general elections coming up in Spring 2021, Rutte may have scored a few points with his (potential) voter base in the short term. But as Luuk Molthof has already beautifully explained in a recent article published on Politico: by selling to the people a European reality he cannot make up on, in the longer run The Great Manager may only have added extra fuel to the Eurosceptics’ fire – something that he, like the UK’s David Cameron before him, ironically wanted to avoid.

Let’s hope Rutte will soon open his eyes. Although I wish for Europe nothing less than peace and tranquility, I expect the near future to deliver quite the opposite, with many more crisis debates for its leaders, occasions at least where the less bold leaders can start to make up for their mistakes.