Friday 22 November 2019

Wynia’s Week: Let Mark Rutte go to Brussels, if they want him, that is.

Photo: Arno Mikkor via Flickr

Mark Rutte is doing everything in his power to please in case he is offered a top job in Brussels. If they want him and if he is willing – which would be sensible – CDA and D66 mustn’t stand in his way, writes Syp Wynia.

During the first RTL election debate of 2019, Klaas Dijkhoff, chair of the VVD parliamentary party, let slip a couple of times that after ‘Rutte Three’ there would be a ‘Rutte Four’. Dijkhoff had a strategy.

What he was actually saying was that the cabinet would not fall after the provincial elections, Mark Rutte would not be finished and Mark Rutte would not be going to Brussels. But by protesting too much he is giving credence to the idea that the cabinet will be teetering on the edge, that Rutte will be a spent force and that he could be moving to Brussels.

The problem is, of course, that potential candidates for the VVD leadership and/or the post of prime minister are few and far between. Halbe Zijlstra, who bragged about a non-existent visit to Putin, exited politics a year ago and is not likely to return.

Edith Schippers has just accepted a job as president of  DSM Netherlands,  a lucrative and comfortably low-profile, lobbying job. It would be quite a turn up for the book if she were to leave DSM after such a short time to return as locum prime minister. But who knows.

And Klaas Dijkhoff himself? Two years ago he would have been the logical choice. In his role as parliamentary party chair he is the face of the VVD but he has been struggling. Short of his 40th birthday he has already lost his bloom.

What does a denial from Rutte actually mean?

In practice succession problems have a way of solving themselves. A good example is the CDA leadership crisis of 2001. Leader Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, tripped up by party chair Marnix van Rij, stepped down after which number two on the list Maria van der Hoeven was to take his place but didn’t because her native Limburg opposed the move.

Up stepped an unknown from Zeeland. Jan Peter Balkenende became party leader, won the elections, became prime-minister and stayed in the post for eight years.

The VVD is not facing the same challenge but it could be around the corner, if Mark Rutte was to go to Brussels, for instance. Rutte denies he’s going but meanwhile he is doing all he can to show he’ll be ready and able should the call come.

After having played the Eurosceptic – mainly to a Dutch audience – Rutte has been an avid Europhile for the last three years. He goes around making speeches promoting European unification and the European parliament gave him a standing ovation, quite an endorsement. He even let his party draft an enthusiastic European election programme.

And because a Rutte denial usually means it’s probably true, Rutte will pack his bags and go to Brussels as soon as is practically possible. Other candidates to step into Donald Tusk’s footsteps there are none. Currently Rutte has the broad approval of the parliament, and he is running the risk of being the established favourite.

How did Rutte’s predecessors do?

Without the support of the French and the German leaders, aspiring EU top job candidates will get exactly nowhere, as Ruud Lubbers, who fell out favour with German chancellor Kohl experienced in 1994. In 2009 Jan Peter Balkenende thought he could count on Angela Merkel’s support. He couldn’t. For French president Nicholas Sarkozy it immediately became a no-brainer.

Rutte, however, is on good terms with Merkel and Macron, is admired by people like the young Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and has the respect and trust of his fellow- government leaders. The fact that, after Merkel, he is the most senior in rank also helps.

Whether Rutte really wants the job nobody really knows. But it would be pretty stupid if he didn’t  – if it came within his grasp (and from what we know now, it could). If, like Rutte, you have been party leader for the last 13 years and prime minister for almost nine then you know the end is nigh and it might not be an enviable one.

Lubbers never got used to not being prime minister and ended up with international career that never took off properly. Kok’s career as prime minister ended with a cabinet break up, the murder of Pim Fortuyn and a historical election defeat.

Balkenende knew in 2007 that a job in Brussels in 2009 would be ideal and then, when it fell through, made the terrible mistake of running for office again in 2010.

Honourable escape

Rutte should know that if the opportunity arises for him to go to Brussels he would do well to seize it. It would save him from languishing in the top echelons in the almost certain knowledge that things will turn nasty. And what better for a prime minister of a small country than a second career in an international top position? Rutte would be mad to say no to Tusk’s job if it were offered.

But there is that pesky problem of his succession. We don’t know if Rutte Three will survive the coming months. If it doesn’t then there is nothing to stop an outgoing prime minister from taking on something else, especially if it’s an honourable job. If it does and Rutte consents to go to Brussels, the other parties should not stand in his way.

Elections because of Rutte leaving? Nonsense

There would be no need for the cabinet to fall in the latter scenario but a formateur would have to be appointed ( logic would suggest a member of the VVD) to assemble a new cabinet based on the existing coalition. If that fails, elections would be in order. A formateur to take the job of prime minister, surely the VVD can come up with someone?

Noises from  D66 and CDA to the effect that the cabinet will fall anyway once Rutte goes is inconsistent hogwash. Why would an avidly Europhile party such as D66 want to keep fellow European-liberal party member Mark Rutte from accepting a top job in Brussels?

The Christian Democrats, when it was thought Balkenende was in with a chance in Brussels, thought they could solve the problem of a new prime minister with a bit of backroom politics. And now it would take an election? Not very credible, is it.

This column was first published in Wynia’s Week.

Syp Wynia is a journalist and columnist who writes primarily on politics and economics, as well as Europe, migration and the government’s finances.

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