The Dutch pick up UK’s man­tle as Europe’s new trou­ble­maker No 1

Yet an­other wa­ter­shed mo­ment looms for EU af­ter ac­ri­mo­nious sum­mit over terms of Covid bailout

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business Comment - MATTHEW LYNN

He doesn’t swing a hand­bag as Mrs Thatcher fa­mously used to do at frac­tious Euro­pean Union sum­mits dur­ing the Eight­ies. Nor has he yet de­manded an opt-out as John Ma­jor had to when he was prime min­is­ter, or called a ref­er­en­dum as an ex­as­per­ated David Cameron even­tu­ally did. Even so the Dutch prime min­is­ter Mark Rutte has taken on the tra­di­tional, time­honoured role of Mr No. At one point France’s pres­i­dent Macron even ac­cused the Dutch of be­ing the new Brits. “You are tak­ing the place of the UK around the ta­ble,” he thun­dered late on Satur­day night. In Brus­sels, there can surely be no more deadly in­sult.

And yet, in truth, the Dutch better get used to it, and so should the rest of the EU. On any con­tentious is­sue – such as cre­at­ing a com­mon fis­cal pol­icy for ex­am­ple – it is ridiculous to ex­pect 27 very dif­fer­ent coun­tries, with com­pet­ing views and in­ter­ests, to agree. There will al­ways be a “trou­ble­maker”. It isn’t a great gig, and you take a lot of flak, but it is built into the sys­tem. The Dutch are tak­ing up the man­tle, and even if they even­tu­ally get fed up and leave some­one else will sim­ply take on the role.

It might not quite hold the record for the long­est and most ac­ri­mo­nious EU sum­mit ever. The Nice sum­mit in 2000 stretched out for five mind-numb­ing days. Nor is it nec­es­sar­ily the most ex­plo­sive: the 2010 gath­er­ing, at the height of the eu­ro­zone cri­sis, when France’s then pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy threat­ened to take his country out of the sin­gle cur­rency, still holds the record for the most bit­ter. And of course if you want to go fur­ther back, the 1965 “empty chair” row when Gen­eral de Gaulle boy­cotted EU meet­ings un­til he got his way over agri­cul­tural pol­icy was hardly a high point. Even so, the four days of hag­gling over the details of the planned €750bn (£678bn) Coro­n­avirus Res­cue Fund is an epic bat­tle even by Euro­pean stan­dards.

True, there was plenty to ar­gue about. Led by the Ger­mans and the French it may not live up to some of the hype but the fund is, with­out ques­tion, a big step to­wards a more united, fed­eral Europe. For the first time, at least on any sig­nif­i­cant scale, the EU will bor­row money it­self and di­vide it up be­tween the coun­tries that have been hard­est hit by the virus to help their economies re­cover. Un­like the eu­ro­zone bailout, a big chunk of the money – €390bn – will be in the form of grants in­stead of loans. Richer coun­tries will be help­ing out poorer ones through fis­cal trans­fers in much the same way wealthy Lon­don sub­si­dies a poorer Wales or a wealthy Cal­i­for­nia helps out Alabama. It might not end up be­ing that sig­nif­i­cant in macro terms – for most coun­tries the trans­fer could only amount to 1pc of GDP – but it is still a step to­wards a com­mon fis­cal pol­icy. For the EU, and the eu­ro­zone, it is a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment.

That was never go­ing to be easy to agree. Vot­ers in the Nether­lands are strug­gling to un­der­stand why they need to take on more debt to fi­nance Italy and Spain. Like­wise, the Aus­tri­ans and the Finns. It is even more puz­zling for the Swedes, or the Poles, or the Hun­gar­i­ans, be­cause the only rea­son the fund is ac­tu­ally needed is be­cause, as mem­bers of the euro, cen­tral banks in Italy, Spain and France can’t print their own money to fi­nance their own re­cov­ery. It is quite something to be asked to bail out a club of which you are not even a mem­ber. But over the course of a gru­elling week­end, the so-called “fru­gal four” have been whit­tling down the size of the grants, and de­mand­ing re­forms in ex­change for them.

The Dutch prime min­is­ter Rutte has been lead­ing that fight. Again and again he has gone back to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble in­sist­ing on tougher terms. In­evitably, the back­lash has started. It is not just pres­i­dent Macron who has been los­ing his tem­per. On Twitter, and in the Euro­pean press, and among other EU lead­ers, Rutte is sud­denly not a “good Euro­pean” any­more. “You might be a hero in your home­land for a few days, but af­ter a few weeks you will be held re­spon­si­ble be­fore all Euro­pean cit­i­zens for block­ing an ad­e­quate and ef­fec­tive Euro­pean re­sponse,” snarled the Ital­ian prime min­is­ter Giuseppe Conte.

“Europe is paral­ysed by the need for una­nim­ity among mem­ber states. High time to start the Con­fer­ence on the future of Europe to abol­ish it!” tweeted the arch-fed­er­al­ist Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt. There have been lec­tures about cor­po­rate tax breaks in the Nether­lands, and how much it ben­e­fits from the Sin­gle Mar­ket. Rutte, quite rightly shrugged, it all off. “We’re here be­cause ev­ery­one is tak­ing care of their own country, not to go to each other’s birthdays for the rest of our lives,” he said tersely.

Quite right. In truth, the rest of the EU should grow up. The Bri­tish were not ob­struc­tive and dif­fi­cult within the union sim­ply be­cause we thought it was fun. In any large group­ing, there is al­ways go­ing to be a per­son or country that leads the awk­ward squad. It used to be the UK. Sev­eral other coun­tries let us take all the flak, tut-tut­ted sanc­ti­mo­niously about how the Bri­tish weren’t com­mit­ted to “more Europe” and then qui­etly signed up to what­ever opt-outs we ne­go­ti­ated. Af­ter we left there was a va­cancy for Trou­ble­maker No 1. The Dutch hap­pened to have filled it, but it was al­ways go­ing to be some­one. The real ques­tion is this. The UK spent so long lead­ing the “No” lobby that vot­ers even­tu­ally tired of the whole cha­rade and voted to leave.

No one es­pe­cially en­joys be­ing the “bad country”. Will the Nether­lands go the same way? That is still a long way off. But if it hap­pens, his­to­ri­ans may mark the Coro­n­avirus sum­mit of July 2020 as the start of the process.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime min­is­ter, was ac­cused of tak­ing the place of the UK in terms of in­tran­si­gence by Em­manuel Macron, the French pres­i­dent

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