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
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