By Pieter de Jonge, a Dutch historian and journalist
After Angela Merkel resigned as German Chancellor in December 2021, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte took over her role as Europe’s longest-serving head of government, having been in office since October 2010. Actually, Viktor Orbán became prime minister of Hungary six months before Rutte, but he has alienated the other government leaders, so Rutte is now considered as the nestor among European leaders for a year and a half already. After Brexit, the Netherlands became the most vocal proponent of transatlantic cooperation within the EU. This makes Rutte a welcome guest at international summits.
The ease with which he moves at international meetings is remarkable, given his personal life. He has lived all his life within the same square kilometre of The Hague, the city which serves as the seat of the Dutch parliament and government. Even as a student, he did not move to the student city of Leiden, but instead travelled up and down by train.
His prestige at the international level contrasts with his declining support at home. Less than a month after the 2021 elections, the entire Lower House, apart from his own right-liberal VVD, supported a motion of censure against him. The formation of his current fourth coalition government lasted 10 months and became the longest-lasting formation in Dutch parliamentary history. The coalition agreement seemed to contain more policies from the second party, the left-liberal D66, than from his own election manifesto. In August 2022, he broke Christian Democrat Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers’ (1982-1994) record as the longest-serving Dutch prime minister. The downside of that is that the population is also blaming him for everything that went wrong politically over the past 13 years, regardless of whether he was really responsible for it.
What probably has escaped foreign government leaders is that Rutte is increasingly suffering criticising from within his own party. There is a history to this.
Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte’s ruling coalition is at risk of falling apart after the government’s push to halve nitrogen emissions by 2030 led to mass protests and a stinging electoral defeat https://t.co/TVwFsjq8MN
— Bloomberg (@business) April 6, 2023
Centralisation of the VVD
Part of the VVD constituency feels that, as prime minister, Rutte has done little to translate his own election promises into policy. Rather, Rutte is considered to have ditched longstanding party positions. A Rutte biography of Mark Rutte was published in 2020, and a description of the internal development of the VVD since 2022. The authors were journalists, not party members, but the two books confirmed rather than refuted criticism.
The campaign which made Rutte prime minister in 2010 focused on him as a person and on voter research. This was repeated at every national election, until eventually, his VVD party seemed to exist around Rutte’s person rather than a coherent set of views. Within the party, everything started to revolve around the national level, at the expense of the municipality and provinces. Member participation virtually disappeared.
The argument to do this was that the VVD was now the largest party for the first time since its founding in 1948. The largest governing party supposedly had to put national interests above party interests and should also be more centrally led. However, over time, loyal VVD voters began to think that for Rutte, the wishes of coalition partners outweighed those of his own party.
A rebellious constituency
In June 2022, the party congress voted against government policy, for the first time since Rutte became prime minister, in this case the nitrogen policy that had been previously announced by a VVD minister. In November 2022, media expected the same to happen with asylum policy. This time, members did however support their party leader. It did not take long for media to report on the rigid control the party leadership had imposed to get this done.
— BrusselsReport.EU (@brussels_report) March 17, 2023
Two aspects of that congress are still relevant. In his speech, Rutte emphasised the difference between ‘taking responsibility and working on solutions’ and ‘shouting from the sidelines’. At first glance, this was aimed to stress the difference between centre-right parties that take government responsibility (VVD, the Christian Democratic CDA) and right-wing populist parties that prefer opposition the PVV of geert Wilders and Forum voor Democratie of Thierry Baudet). However, this was not very convincing, because if Rutte was the one taking responsibility, what were his critics within the party?
Rutte simultaneously pledged his “personal commitment” to curb asylum inflows, including in talks with other government leaders. This is a promise that some of the VVD members want to hold him to. The critical motion on government policy may not have passed, but other motions on stricter migration and integration policy did.
Dissenters were focused on asylum policy, as Rutte already distanced himself from other traditional VVD positions. Then asylum and migration also has an important symbolic meaning, as it reminds of two former top politicians with a conservative-liberal profile. One of them, Frits Bolkestein (VVD leader between 1990-1998), stated in 1991, during a speech at the congress of the Liberal International in Switzerland, was the first leader of an established Dutch and perhaps European party to describe migration and integration as a problem.
After Bolkestein’s departure, attention for the topic disappeared, until Pim Fortuyn caused an electoral landslide in 2002, partly by bringing integration and migration back into the spotlight. VVD politician Rita Verdonk was minister for Immigration and Integration (2003-2006). For disgruntled VVD members, migration and integration is not about a nostalgic longing for a former party leader. Bolkestein, and other previous party leaders, dared to put issues on the agenda at a time when it was still taboo, or at least against the spirit of the times. This in sharp contrast with Mark Rutte, who strongly relies on voter research and as prime minister mainly defends the emerging consensus within the coalition.
He lost the 2006 election anyway 😝. Back in 2006 Rutte had a conservative rival: Verdonk. She got more preference votes than he (only time ever in Dutch political history). So she challenged Rutte. But Rutte threw her out of VVD just before the conference Verdonk could take over
— Nassreddin Taibi 🇳🇱🇲🇦🇪🇺 (@Nassreddin2002) March 30, 2021
Rutte versus VVD party members
On Saturday 3 June, the VVD held another party conference. A lot of submitted motions were about asylum. Rutte dismissed criticism from left-wing parties that the VVD was against asylum seekers by pointing out that during the previous elections, there were four asylum seekers on the VVD list that had now become MPs or ministers. Despite applause, this did not convince everyone. After all, Rutte refuses to consider to end support for the current coalition. If coalition partners know this, why would they accommodate the VVD on asylum?
A VVD member, referring to Professor Ruud Koopmans’ book on EU asylum policy, asked Rutte who he was going to convince in Brussels to end human trafficking. Rutte then angrily responded that in Brussels, no one needed convincing, also saying:
“Let’s not make the mistake of talking about ‘us and Brussels’. We are also Brussels. We are a European liberal party. This country is a founder member of the European Union. Now stop talking about ‘us and Brussels’, that’s old politics.’”
This was followed by applause. But half an hour later, while discussing an agriculture motion, a member of the Lower House started talking about the opposition between the Netherlands and the European Commission.
Immediately after the party conference, Rutte mentioned to the press another reason not to leave the government: irresponsibility, now that it is war on European soil for the first time in 80 years. Last December, however, a newspaper revealed that Rutte personally forced defense cuts.
Kohl and Merkel
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998) was more popular abroad than at home at the end of his reign. Chancellor Merkel (2005-2021) won four elections but was more popular on the international stage than at home. Kohl dared to go against the zeitgeist on a number of issues (cruise missile deployment, economic policy) in the 1970s and 1980s, out of conviction. Merkel waited until there was consensus and then stood for it. Rutte’s governing style resembles Merkel’s.
While international summits are a warm bath for Rutte, party congresses are a cold shower. Discussing solutions with other heads of government is undoubtedly more pleasant than being told by party colleagues what he is doing wrong. But if Rutte won’t take criticism, even constructive criticism, from party colleagues, from kindred spirits, then who will?
"Helmut Kohl and the founding of the Euro"
— BrusselsReport.EU (@brussels_report) August 18, 2021