Exit Rutte

With the fall of the Dutch government on 7 July, the reign of Mark Rutte, the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history, has come to an end. He was the managerial politician par excellence: a man who honed his skills in the Human Resources department of Unilever before serving a long stint in the engine room of the right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). His premiership was characterized by major political and economic turbulence, yet for more than a decade he succeeded in weathering successive crises and securing a string of electoral victories for his party. By stepping down of his own volition he has deftly avoided being ousted by his rivals. His farewell session in parliament was warm and convivial; the mainstream opposition had only complimentary things to say. Rutte himself was overheard whispering to one of the centre-left opposition leaders that he ‘loved’ him.

Capitalizing on the eurozone crisis of 2010, Rutte ran for prime minister on a platform that self-consciously replicated David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’: Atlanticist, mercantilist, aimed at shrinking the public sector by devolving responsibility onto households, charities and community groups. Rutte called it the ‘Participation Society’, telling voters that ‘the state is no longer a happiness machine’. It was a message that resonated with the VVD base: big business, petit-bourgeois conservatives and pensioners. Once elected with 20% of the vote, the leader launched an unprecedented austerity drive, backed by the Social Democrats from 2012 onwards, which resulted in the longest recession and largest impoverishment in post-war Dutch history. The effects were increased public debt, rising suicide rates, declining wages and a severe care crisis. Yet none of this mattered as long as foreign investment continued to flow. Time and again, Rutte reminded voters that the wealth of the Dutch nation depended on its multinationals, and spoke of the country as a limited liability corporation: ‘BV Nederland’.

Having performed this economic realignment, Rutte shifted his focus to culture wars during his second and third terms: taking a tough line on the migration crisis and banning the burqa from various public spaces. (Overseas, meanwhile, the VVD provided aid to Syria’s Levant Front as it imposed Sharia Law and carried out summary executions in its territories.) Eventually, when the Dutch economy began to recover from its self-inflicted wounds and new budgetary space began to open up, the government’s hand was forced by the Covid-19 pandemic. Again, Rutte followed the lead of the British Conservatives. At first he gave the virus free-rein and relied on herd immunity, before making a sharp U-turn two weeks later, implementing harsh lockdowns and other ‘non-pharmaceutical measures’ to avoid overstretching the marketized Dutch healthcare system. The media framed his pandemic response as highly competent, allowing him to deflect the challenge from Thierry Baudet’s Forum for Democracy – a far-right, Eurosceptic formation – and win reelection in 2021. (More damning reports on Rutte’s public health strategy have since come to light, but he can breathe easy thanks to the indefinite delay of the parliamentary inquiry that is due to start in 2025.)

Rutte’s third coalition fell apart when reports surfaced that the government had brutally cracked down on vulnerable parents over childcare allowances. An unprecedented 299 days of negotiations led to the formation of a new cabinet in 2022. Yet by that time the political situation had changed: Covid was gone and war was raging in Ukraine. The Dutch Supreme Court had also ruled that the government was in violation of its climate obligations, forcing it to announce that it would close farms and halve the number of livestock nationwide. This was a blunt solution to the problems caused by the country’s supersized livestock industry, which is responsible for 46% of its nitrogen emissions as well as the destruction of nature reserves and pollution of areas legally protected by the EU. Without downsizing this vast sector, the Netherlands could never hope to meet its environmental targets. Yet without anything resembling a ‘just transition’ – to compensate for job losses and reorient the economy away from agricultural exports – the decision to cull large numbers of animals caused understandable fear among the farmer population. With public money now reallocated to the defence and military aid budgets, along with schemes to offset the cost-of-living crisis sparked by Western sanctions on Russia, funds were in short supply for green social policies.

This set off a wave of aggressive farmer protests, with major motorways blocked by hundreds of tractors, and culminated in the establishment of the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB): a right-populist party bankrolled by the powerful Dutch agrifood complex and led by a former meat industry journalist. In March this year, the BBB inflicted a painful electoral defeat on the VVD, picking up 1.4 million votes and capturing the greatest number of seats in each of the Dutch provinces. Large swathes of its supporters were disaffected ruralists – residents of the so-called ‘places that don’t matter’. Many of them had previously voted for the PVV, an anti-migrant offspring of the VVD, or for the VVD itself. They were not necessarily convinced by every element of the BBB programme, which includes a cap of refugees and stricter rules for integrating migrants, yet they were sufficiently repulsed by Rutte’s political machine and its apparent willingness to sacrifice their livelihoods. Some urban voters, too, gravitated towards the BBB after the government suspended large construction projects in an ostensible bid to lower emissions levels, forsaking any attempt to deal with the country’s housing crisis.

Rutte finalized his new cabinet just as the BBB’s popularity was growing. The Finance Minister, former McKinsey partner Wopke Hoekstra, switched roles with the Foreign Minister, former diplomat Sigrid Kaag, who leads the socially liberal D66 party. The VVD base took this as a sign that D66 was gaining increasing influence in the government, and that Rutte had perhaps been outmaneuvered by Kaag – who would use her new position to pursue an elite, ultra-woke agenda. Even worse, during the 2022 coalition negotiations Rutte had committed to ambitious environmental objectives which forced him to sign off on policies – flight-taxes, gasoline-taxes and potentially meat-taxes – that were viewed as onerous and authoritarian. Rutte himself seemed increasingly uncomfortable to be associated with the coalition, which was believed to have been hijacked by ‘climate believers’ who wanted to kill off the national food industry and ‘wokies’ who wanted to apologize for Dutch involvement in the slave trade and cancel the country’s infamous blackface tradition.

Accordingly, the government’s popularity began to plummet. In poll after poll, the ruling parties were projected to lose large numbers of seats in the next general election, while the BBB continued to surge. Parliamentary journalists expected that Rutte would do his utmost to keep his flock together and wait for a shift in the electoral tide. Surely a coalition that had been put together with so much effort wouldn’t be allowed to fall apart so easily? Not so. Under pressure from party elders and bureaucrats, Rutte was searching for an exit route that would minimize electoral damage to the VVD. A new influx of migrants in 2023 provided the perfect pretext.

The groundwork for this controversy had already been laid. Since the War on Terror, Dutch media has portrayed Islamism as a civilizational threat. Opposition to immigration in general and Muslim arrivals in particular has become the country’s main political litmus test, dividing its true-blooded conservative majority from its ‘out-of-touch’ progressive minority. Material issues – living costs, disposable income, taxation, quality and accessibility of public services – are meanwhile viewed as technocratic: the exclusive remit of economic experts. The main daily news programme on Dutch public television, Nieuwsuur, features a single neoclassical economist who informs the public about the causes of inflation, the need for interest rate hikes and the best means of sustaining profitability. Politicians have refused to speak about so-called ‘greedflation’ because they consider it a term of abuse to shareholders. Attempts to break through this cordon sanitaire by the leader of the Socialist Party, Lilian Marijnissen, and the leader of the largest trade union federation, Tuur Elzinga, have so far come to nothing.

In this conjuncture, Rutte found it easy to throw red meat to his base by confecting a dispute with his coalition partners. The disagreement centred on which categories of refugees should be granted the right to reunify with their children once they had been given formal refugee status. Two of the four governing parties, D66 and the Christian Union, wanted this to be available to both political refugees and those from war-torn countries. Rutte was willing to accept the first category but not the second. Turning this into a breaking issue allowed the VVD to demonstrate its toughness on migration to an increasingly discontented electorate and regain the momentum after its dip in the polls. The party showed that its commitment was strong enough to make the ultimate sacrifice: Rutte’s fourth government, and with it his political career.

Whether this political gamble will pay off is still uncertain. The next elections, scheduled for November, will be contested by as yet unknown party leaders, since Hoekstra and Kaag have stepped down. Frans Timmermans, the current Vice President of the European Commission, who has adopted almost every imaginable political position over the course of his political career, intends to lead the combined list of Social Democrats and Greens. Yet current polls suggest that right-wing voters appreciate Rutte’s decision to resign; some surveys even indicate that it has allowed the VVD to pull ahead of the BBB.

In many ways, Rutte’s move typified the politics he represents. The PM is famously averse to grand ideological projects (he once quoted the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s assertion that if one wanted vision one had better see an optometrist). Instead, he strives for mastery of the positional game that is contemporary politics, prioritizing tactics and optics over strategy and substance. His major concern was always how to survive the next election, how to use the next event to his electoral advantage, how to stage an exit before crisis hit and how to ensure that someone else took the blame. Facts, policies, democratic protocols: these were mere instruments for manipulating the perceptions of the public.

Rutte’s resignation may once again burnish the image of the VVD, but it may also prove to be the xenophobic flint that lights a combustible political tinder box. In its wake, the VVD may be unable to forge another coalition with more socially progressive parties; in which case a future alliance between the VVD and BBB cannot be ruled out. That, in turn, would mean the end of any serious Dutch contribution to the global effort to mitigate climate breakdown, along with increasing illiberalism and state-sanctioned racism.

Rutte’s international reputation has not suffered from his domestic troubles. His hawkishness on Ukraine – leading the charge for ever more deadly arms shipments – has endeared him to NATO, whose presidency may beckon. Or he may return to Unilever. During one of his last parliamentary debates, he reflected that his greatest political regret was the failure to repeal dividend taxes that were supposedly responsible for Shell and Unilever’s decision to move their holdings to the UK. Now, City shareholders are unhappy with Unilever’s performance and want to see the firm broken up. One idea that has been floated is to turn its food subsidiary into a separate legal entity and move its headquarters back to the Netherlands. Rutte would be the perfect man to run it. And a BBB-VVD coalition, eager to further poison the environment in the name of food industry profits, would provide the perfect political backdrop.

Read on: Harriet Friedmann, ‘Farming Futures’, NLR 138.