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21 June 2024

Mark Rutte’s next move

Following a bitter dispute about asylum seekers, the 13-year premiership of “Teflon Mark” has finally ended.

By Megan Gibson

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on 12 July 2023 and has been updated in light of recent events. On 20 June, Mark Rutte, the outgoing Dutch prime minister, effectively won the race to become the next Secretary-General of Nato after the Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, withdrew his bid. Rutte is expected to be formally confirmed as Jens Stoltenberg’s replacement following 1 October.

Teflon Mark. Mr Normal. The laugh-it-off prime minister. These were some of the nicknames for Mark Rutte, whose long premiership of the Netherlands ended abruptly on 7 July when the coalition government he led collapsed over a bitter dispute about asylum seekers. Three days later, Rutte announced that he was resigning as leader of the centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and would leave politics in the autumn.

Rutte became prime minister in October 2010 and he has enjoyed an influence and prominence, especially in EU politics, that belied the size of a country with a population of only 17.5 million. Early on in his premiership, he formed alliances with David Cameron and Angela Merkel. After Brexit, he aligned with leaders from smaller, northern European countries to advocate for fiscal conservatism within the EU, refusing bailouts for southern states and acting as a counterbalance to France’s influence in the bloc. Within Europe, Rutte was a champion of democratic ideals. In 2021 he rebuked Viktor Orbán over an anti-LGBT law in Hungary; he also drove the EU’s stipulation that billions of post-pandemic stimulus funds be conditional on upholding the rule-of-law in member states.

At home, however, Rutte has worn his political ideals more lightly and there is no overarching Ruttian ideology. In a 2013 public lecture Rutte said himself that he believed “vision is like an elephant that obstructs the view”. Many Dutch analysts and journalists say that while he has been an effective manager, deft at building alliances, he is not a statesman. “He was really a process manager of the Netherlands,” Elodie Verweij-Sauter, the political editor for a Dutch talk show at the broadcaster RTL, said. “He was solving problems, not selling ideas.” 

Rutte presented as a moderate but was adept at channelling the forces of the nationalist populist right. His first coalition government, formed in 2010, relied on an outside support agreement with the Party for Freedom (PVV), led by the far-right, anti-Muslim Geert Wilders. But after Wilders pulled support in 2012, prompting the government’s collapse, Rutte shifted tactics; in later elections he ruled out partnering with Wilders. To stop the far-right from peeling away votes from the VVD, Rutte instead adopted some of its rhetoric and positions as his own. Ahead of the 2017 election, Wilders borrowed his campaign slogan from Donald Trump: “Make Netherlands Great Again.” Rutte’s slogan was just as crude: “Act normal, or go away.” 

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While Rutte’s strategy proved effective at keeping him in power over the course of four consecutive governments – and the far right out of it – he legitimised populism within the mainstream, even as he denounced Wilders’ more extreme statements, such as pledging to ensure that fewer Moroccans lived in the Netherlands. 

When it came to government scandals of all kinds, Rutte didn’t just survive; he thrived. When the backlash over a delayed vaccine roll-out and pandemic restrictions swelled into riots throughout the country, Rutte deflected criticism by both condemning the protesters and later easing several restrictions. In 2021 his coalition government collapsed over a child benefit scandal that revealed the Dutch tax office had wrongly accused thousands of families of fraud and issued heavy fines. Once it was apparent his government would not survive a vote of no-confidence, Rutte resigned – but he then returned to lead another coalition government after his party increased its share of the vote in the subsequent election. Teflon Man had pulled it off again. 

[See also: Britain is the last liberal nation in Europe]

Mark Rutte was born in the Hague in 1967. His father Izaäk had previously run a trading company in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. But after Izaäk’s first wife died in a Japanese-run internment camp during the Second World War, he returned to the Netherlands and later married his deceased wife’s sister, Mieke (Rutte’s mother). The youngest of his father’s seven children, Rutte had an elder brother, Wim, who died from Aids in the 1980s. He later said he was profoundly affected by the loss and said it had instilled an “enormous drive” in him.

Rutte has spent his entire life living in the Hague, even while studying history at Leiden University. The embodiment of unflashy stability, he still lives in the same house in the Hague he first purchased with student friends while at university, and continues to teach social studies once a week at a local school. Rutte has no children and has never been married. Asked repeatedly by the press if he is gay, he always says no. “The last taboo in the Netherlands is living alone,” he said in a Dutch television interview in 2016.

Rutte once had aspirations of being a concert pianist, but after university accepted a job at Unilever, working as a human resource manager for the company and several of its subsidiaries from 1992. His move into politics was straightforward. As a student he had served as the national chair of the youth wing of the VVD, and in 2002 the party tapped him to become a junior minister. Within four years, he was leading the party; by the end of the decade, he was prime minister. 

[See also: Why the EU cannot admit Ukraine as a member]

This year has been fraught for Rutte. In March a protest group, the Farmer Citizen Movement (BBB), campaigned against the government’s plan to force the country’s many livestock farms to reduce their nitrogen emissions in order to combat the climate crisis, or face closure. They won widespread support, sweeping local elections to become the largest party in all 12 provincial assemblies. The BBB also took control of the Senate, the government body that passes legislation.

But it was internal divisions within his own coalition government that ultimately led to its collapse. On 7 July the four-party cabinet unravelled after Rutte’s VVD pushed to introduce restrictions on allowing family members of refugees to come to live in the Netherlands, a policy that coalition partners Christian Union and Democrats 66 refused to support. After years of consensus politics, no compromise could be reached. This was the end of Rutte’s fourth, and final, coalition.

He will remain as prime minister until the general election in the autumn, but his resignation is part of a wider trend of the waning power of the centre right across the West. It also marks the beginning of a new political era for the Netherlands, with the country polarised and instances of political violence increasing.

Rutte has been dominant for so long there is no obvious successor to him. Polls indicate that the VVD trails BBB by six points; without Rutte to lead the party, populists could see a surge in support. “It’s likely that the next government will be even more right-wing than the ones that Rutte has been leading,” Ben Coates, the author of Why the Dutch are Different, said. Coates added that while he had a hard time envisioning a populist gaining enough support to actually lead a government, he also cautioned against making any firm bets. From Italy to Spain, Europe is awash with examples of the once fringe far right taking or gaining power.

Mark Rutte likely realised that, after 13 years, he would no longer find it as easy to build coalitions or offer any meaningful stability. It is perhaps fitting that as a leader whose greatest skill was sensing the direction of the country leaves politics for good, it has become impossible to predict just where the country’s politics will go next.

[See also: Old Europe is dead]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation