A Pianist in Sneakers Is the New Rising Force in European Politics
(Bloomberg) -- Mark Rutte closed his eyes as tales of suffering and patience swirled around the church.
The Dutch prime minister was in the front pew of the 16th century Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, near The Hague, last month to hear St. Matthew’s Passion. The Good Friday performance of Bach’s three-hour oratorio is an annual ritual for politicians in the Netherlands and this year it fell between two crucial elections.
Rutte might have been reflecting on his chastening result in March’s provincial ballot, or the populist assault he faces in this month’s vote for the European Parliament. Perhaps he was thinking about how to steer the Netherlands, the archetypal trading nation, through a global trade war. Or maybe he was just meditating on the art of compromise.
It’s not just that he’d had to put those skills to work in a fight between rival promoters both demanding his presence for their performances of the work—“a brawl over Bach,” he said afterward, “typical Dutch.”
Rutte’s knack for finding the common ground between sparring leaders has helped to make him an essential player in a European Union since the British voted to leave in 2016.
It was Rutte who held the Brexit negotiations together at times over the past year and he was in Berlin Thursday for talks with Angela Merkel as executives at Dutch lender ING Groep NV explored a potential takeover of one of Germany’s ailing banking giants.
Rutte, a 52-year-old liberal, will be Europe’s longest-serving leader when Merkel steps down as German chancellor at some point in the next two years. And he offers the clearest alternative to Emmanuel Macron’s integrationist vision when it comes to plotting the EU’s future.
As the bloc selects a new leadership team following this month’s parliamentary elections, Rutte is being touted as a potential president for either the EU Commission or the leader’s council, though he insists he has no such ambitions.
Where Macron wants to reengineer the EU’s constitutional framework to bind member states more tightly together, Rutte argues that EU leaders should use the institutions they already have to defend the continent’s interests more assertively and deliver for voters.
“We are the do-ers,” he told voters on the campaign trail in March. “In the Netherlands, we are positive people who want to move forward.”
The compromise that Rutte has worked out over nine years at the head of the Dutch government combines the country’s mercantile, liberal traditions with just enough populist tub-thumping to keep his nationalist opponents at bay. He’s had populists working with his coalition, and attacking him from the outside.
“Rutte moves in that broad grey area,” said Alexander Pechtold, who stepped down as leader of one of Rutte’s coalition partners last year. “But if his boundaries are crossed, he can respond very fiercely and clearly.”
Rutte has set the Netherlands on track to deliver Europe’s most ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and delivered a booming economy, positioned to capitalize on Brexit. Unilever picked Rotterdam rather than London for its base last year while Sony and Panasonic have both shifted their European headquarters to Amsterdam.
From the outset, Rutte recognized that Brexit created a political opportunity for the Netherlands as well as an economic one—it creates a vacancy for someone to defend liberal, free-trade values against French statism, a role that is vital to Germany.
Rutte drew up a battle plan to take advantage, according to an official familiar with his thinking.
He’s given a series of landmark speeches setting out his concept of Europe, sought new alliances, and knocked a few sharp edges off his economic policy positions to ease relations with Macron.
French officials still complain about his “budget fetishes,” but they got minimal pushback from The Hague when Macron unveiled a 17 billion-euro ($19 billion) spending program to fend of the Yellow Vest protestors.
Germany, meanwhile, was delighted by Rutte mobilizing a group of eight smaller EU members as fiscal hardliners, according to two European officials. That move helps to keep the French in check and lets the Germans look like moderates.
In December, Rutte intervened to defuse a summit argument between EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May, according to EU officials who witnessed the exchange. He also dressed down European officials when an earlier meeting ended in humiliation for the British prime minister. Dutch diplomats were in the inner circle of negotiators, and worked to ensure there was nothing too tough inserted by the French or the commission.
“He is the new liberal voice of Europe, a firm pro-European, very serious,” former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said in an interview. “He’s one of those who in the European Council does team building. He jokes, he smiles, always a nice word for everyone.”
He’s not afraid to throw his weight around either.
In February, Rutte outmaneuvered Macron by secretly acquiring a 14% stake in Air France-KLM and then sent a six-foot-six (2-meter) kickboxer (aka Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra) to explain the move to the French.
Germany and France see Rutte clearly established as Europe’s third power now and they have started to watch him closely, two people familiar with European leaders thinking said.
A history major and amateur musician, Rutte lives alone in the upscale Benoordenhout neighborhood of The Hague, with his piano and his collection of books. His mother, in her late 90s, lives in the same building.
For the past decade, he’s taught a weekly civics class at a public high school in The Hague.
Unlike the French president, he wears his learning lightly. He doesn’t hide his knowledge of high culture, but nor does it create a barrier with voters. In 2016, he laughed as passersby filmed him with their phones playing Schubert on a public piano in the central station of The Hague.
On the campaign trail he’s similarly low-key in jeans and Converse sneakers, often operating with just local party helpers and plain clothes security.
At the end of a Saturday campaigning for the provincial elections he spent two hours in the market square in Amersfoort, greeting voters and taking selfies as a small jazz band played. One woman wanted him pictured holding her dog. “I’d drop a baby if I was given one,” he joked, sidestepping the request.
To everyone he met, he gave a replica of a traditional Delft Blue vase and a sermon about the risks of populism.
“We have a great country,” he said, “and we have to be careful with it, just like we have to be careful with this little vase. To look after this vase, or to hold our country together, we all have to compromise. You never get everything you want.”
One party worker on the trip, a woman in her 50s called Birgitta, said he once sent her a letter to thank her for her help. “He pays attention to details,” she said. “This is what puts a man in a leader’s seat and keeps him there.”
His room for maneuver is shrinking all the same.
The provincial ballot cost him his majority in the Senate (the regions nominate senators) because of a surge in support for 36-year-old nativist Thierry Baudet, who wants to pull the Netherlands out of the EU.
Like Matteo Salvini in Italy and Marine Le Pen in France, Baudet is tapping into voters’ frustrations—in the Netherlands it’s immigration, the cost of climate policy and resentment at the insiders who supposedly carve up the plum jobs.
The result put a dent in the prime minister’s usual good humor. Asked last month if he was worried about Baudet, Rutte shut down the issue and refused to engage. “I didn’t lose sleep over it,” he snapped.
Maybe not. But among a crowded field of EU heavyweights, Rutte is setting out a program for a big European job—even as he denies he’s interested.
In February, Rutte travelled to Zurich, evoking Winston Churchill’s 1946 speech on the United States of Europe, and set out his own plan for how the EU should move forward.
While opposing Macron’s calls for further integration, he shares the French president’s insistence that the EU must wield its power better.
“The EU needs a reality check,” Rutte said, arguing that Europe risks being pushed aside by the U.S. and China unless it learns to stand up for itself.
He called for an end to the vetoes that allow one small state to block action in foreign affairs, for Europe to get smarter about leveraging the size of its economy, to stand together when rivals try to drive a wedge between members and to embrace the challenge-cum-opportunity posed by the Trump presidency.
“Power is not a dirty word,” he said.
If Macron is looking for someone to help the EU punch its weight in an increasingly unfriendly world, he might be persuaded to set aside his scuffles with Rutte and strike a compromise.
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