Part One of our Summer Series on the Latest Developments in EU Member States

Introducing the GED Summer Tour, where we use the summer holidays to look at the political state of individual EU member countries. In this series, we’ll analyse what’s going on in some EU countries and the implications for Europe, less than a year before the 2024 European elections. We’ll kick off this series by looking at The Hague.

Coalition collapsed, a wave of resignations swept in

The Netherlands is heading for a politically turbulent summer. On 7 June, prime minister Mark Rutte’s four-party coalition collapsed over differing views on asylum policy, particularly family reunification rights. The following Monday, Rutte told surprised MPs and journalists that he would no longer run as the leading candidate for his Freedom and Democracy Party (VVD) in the upcoming snap elections and would retire from politics.

With 13 years in office, Rutte is the longest-serving prime minister ever to govern the Netherlands. After Hungarian Viktor Orban, he is the head of government in the EU with the second longest term in office. He has often been named as a possible candidate for an international top job someday in the future, such as President of the European Council or NATO Secretary General.

Following Rutte’s example, other party leaders of his coalition have resigned from their offices as well. Wopke Hoekstra, foreign minister and leader of the Christian-democratic CDA, had already thrown in the towel earlier on the same day as Rutte.

A few days later, Sigrid Kaag of the social liberal D66, most recently finance minister in Rutte’s cabinet, also announced her withdrawal. Tragically, after personal hostilities and threats against her, she justified this with concerns for her and her family’s safety.

Thus, three of the four current coalition parties are facing internal upheavals and processes of renewal. They will all enter the election campaign with new top candidates and chairpersons who will have to be determined in nomination processes and party congresses in the weeks to come.

Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, currently minister of justice and security in the outgoing government, has the most promising chance of succeeding Rutte as leader of the VVD. The party leadership has already backed her, including Rutte himself.

While a wave of resignations of this intensity was hardly to be expected, a failure of the coalition has been an option since Rutte painstakingly formed it in January 2022 after months of negotiations. With the liberal centre-right VVD, the social liberal D66, the Christian-democratic CDA and the Calvinist CU, the coalition consisted of four very different parties with diverse ideological backgrounds.

Until a new government is formed, the unwieldy partnership will remain in office as caretaker. However, it can no longer be expected to have much creative power, especially after the latest personnel developments. The impasse could drag on for some time.

Even if the new elections take place as planned on 22 November, the formation of a new government is likely to be extremely complicated. According to current polls, a clear majority is not in sight. The latest numbers show the Farmers’ Party BBB  at 17 per cent, two percentage points ahead of the VVD which stands at 15 per cent.

The BBB, which currently holds only one seat in the Dutch House of Representatives, surprisingly won the regional elections in March of this year and has since become the strongest single opposition and a functional protest party whose positions are largely at odds with (green) European ambitions.

The BBB is currently tied with a new centre-left alliance of the Dutch Labor Party (PvdA/S&D) and GroenLinks (GL/Greens), which also stands at 17 per cent. Both parties in the alliance have recently decided to run in November with a joint list and a joint program, that should increase their chances on the ballot. Frans Timmermans, Executive Vice-President of the EU Commission has already declared that he would like to run as the joint top candidate. This could have repercussions beyond the Netherlands. Ursula von der Leyen might lose two out of three of her influential executive vice-presidents, after Margrethe Vestager, who is responsible for competition, had already declared in June that she wanted to move to the head of the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Meanwhile, Geert Wilders’ right-wing populist and eurosceptic Party for Freedom (PVV) stands at 10 per cent (note: the Dutch are more critical of European integration than the EU average). So, we are likely to witness a hot election campaign in which the issue of migration could well play a major role. In any case, the subsequent government formation should be tricky. The way the odds are, we might have to wait until next spring for a new prime minister to take office in The Hague.

EU loses an experienced mover and bridge-builder

For the EU, Rutte’s resignation and the collapse of his government are significant. For a long time, he was regarded as “Mr No,” a kind of unofficial leader of the fiscally conservative “frugal four,” consisting of Austria, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. Recently, however, Rutte, together with Kaag, acted more as a bridge-builder.

Jointly with Spain – a natural opponent of the former frugal four in terms of fiscal policy – they presented a non-paper on principles for reforming the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) in April 2022. This rare team-up of a “frugal” and a strongly indebted net recipient of the South indeed offered some room for potential compromises, as it provided for both more flexibility in the SGP as well as ambitious debt reduction.

Such power of initiative and moderation will be missed in the months to come diminishing the chance of reforming the SGP before the European elections in June 2024, as was actually envisaged by the unlikely bedfellows. This is all the more true as Spain, which holds the rotating Council presidency, is also facing snap elections and it is more than uncertain whether Pedro Sánchez will become prime minister again.

Needless to say, fiscal policy is just one example of where European policymaking might suffer from a lame-duck government in The Hague, as Sander Tordoir from the Centre for European Reform (CER) rightly points out in a readable thread.

Rutte just recently symbolised European drive once again when, together with Ursula von der Leyen and Georgia Meloni, he sealed the latest migration agreement with Tunisia (for which he was criticised at home by parts of the opposition). Also, the Dutch positions on major European issues are unlikely to change until a new coalition enters into force.

However, an outgoing government without an electoral mandate will have to rely more strongly on the parliament and can hardly be expected to shape Europe proactively or to take the initiative. As Sigrid Kaag put it with regard to the SGP reform: “We were working from the base of the position that was [agreed] by the government and which had parliamentary backing but as is good political practice in the Netherlands, once the government becomes caretaker one has to be very reserved and not forward leaning”.

About the author

Malte Zabel is Co-Director of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, which pursues projects on the EU’s sovereignty, a coherent internal market, and European public opinion.

Read More in Our Tour of EU Member States Series

Coming Soon! Part 2: Spain