Rutte Urges EU Pragmatism, May’s Speech Heard Very Differently in Europe

The Dutch leader has no need for lofty visions. Theresa May’s speech was praised in Britain, but not in Brussels.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte shakes hands with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Kleve, near the Dutch-German border, May 23, 2013
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte shakes hands with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Kleve, near the Dutch-German border, May 23, 2013 (Bundesregierung)

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte called for pragmatism in a speech in Berlin in Friday. The best way to take the wind out of the sails of Euroskeptic parties, he said, is to show results:

Lofty visions do not create jobs or security. Nor does shouting from the ends of the political spectrum. Only hard work […] produces results that benefit people in their daily lives.

The Merkelian rhetoric is a reality check for French president Emmanuel Macron, who has proposed far-reaching reforms in Europe.

With Britain, traditionally an ally, leaving the bloc, the Netherlands is becoming more vocal in resisting what it — and the German right — fear would amount to transfer union: the permanent subsidization of poorer member states by the wealthy.

There was a discrepancy in coverage. Dutch media emphasized the many positive things Rutte said about the EU. Foreign outlets focused on his “red lines”. The reason is that Rutte is considered more of a Euroskeptic at home than he is abroad.

Hard choices

Speaking of discrepancies, the way Theresa May’s own EU speech on Friday was received revealed a world of difference.

In the United Kingdom, it was hailed as a major step forward. Even the Financial Times, often sober-headed in its analysis, praised her for setting out a vision for Britain’s future relationship with the EU that did not immediately tear apart the Conservative government.

A low bar.

The rest of Europe heard yet another attempt to “cherry-pick” the terms of membership. Britain doesn’t want to stay in the single market, but it does want to retain as close an economic relationship with the continent as possible. It doesn’t want a hard border in Ireland, but it doesn’t want Northern Ireland to remain in the EU customs union either.

This is why patience is wearing thin in Brussels. No matter May’s recognition that “hard choices” are inevitable, it seems to the rest of Europe that Britain has still not come to terms with what leaving actually means.

American politics reading list

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