Netherlands’ Mark Rutte plots latest great escape

This month, Mark Rutte’s 11-year term as Dutch prime minister teetered on the brink of an ignominious end.

The veteran leader, who had seemingly perfected the art of dodging responsibility for government crises, suddenly found himself carrying the can over a bizarre “scandal”. Even more striking was that the affair seemed trivial compared with the other career-threatening incidents “Teflon Mark” has survived. 

MPs have accused Rutte of lying about holding talks on the possible appointment of a prominent conservative critic of the government to a ministerial job in the coalition after March’s elections. Rutte repeatedly denied making the suggestion — but his claim was later contradicted by official accounts of the coalition discussions. 

For the first time in his long tenure, opposition forces and former allies circled Rutte and smelled blood. They accused him of wilfully misleading parliament and the public. Rutte denied lying about the incident, saying he “misremembered” when asked by journalists. 

All political groups, with the exception of Rutte’s rightwing Freedom and Democracy party (VVD), voted in favour of a motion of censure against him. It appeared to be a fatal blow to his hopes to lead the country’s next government.

But in recent days, Rutte has mounted a quiet comeback worthy of the Easter period. He remains in place as the country’s caretaker leader as coalition talks resume. A new “informateur” is at the helm of negotiations to find the numbers for a governing majority — with or without Rutte.

While wounded, the premier is not yet down for the count as opposition leaders have begun pulling their punches. The inveterate survivor has proved difficult to dislodge partly because there is no obvious candidate who to replace him, from either his own party or the opposition. 

Liberal Democrats D66 scored a surprisingly strong second place in the election, but leader Sigrid Kaag will struggle to form a parliamentary majority with a left-leaning coalition that does not include Rutte’s VVD.

Conservative leader Wopke Hoekstra has also made conciliatory noises about the need for political stability during the coronavirus emergency. It is now up to the 79-year-old informateur Herman Tjeenk Willink to test the resolve of Rutte’s former allies and decide whether they really have an appetite for change. 

“Rutte has one super talent and that is to remain in power,” writes Teun van de Keuken in Volkskrant, describing the premier as the country’s supreme “populist”.

“He has the gift of hypnotising people in such a way that they do not see a future possible without the Great Leader.”

Chart du jour: US Spac attack

European companies are receiving a “frenzy” of offers by US-based special purpose acquisition companies. The Spac craze has drummed up $55.2bn this year and Europe is playing catch-up to stop its companies from being listed in the US, with Amsterdam becoming Europe’s Spac hub. (chart via FT)

Around Europe

Christian Democratic Union party chair Armin Laschet, left, and Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria © Getty Images
  • The battle lines have been drawn between Germany’s conservatives ahead of September’s federal elections. The executive arm of the country’s ruling Christian Democratic Union picked Armin Laschet on Monday as its preferred candidate for chancellor, setting up a leadership tussle with the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, which is backing its popular leader Markus Söder. (Die Welt) While the conservatives fight for the right of succession, parties on the extreme left and right are also setting out their electoral stalls. Süddeutsche Zeitung reports on how far-left Die Linke is campaigning for a radical expansion of the welfare state, a €13 per hour minimum wage and swingeing cuts to the defence budget. The extreme-right Alternative for Germany is heading further rightward, pushing for looser gun laws and restrictive family reunification rights for refugees and migrants.

  • Gideon Rachman makes the case for the enduring anti-fragility of the EU, whose critics mistakenly believe that its “unique and often baffling political structures make it particularly vulnerable to collapse”.

  • The global economy must adapt to the era of pandemics, according to a bumper compendium of essays from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Countries will need to drastically increase international co-operation to mitigate the long-lasting effects of the current pandemic and avoid the worst of future ones, it argues. Proposed priority areas include vaccine rollouts and universal internet coverage. You can read all 12 research papers here.

  • With elections due this autumn, Czech foreign minister Tomas Petricek has been sacked after his failed bid for the leadership of his Social Democratic party, a member of the country’s minority ruling coalition. Petricek called his removal a “political decision”, due in part to his pro-western views and repeated clashes with President Milos Zeman over Russian influence in the country. (Bloomberg)

Coming up today

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and her European Council counterpart Charles Michel are due to appear at a closed-door meeting of the European parliament’s political group leaders this afternoon to discuss their disastrous “sofagate” visit to Ankara last week.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken and secretary of defence Lloyd Austin are in Brussels for a two-day trip beginning on Tuesday. The pair will meet fellow Nato member states to talk security, while Blinken will also hold bilateral and multilateral talks with European counterparts.

[email protected]; @MehreenKhn
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