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article imageMark Rutte: Mr Nice Guy becomes Europe's 'Mr No'

By Danny KEMP (AFP)     Jul 20, 2020 in Politics

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte cultivates a nice-guy image at home but in Europe he has been dubbed "Mr No" for blocking a deal on a huge coronavirus rescue package.

As the unofficial head of the "Frugals" -- the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Denmark and Finland -- Rutte is taking on the role of villain for a tough stance that has pushed an EU summit into a fourth day.

Hungarian premier Viktor Orban accused "The Dutch guy" of holding up a deal -- and of personally hating him. Diplomats from other countries have privately been even less complimentary.

Rutte is unrepentant, insisting on stricter rules for the southern EU states that will get most of the cash, knowing that Dutch voters who go to the polls next year want him to hold firm.

"We're not here so we can go to each others' birthdays for the rest of our lives -- we're all here to defend the interests of our own countries," Rutte told reporters Monday.

The liberal Dutch premier -- one of Europe's longest-serving leaders after a decade in power -- went on to warn after yet another gruelling night of talks that the summit "may still fail".

- 'Preachers and salesmen' -

Rutte, 53, is often portrayed as the embodiment of frugality -- the life-long bachelor cycles to work from the apartment he has lived in since graduating and drives a second-hand Saab.

"He doesn't really seem to care about material possessions," Pepijn Bergsen, a research fellow in the Europe programme at Chatham House in London, told AFP.

His position chimes with the electorate in a "nation of preachers and salesmen", which prides itself on Calvinist thriftiness and a long history as a trading power.

The former personnel manager for Unilever is also known for a cheery persona that has helped him make friends on all sides of the Netherlands' fragmented political scene.

That quality, combined with a killer political instinct, has enabled Rutte to lead three coalition governments since 2010.

His feeling for the political winds was on display in a video in April that gave Rutte his new nickname. After a truck driver urged the PM "Don't give the Italians and Spanish any money!", he laughingly exclaimed "no no no!".

With general elections due in March, Rutte is conscious of the need to see off a strong challenge from far-right and eurosceptic parties if, as expected, he decides to go for a fourth term in office.

Asked on Monday if he minded the "Mr No" epithet, Rutte replied that he "wouldn't let himself be distracted by background noise", adding that he was working for Dutch interest, "which are clearly linked to a European interest".

His critics point out that the Netherlands's tax breaks for multinationals cost the EU billions of euros, while the Dutch also benefit from soaring exports to other European countries.

- 'Giving this money away' -

With other leaders saying the "Frugals" risk fracturing EU unity at a time of crisis, the Dutch commitment to the European project that the Netherlands helped found is again under scrutiny.

The Netherlands has increasingly taken on the blocking role formerly held by fellow free-marketeers the British, following the UK's exit from the EU earlier this year.

Rutte's behaviour over the 750-billion-euro ($855 billion) virus fund echoes the budget-blocking antics of former British prime ministers David Cameron and Margaret Thatcher.

His tough stance on the Greek debt meltdown and EU migration crisis in the 2010s meanwhile irked many in Europe.

Bergsen said Rutte's position reflects profoundly held ideas in his own VVD party and parliament.

"You sometimes see people trying to explain the Dutch hardline stance, it's an election year, they can't be seen to be giving this money away...," said Bergsen.

"But most of The Hague actually just believes this stuff.

"They actually believe that if they give money for free -- as they see it -- to the Italians, it's wasted. And I wouldn't be surprised if Rutte actually believes that too."

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