Open Europe Blog

Dutch PM Mark Rutte is often seen as a key UK ally who is able to maintain warm relations with both the Liberal and Conservative sides of the coalition. In London today to deliver the Isaiah Berlin lecture he talked about the big challenges facing Europe, making the following key points:

  • The EU is greater than the sum of its parts but it is a means to an end – prosperity, security etc – rather than an end in itself.
  • As a liberal, he said that he believes that decisions should be made as close as possible to those whom they affect – and therefore the EU should not be involved in areas that can be better handled at the national level such as the minimum wage, pensions, social security and taxation.
  • However, where the EU could add more value is in expanding the single market, particularly in services (it was Rutte who first made the suggestion that this could take place under enhanced co-operation, an option we explored in our recent report).
  • Commenting on the NSA spying scandal, he said the Dutch government would support the Franco-German initiative to clear up the issue with the Americans to prevent a repeat but added that he opposed any new competences for the EU in this area. He also said that it would be “totally counter-productive” to suspend the US-EU free trade negotiations over this issue, and that he strongly opposed this (Business Secretary Vince Cable who was in the audience appreciated that one).
  • He said that he backed David Cameron’s ‘business task force’ report which aims to cut red tape and promote competitiveness and innovation which Europe needs in order to maintain the high standard of living many of its citizens have become accustomed to, and that he supported efforts to demarcate EU competences from national ones, but that he opposed unilateral opt-outs which could damage the single market.
  • On the political side, he said that there was widespread disillusionment with the European project among much of the public, but that rather than blaming the voters for opting for fringe parties on the left and right, established parties have to shoulder the blame for creating the political space for them to operate in.
  • Finally, he stressed that although he was not opposed to referenda per se, his strong preference would be for any eurozone related changes (banking union, competitiveness contracts) to take place under the existing legal framework as opposed to re-opening the EU treaties which would trigger votes in several countries which would inevitably become in/out votes.
All in all then a mixed bag for David Cameron – strong support for his vision of a leaner, business friendly, trade-orientated and more accountable EU, but scepticism towards opening up the EU Treaties which could offer possibilities for more fundamental changes.
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