View from The Hague: An eternal balancing act

Prime Minister Rutte, needing as much EU support as he can, will be firm on the status quo and extremely careful with everything else.

For Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte the discussion on EU relations with Russia will be a difficult balancing act – as it has been ever since the downing of the MH17 passenger plane in summer 2014 with 196 Dutch passengers on board.

Rutte will support a six month roll-over of existing EU sanctions against Russia. He will resist the Italian request to lift those sanctions, as well as the push by some for additional economic sanctions.

Before the downing of MH17, The Hague mostly followed Germany’s position, which called for moderation on sanctions against Russia. This was primarily to do with business interests. The Netherlands is one of Russia’s larger trading partners in Europe, mainly importing energy and exporting agricultural products such as meat, fruit and flowers.

After the crash this ‘business as usual’ was no longer possible. Public pressure grew to punish Russia, but still the government remained cautious, needing Russian co-operation on the repatriation of bodies and the crash investigation. Thus, to the exasperation of some, it left lobbying for additional sanctions to other EU member states.

Public anger has increased since Russia debunked the preliminary results by the Joint Investigating Team (JIT) into the crash, published last September. Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders summoned the Russian ambassador to The Hague to complain. The Dutch ambassador in Moscow subsequently received a dressing-down by a lower level official at the Russian Foreign ministry.

US pressure on The Hague to take a tougher stand has also increased. Washington has requested the Dutch to take the EU lead to step up pressure to punish Russia, especially in the light of the relentless Aleppo bombings. Previously the US would probably have asked London to do this. But in The Hague some feel that, since the Brexit vote in June, the UK is already thinking more independently about its foreign policy choices, prompting Washington to rely more on other allies in the EU.

Dutch centrist opposition parties – the christian-democratic CDA, socialist PvdA and left-leaning liberal D66 – have called for additional sanctions against Russia. The far-right PVV, the largest political party according to the polls, has not. But it has abandoned its resistance to sanctions and now supports them. Like France’s Front National or Austria’s FPÖ the PVV shares Russia’s hatred of EU policies and its “libertarian” establishment – but its leader Geert Wilders is also a staunch Israel supporter with transatlantic leanings.

The Dutch have several reasons to keep a moderate course at October’s European Council. First, the JIT crash investigation needs to zoom in on the perpetrators, possibly in Russia. Russian cooperation would therefore still be required. Second, the business lobby is increasingly complaining of substantial losses as a result of sanctions.

Third, the Dutch are still upholding parts of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement after a resounding ‘no’ in a popular referendum in April. Six months have passed, but Mr Rutte still hasn’t found a way out. With elections fixed for March 2017 public pressure is mounting on him to use the Council meeting to finally translate this ‘no’ into the agreement somehow. But Rutte is entirely isolated: his European colleagues are unwilling to re-open an agreement that was finalized long ago.

In many ways, then, the discussions about Russia in the context of what some call ‘a new Cold War’ are too large to handle for a small country like The Netherlands. This is why Rutte, needing as much EU support as he can, will be firm on the status quo and extremely careful with everything else.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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