For the first time in decades, the Netherlands is offered a unique opportunity in Europe's engine room. Until recently, The Hague was either a first-rate know-it-all, or a yapper sitting at the sidelines. The Netherlands combines many opinions with little influence. The latter will change as soon as Jeroen Dijselbloem, minister of Finance, becomes the President of the Euro Group. Following that, Prime Minister Mark Rutte will be right in the middle of the battle on the renegotiation of the British position in the EU, as an ally to both London and Berlin. These bridging roles provide European opportunities and have domestic consequences.
After a stumbling start, Rutte II is sitting on two power axis, albeit somewhat unintended; Berlin-Paris in the Euro zone and London-EU. This means that Rutte II, in comparison with Rutte I, is going through a metamorphosis. Not a ship horn of its own opinion, but the whisperer to the ears of the powerful. The Netherlands act as go between: who would have thought that when Rutte was attacked in Europe because of the "Poland-hotline". The Netherlands as, what the Belgians call it, a facilitator in the battle among elephants: Great Britain, Germany and France. Of course there is also the self-interest of the Netherlands at play- a Euro zone based on rules of budget discipline and a British ally in the EU. A facilitator should never forget itself.
Right now Brussels is dominated by unfounded triumphalism: the Euro crisis is over. That is an illusion. For more than a billion Euros, the European Central Bank (ECB) has bought time. Time, both precious and limited. The new President of the Euro Group will realise this soon enough.
Italy will have its parliamentary elections in February. The clownish charmer and former Prime Minister Berlusconi rears his head again, while ruling Prime Minister Monti has never campaigned for an election. The Italians hate the rounds of budget cuts; consequently, there is a splintered parliament. In Greece, the results of the budget cuts will be noticeable this spring. The economy has been shrinking for five years and the parliamentary majority of Prime Minister Samaras is shrinking rapidly. The Spanish economy is also shrinking and is sitting on a bubble: Bankia. Debtors can no longer repay Bankia, among them many construction companies and the airline company Iberia. Bankia's value on the stock market went down by 90 percent. The bank is technically broke, but a bankruptcy will bring down big Spanish companies in its fall. Spanish unemployment is already at 26 percent. Spain wants European money for a bottomless pit.
France demands that Europe steps in out of 'solidarity'. Germany imposes more financial discipline on Mediterranean Europe. It is a philosophical battle between the transfer union and the budget union. Dijselbloem moves within this area of tension. The French Minister of Finance, the crafty Pierre Moscovici, keeps his guard up, because the Netherlands always was a puppet of Berlin.
Rutte has to master a similar exercise in balance. His friend, the British Prime Minister David Cameron, is aiming for a new position in the EU. Rutte's other ally, Chancellor Merkel, wants to do something but not at any cost. The French keep their non to themselves and prefer to see the Brits leave. The Netherlands has to keep them on board, because without them the EU will turn into a German-French dictate. The Brits share a maritime world view with the Dutch, the anchor point of Hanseatic Holland.
This position on two crossroads affects Rutte II. The Netherlands has to comply with the budget criteria imposed by Brussels, no question about it. If it doesn't, Dijselbloem will lose all authority. The Dutch Labour Party PvdA is sceptical of the euro-sceptical Cameron. This is strange, since their comrades in the UK Labour Party wanted to cut the budget even further than Cameron. The PvdA is against expansion of the EU bureaucracy, just like Cameron. If a major EU Member State wants to negotiate, it will eventually happen. Integration of the Euro zone means adjustment of the European treaties is inevitable. That means: negotiations. It would be better if the PvdA were to anticipate that. Cameron comes with questions that also play a role in the euro sceptical Netherlands. Isn't the EU being wasteful in times of crisis? Isn't Brussels interfering in too many policy areas? What is the effect of the European bureaucracy on democracy? They are all legitimate questions.
European integration is an exercise without people. The ECB can buy a lot, but not the favour of the voter. Public malcontent of the EU is not a British monopoly, but high ranking bureaucrats in Brussels close their eyes and ban criticism to the realm of populism. Only a reform agenda with fresh ideas can prevent social eruptions. Cameron launches 'difficult questions'; Europe's inconvenient truth. It is time for the Dutch facilitator to start facilitating.