It was no surprise that David Cameron began his whistle-stop tour of Europe with a visit to the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. The Hague is the closest of Europe’s political capitals to London, both as the crow flies and figuratively, since the Dutch were ardent supporters of Britain’s efforts to join the EEC in the 1960s. The Dutch press made much of the fact that the two leaders phone each other regularly and address each other by their first names (which could be seen as either a relief or a reassurance), so Cameron would have been looking to Rutte for moral support going into his more difficult meetings with Angela Merkel and Poland’s Ewa Kopacz later in the week. But in this he is likely to have been disappointed. The Dutch government has made it clear that while it continues to support British membership, it will not be at any price.
Though UK government officials have been keen to stress that Cameron’s hand-shaking tour is a warm-up for the actual talks, his strategy remains a puzzle. He claims to be seeking a better settlement for all 28 member states while at the same time talking of ‘renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe’, which sounds more like a plea for more individual concessions for the UK. And it is just on this point that the Dutch government is unlikely to budge. Following the talks Rutte posted a carefully phrased statement on his ministerial Facebook page which included the key sentence: “Strengthening Europe is something all 28 of us will do together’. It concluded: “In the opinion of the Dutch government Europe is most effectively served by using the room within the existing treaty’ – a clear rejection of Cameron’s preferred option of reviewing the treaties.
Rutte’s statement was expanded on by his foreign minister, Bert Koenders, in a letter to Parliament the following day. Koenders expressed support for some of Cameron’s ideas, such as strengthening the role of national parliaments and the internal market, as well as scaling back European regulation – a task the European Commission has already entrusted to Koenders’s predecessor, Frans Timmermans. But Koenders’s statement went on to state The Hague’s support for closer co-operation on energy, climate change and foreign policy, areas where the British government is much less willing to fall in step with its European partners. And it concluded with the observation that “in this [the cabinet] explicitly has the interests of all 28 member states and the European Union’s institutions in mind” – a subtle but significant caveat that signals the kind of tone Europe is likely to strike when Cameron sits down to negotiate. No European nation wants the Brexit scenario to become reality, but if it comes down to a straight choice between cutting the branch or chopping the tree, there will only be one loser.
All this is really just a reassertion of the position set out in the Dutch government’s most recent State of the Union report. This grand-sounding but rarely quoted document is published annually and sets out the cabinet’s European policy. This year’s edition specifically addressed the question of a British ‘in-out’ referendum, even though it was published before the UK General Election: “The cabinet will continue to work to engage the United Kingdom in the important aim of securing the integrity and unity of the internal market. In this regard the fundamental freedoms of the EU must apply and not be constrained. Any treaty change that carries the risk of weakening the EU’s governing structure is seen by the cabinet as undesirable.”
Those last two sentences are a direct challenge to Cameron’s wish to curtail the freedom of movement of workers within the EU. And there was little sign from either Rutte or Koenders that the Dutch government is in any mood to shift from its position. Rutte has positioned himself as the go-between in the fraught relationship between Merkel and Cameron, a role best illustrated by the ‘three men in a boat’ scene a year ago, when Sweden’s prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt took the three leaders out rowing at his summer house, during Cameron’s campaign to block Jean-Claude Junker becoming president of the European Commission. But it is Merkel who calls the shots, as the endorsement of Junker’s election by Europe’s member states made clear. If she once again proves deaf to Cameron’s entreaties, it may well fall to Rutte to be the friend who takes him into a corner, slings an arm around his shoulder and counsels him to quit before he embarrasses himself. The Prime Minister may win himself some cosmetic concessions on “ever closer union” (which the EU effectively gave up on some years ago), but on the hard substance of EU reform, even his closest friends show little enthusiasm for his reforms.