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Dutch PM doubles down on smaller budget, stricter EU rules

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte delivers a speech at the European Parliament | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

STRASBOURG, France — Mark Rutte reiterated his vision for the European Union Wednesday: a smaller budget, stricter rules and — above all — less lofty ambition.

“The EU needs to under-promise and over-deliver,” the Dutch prime minister told parliamentarians at the start of two-hour debate in the European Parliament. “For some, ‘ever closer union’ is still a goal in itself,” he added. “Not for me. ‘Unity’ and ‘ever closer union’ are not the same.”

Since the start of his third term as prime minister in October, at the head of a broad four-party coalition, Rutte has positioned himself as a counterweight to Emmanuel Macron. He has pulled together a makeshift alliance of like-minded, spendthrift northern countries to serve as a break to the French president’s reformist agenda, particularly on the eurozone.

As leader of the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), Rutte is one of the longest-serving heads of government in Europe. In his second major speech on European since his reelection, Rutte hit many familiar themes.

He stuck to his stance that the EU budget should be smaller after Brexit, restated his reluctance to assign new powers to Brussels and doubled down on his opposition to a eurozone “transfer union.”

Rutte’s speech was not without its own ambitions. Many in the chamber regarded it as unusually pro-European for the pragmatic prime minister.

“Yes, I know that a currency union needs stabilization mechanisms at times of crisis,” he said. “But if the 19 eurozone countries were to put their own budgets and national debts in order, that would probably be stabilization enough.”

In the debate that followed, Rutte also criticized proposals for greater military integration, said that Bulgaria and Romania were too corrupt to join the Schengen area and declared his support for EU action against Poland over its controversial reform of the judiciary.

“There can be no democratic legitimacy without the rule of law,” Rutte said. “Membership of the EU is not a statement of intent. It means opting unconditionally for freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, legal certainty and all those democratic achievements that bind us together as a community.”

Rutte pledged for a budget that saves money on old policies but spends on new priorities. “At present, agriculture and structural funds swallow up 70 percent of the budget,” he said. 
”Spending less in these areas will make room for new priorities,” he added.

Rutte’s speech, however, was not without its own ambitions. Many in the chamber regarded it as unusually pro-European for the pragmatic prime minister. Rutte said he agreed with “most of the points” Macron made in his September 2017 Sorbonne speech calling for EU reforms. He also proposed a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030,

Rutte confirmed that his country was seeking to build alliances with like-minded liberal Northern and Baltic countries, but he argued that his country was not necessarily a counterweight to France and Germany as “the moments they agree on a policy are very scarce.”

“If the 19 eurozone countries were to put their own budgets and national debts in order, that would probably be stabilization enough” — Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister

Several MEPs attending the debate criticized Rutte’s vision for Europe.

German MEP Elmar Brok said Rutte’s attitude toward the EU budget was “in contradiction with your political directions.” On migration, Brok called on Rutte to encourage the European Council to act. “Either you decide to do it, or Europe is going to be blamed to drag its heels,” he said.

Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld asked Rutte to clarify his position on the eurozone reform. “We can’t do without a strong eurozone,” she said. “Are we going to find you on our side on that?”

British MEP Richard Corbett accused Rutte of fueling Euroskepticism by refusing to endorse “an ever-closer union,” one of the bloc’s founding ambitions. “It’s time to stop railing against Brussels,” he said.

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Authors:
Maïa de La Baume

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