An apparently salvageable gap in immigration policy — a discrepancy regarding family reunification for asylum seekers – has brought an abrupt end to the consolidated political career of Mark Rutte, the outgoing prime minister of the Netherlands. Rutte, 56, on Monday made the surprise announcement that he is quitting politics, although he must remain in charge of a caretaker government until the next general election, expected to be held in November.
After almost 13 consecutive years as prime minister, Rutte had become the second longest-serving government leader in the entire European Union, close on the heels of the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. During all this time, his right-wing liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), has been the most voted. The fragmentation that has characterized Dutch politics for a long time has forced governments to enter into coalitions, and Rutte had managed to stay afloat since 2010. But the end has been quick. The four-party ruling coalition resigned on Friday night, Rutte submitted his resignation to King Willem-Alexander on Saturday, and early on Monday he announced his departure from politics, assuring that he is only motivated by what’s best for his country.
Rutte gained statesman status in 2014, after the attack that killed 298 passengers — 196 were Dutch — on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, when the aircraft was downed by a Russian-made missile. At the time, he was able to unite citizens with serene rhetoric and pondered speeches. He did the same with the Covid-19 crisis. But then came his hesitations over pollution caused by the agricultural sector, and evidence that the extraction of gas from the Groningen field, in the north of the country, took precedence over citizen security, both of which made a dent in his reputation. In 2021, a scandal over child benefits that the tax authorities unlawfully demanded back from mostly immigrant families led to the resignation of his government.
By then it was already his third coalition, and the embarrassment caused by the institutional discrimination was impossible to hide. Rutte, however, continued to lead the country with the same apparent optimism and outward routines: his bike, the apple and coffee that he had on his way to the office. Rutte refused to change his habits throughout his public life, despite reinforced security for himself and for Crown Princess Amalia due to threats from organized crime. He retains his lifelong home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in The Hague, and on Saturday he drove the car he’s had for 14 years to the royal residence.
In the end, family reunification for asylum seekers signaled the political end for a leader capable of maintaining a half-smile even during the worst moments. Dutch municipalities are reluctant to take in asylum seekers, and the VVD was seeking a new law to contain the flow. On Monday, Sophie Hermans, the VVD spokesperson in parliament, said that the possibility of supporting legislation in its current wording “is small.” The party is hoping to present a new leader in the coming days.
“I have made this decision with mixed feelings and with emotion,” said Rutte inside the chamber. During his nearly 13 years in power, there have been three different presidents in France and the United States, five prime ministers in the United Kingdom and Belgium, and two chancellors in Germany, according to Dutch media estimates. Rutte still has the pending task of reaching the November elections with dignity, retaining his good reputation as an experienced leader in the European Union.
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