Dutch-German relations under Merkel: achievements & threats
Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave active politics after the German federal elections on 26 September 2021. As Merkel’s departure after sixteen years will resonate across Europe, the Clingendael Spectator invited several international experts to offer their personal reflections on her legacy. In this sixth episode of the series ‘Europe after Merkel’, Hanco Jürgens explains why despite seemingly good bilateral relations, the chances of new collisions under Merkel’s successor are real.
On various levels, the Dutch-German relations have greatly improved under Angela Merkel. In fact, the 2014 German secretary of Foreign Affairs, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was quite right when he asserted that the Dutch-German relations have ‘never been better’.1 Even the last tiny Dutch-German border conflict in the Ems Dollart Region was solved.
In practise, Merkel has cooperated smoothly with her Dutch counterparts. Problems have only occurred when more fundamental issues were at stake, such as disagreements on the height of EU budgets, the European Structural and Investment Funds or NextGeneration EU, that have been solved, but not wholeheartedly.
Aside from that, when the future architecture of the European Union will be discussed thoroughly, new disagreements can occur.
Dutch sympathy for Merkel
Among many Dutch citizens, Merkel’s departure causes nostalgic feelings. One often hears people sighing how we will miss her dearly after she has left office. She is considered a stronghold against political whims and populist trends. A stateswoman who stands for what she says. A scientist in politics. Almost non-political (which is, of course, misleading).
In 2019, a Dutch theatre group even wrote a Wagnerian-electra opera called ‘Merkel’, in which Angela herself was played by a man. The young actors, who knew no other German chancellor but Merkel, were worried about a power vacuum and potential lack of stability after she left the (political) stage.
Of course, not all Dutch people share warm feelings for her. Critical voices stress her ‘naivety’ in 2015 to welcome so many refugees while risking growing social unrest and rising populism. Tellingly, in March 2016, at the height of the struggles between the CDU and the CSU about ‘asylum tourism’ (to use a word by the current Minister-President of Bavaria Markus Söder), the Dutch leader of the Christian Democrats, Sybrand Buma, visited München, not Berlin, to discuss the refugee crisis.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming Dutch sympathy for Merkel might be of cultural origin. As a protestant vicar’s daughter and a pragmatic physician with a background in the German Democratic Republic (DDR), she was considered an outsider within her party for a long time. And as a strong woman she is modest in tone.
For a small, liberal and protestant nation, were until now no female politician has led the country, his all sounds very sympathetic. But the main cause for her popularity is political. In the last fifteen years, Dutch citizens have often realised that the German chancellor was able to defend Dutch interests even better than their own prime minister could.
Step by step, the Dutch gradually got used to her leadership
Crisis after crisis, Merkel stood up to protect the interests of North-Western Europe. Not always successful, and not even always in line with what the Dutch government wanted, but she did it. Step by step, the Dutch gradually got used to her leadership.
In line with her popularity among the Dutch public, Merkel got along well with the two Dutch prime ministers that served during her time in office. With her Christian Democratic colleague Jan Peter Balkenende, she shared a protestant as well as academic background. Both leaders embodied a pragmatic way of doing politics: sober, minimal and to the point. Both leaders were highly underestimated by the press.
Balkenende’s successor Mark Rutte has been even more pragmatic in his approach. He shares former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s view that people with visions should go to the doctor. Particularly during the sovereign debt crisis, Merkel and Rutte cooperated well. Among Dutch journalists, the story went that they phoned every Saturday morning while shopping in the grocery store.
Even if it is not true, the story is archetypical. But it is too narrow: as if most bilateral relations are arranged in a friendly phone call between two government leaders while pushing their shopping cart. Instead, we should analyse various government levels and political voices’ to explain why the Dutch-German relations have been so good for such a long time, and why they were so stressful during the negotiations on the Corona Repair Fund in 2021.
Dutch-German relations on different levels: highlights
The Dutch and German cooperation has intensified on various levels. Both governments shared a strong institutional framework, comparable policy goals and mostly (but not always) they maintained good personal relations.
Remarkable for a country that is comparable to North Rhine Westphalia in size, inhabitants and GDP, the Netherlands was able to deliver important politicians at key positions in the EU. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, for example, served as chair of the Eurogroup from 2013 to 2018. He would not have had his position without the support of his German colleague Wolfgang Schäuble. And Frans Timmermans, the current vice president of the European Commission, also responsible for climate action, knows very well that he can only roll out his agenda if he takes the Germans into account.
Moreover, we should not underestimate the close alliance of the Dutch and German Central Bank, whose presidents not only steer the discussions at the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt but are also an important voice in their respective countries. One could imagine how important their roles were in solving the Greek sovereign debt crisis.
No European leader was fond of the idea to ask an important ‘outsider’ to solve European problems
To give an example: in the European Council meeting of February 2010, Jan Peter Balkenende proposed to involve the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in solving the Greek debt crisis. He stood alone. No European leader was fond of the idea to ask an important ‘outsider’ to solve European problems.
In March of that year, however, Merkel was convinced of the need and persuaded Schäuble. In May it became EU policy: a troika of representatives of the IMF, ECB and EU was installed to supervise the process. It is very likely that the Dutch and German Central Bank played a pivotal role in this decision-making process.
The Dutch-German relations improved at other levels as well. In 2013, regular Dutch-German cabinet consultations were initiated, often planned around one theme such as digitalisation or climate change. Initially, since the 1963 Elysée Treaty, the German cabinet engaged in these meetings with their French counterparts. Today, they organise these exchanges with many countries including the Netherlands.
Close relations were built between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Länder, the German federal states (and certainly not just because the Dutch royal couple visited them all separately). It lasted a while before Dutch politicians and civil servants realised that Düsseldorf or Hannover are important capitals that should be reckoned with as well. Thanks to diplomatic efforts, this level of exchange is much more efficient today.
Since 2018, the cabinets of North Rhine Westphalia and the Netherlands even organise cabinet consultations to discuss cooperation in the fields of economy, security, climate and healthcare.
In concluding this list of highlights, we should not underestimate the importance of the Dutch-German military cooperation. Both countries are strongly attached to NATO and have similar ideas about a European capacity within NATO. The Dutch and the Germans share a comparable military culture – or some would say, a lack of it – and an army with flaws in technical maintenance as well as in personnel. Dutch military culture is much closer to Germany than to France or Britain.
A less hopeful picture?
But let us be honest. The picture has not always been that rosy. One of Merkel’s qualities is that she will not discuss things she dislikes when there is no need to do so. The fact that Rutte only became prime minister in 2010 with the support of Geert Wilders’ radical populist Party for Freedom (PVV) was such an issue.
At home, Merkel would wholeheartedly condemn and oppose such a confidence-and-supply agreement, but within the context of the EU, there was no barrier to intensive cooperation with the Dutch. Still, the differences in dealing with populism remained an issue, also after Rutte’s first cabinet fell apart.
Particularly Rutte’s liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) has always been anxious to lose votes to populist parties such as the PVV or Forum for Democracy (FvD). In 2015, especially the VVD was highly alerted about the many refugees who crossed the German borders and could, consecutively, enter Dutch territory.
Most striking was Wopke Hoekstra’s and Rutte’s firm opposition against a Corona Recovery Fund in 2020
After the 2015 agreement to redistribute refugees in Europe was not carried out, the German government could not count on warm support of the Dutch to come to a new arrangement. Even a last attempt by Merkel’s secretary of the Interior Horst Seehofer in the summer of 2020, when Germany was chair of the EU, was blocked after it became clear that the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz would not support it anyway. After the proposal was withdrawn, the issue disappeared into a drawer, to great regret of the Germans.
Most striking, however, was Wopke Hoekstra’s and Rutte’s firm opposition against a Corona Recovery Fund in 2020. In hindsight, both Olaf Scholz (Germany’s vice chancellor) and Merkel were strong initiators behind this fund. Most foreign commentators were surprised about the Dutch stubbornness.
After all, the German ambassador in the Netherlands expressed his concern about the fact that the rationale and self-interest behind an instrument to balance financial inequalities within the eurozone was not acknowledged.2 In hindsight, one might ask how surprised the Dutch government was about the ‘French-German proposal’ in May, given the fact that the negotiations within the Eurogroup already started in March – if not earlier.
For the Dutch government, other issues have seemed to be at stake: the position of the Netherlands within the EU after Brexit, the fundamental question whether the EU should be seen as a federation, a free-market zone or as an instrument to redistribute wealth, the rejection of an ever-closer Union,3 the anxiety for a too dominant French-German axis, and, above all, the concern for growing populist opposition at home.
These fundamental issues will also be at stake after Merkel has left office. Indeed, the three German chancellor candidates are outspoken Europeans. Olaf Scholz has underlined the importance of French-German leadership to gain European sovereignty. Annalena Baerbock asked for reforms of the Eurozone. And Armin Laschet announced that if he wins the elections, he will gather around the table with Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi to discuss Europe’s future.
I doubt whether the Dutch public is ready for the new realities that will shape the country in the coming years. For most Dutch citizens the Conference on the Future of Europe is no issue, but for most participants of this conference it is.
Dutch politicians should do their best not only to involve the Dutch public but also to participate actively in shaping debates on the future of Europe. The EU generally deserves a prominent place on the Dutch political agenda. Otherwise, new collisions will certainly follow.
- 1. Jacco Pekelder and Friso Wielenga, ‚Nachtbarn in Europa‘ Geschichte im Westen (GiW), 30, p. 9, 2015; ‚Steinmeier in Den Haag: we moeten vakmensen en nerds samenbrengen‘, Duitslandnieuws, 17 June 2014.
- 2. Duitsland Instituut Amsterdam, ‘De Duits-Nederlandse relaties. Hanco Jürgens in gesprek met de Duitse Ambassadeur Dirk Brengelmann’, 14 June 2021.
- 3. Notably in a note by Frans Timmermans as Dutch secretary of Foreign Affairs: ‘NL Subsidiarity Review, Explanatory Note: European where necessary, national where possible’, 21 June 2013.