Left to right, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen chat at a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 21, 2020.
Left to right, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen chat at a European Union summit in Brussels, Belgium, July 21, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Despite acquiescing to a compromise solution at last week’s rancorous but ultimately successful EU summit, Dutch diplomats are offering no apology for their country’s tough stand on financial assistance to the members worst hit by the global pandemic.

Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte and other leaders of what became known as “the frugal four” argued against a more generous relief offer promoted by France and Germany before settling on a package comprising $460 billion in grants and $424 billion in loans.

In an interview with VOA, Andre Haspels, the Netherlands’ ambassador to the United States, maintained that the tough medicine that Dutch officials prescribed for the suffering EU countries was no worse than what his government had delivered to its own citizens.

Structural changes sought

“Yes, we were seen by some countries as being too strict, too tough,” acknowledged Haspels, who is nearing the one-year mark of his term in Washington. What Rutte was trying to do, he said, was to introduce structural changes so that a house that easily catches fire won’t have to rely on emergency extinguishers.

Such reforms can be tough, he acknowledged, revealing during the interview that he was personally affected by some of the Netherlands’ painful reforms.

When Haspels joined his nation’s foreign ministry in 1987, he thought he had a clear idea of when he would retire and the pension he would receive. Halfway through his career, Dutch society began coming to grips with the fact that people are living longer while population growth remains low.

Andre Haspels, Netherlands ambassador to the United States since August 2019. (Embassy of the Netherlands in the U.S.)

Ten years and many arguments and protests later, the nation settled on an arrangement that “trade unions, employers, insurance companies, pension funds” could all accept, Haspels said. The resolution doesn’t mean a dream come true for everyone; instead, it is dream revised for most, including career diplomats.

“We’re still in relatively secure positions as government officials,” Haspels said, but they, like everyone else in the country, will have to rely not only on the government, but also on private plans to supplement their retirement.

It means “a lot more responsibility for the individual,” he said, admitting that he will get a smaller pension than he had once expected and will have to work until age 67 before he can collect those benefits.

On the plus side, the future will be more “sustainable for my children and grandchildren,” said the 58-year-old father of four.

Less for grants

Haspels said Dutch representatives at the summit insisted on reducing the amount of pandemic-related relief money issued as grants to less wealthy nations because that was what most Dutch citizens wanted.

“Two of our main opposition parties were very much against transferring money to the EU,” he said. Plus, Haspels said, his government saw the summit as an opportunity to discuss some countries’ long-standing promises of reform.

However tough Rutte might have sounded in Brussels, most observers credit him for keeping the Netherlands firmly in the EU despite some voices in his country crying for a “Nexit,” fashioned after Brexit.

At present, two-thirds of Dutch citizens support continued membership in the EU, but Haspels said euroskeptic sentiments “are always going to be there,” likely in all EU member states. “Even after a country exits, the debate continues,” he said with an eye to the ongoing argument in Britain.