At the security conference in Munich, Rutte is constantly asked about his NATO ambitions. ‘I should have shut up’

Informal candidate NATO CEO Mark Rutte visibly feels at ease at the security conference in Bavaria this weekend among dozens of soldiers and government leaders.

When EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrives late for a forum discussion, Rutte, who is already sitting on the podium, jumps up, spreads his long arms completely and hugs her in greeting as if she were an old friend.

Rutte is in a political twilight zone. In the Netherlands he is still ‘only’ a caretaker prime minister, abroad he is still ‘only’ a candidate to succeed the Norwegian Jens Stoltenberg as Secretary General of NATO. He himself does not want to know anything about an intermediate phase. “As outgoing Prime Minister, I am working hard for the Netherlands.”

Every journalist asks him about his NATO candidacy, but Rutte doesn’t say anything. He said once that he liked the job and since then he has said again and again that that was a mistake. “I should have shut up.” It is smart. With every ‘public penance’ he implicitly repeats his interest in the position in front of all cameras.

A decision on the succession is expected next month. All NATO countries must agree to an appointment. In the rumor circuit, Von der Leyen was also considered a contender for some time. According to German media, the US would have liked to see her in that post, but Berlin would have blocked it. ‘VDL’ will probably soon announce its candidacy for a second term as Commissioner.

On his way from another job or not, Rutte makes clear statements in Munich. About abroad and about The Hague.

For example, he believes that everyone should stop complaining about Donald Trump. The presidential candidate caused quite a stir last week when he suggested that he would not defend NATO countries that do not spend enough on their armed forces against an attack by Russia.

Rutte acknowledges that the Netherlands started increasing defense spending too late under his leadership

Rutte: “Let’s stop whining and moaning about Trump. We don’t know who will be the next president. We must invest in defense, increase our weapons production and do much more to support Ukraine. That has nothing to do with Trump. It has to do with the fact that we all have to do everything we can to ensure that we are safe and that our values ​​are protected.”

Rutte acknowledges that the Netherlands started too late to increase defense spending under his leadership and at the same time sets the bar high for his successor. After ten years, the Netherlands still does not fully meet the NATO expenditure standard of two percent of GDP for defense. In Munich, Rutte firmly says that the Netherlands must spend more than two percent in the future. “The next government will also have to invest more.”

He was also very clear about the Netherlands’ future foreign policy. Dutch support for the European Union, NATO and Ukraine will remain intact, he assured the international audience. In fact, he later tells journalists, the Netherlands will remain one of the frontrunners when it comes to support for Ukraine.

How can you be so sure?

“I assume that a cabinet without the VVD cannot be formed when you see the election results. I have a good feeling about that. This is so important for the Netherlands: we earn our money, we have our position, we have our stature worldwide. This directly affects our safety and our jobs. It is unthinkable that you are going to cut back on our international connection. It is not possible to ‘isolate’ yourself.”

But the PVV has expressed other views on this in the past.

“These are wrong ideas in the sense that they are unwise.”

Should the PVV swallow those ideas?

“They will also do that if they hope to get into a cabinet. That is my expectation.”

After a series of conversations with members of the US Congress, Rutte is “guardedly optimistic” that sooner or later an agreement can be reached in Washington on a large aid package for Ukraine that President Biden has requested. The lack of that support is hampering the Ukrainian war effort. The US was Kyiv’s main arms supplier, but no weapons have been shipped since December. “I cannot say anything about the content of those conversations, but based on those conversations it is my impression that both parties are working hard on a path to a solution, on a goat path – to use a Ruttian term .”