The Dutch Coronavirus Response is a Disaster in Real Time
By Peter Brukx
April 22, 2020
The Dutch are failing both their citizens and the European Union. Domestically, the COVID-19 response has been disastrous. On March 16th, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced a “herd immunity” strategy. The strategy aimed at protecting and isolating at-risk populations, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised, while allowing the rest of the population to continue their lives as normal. The virus would then spread through the population, with the majority of people theoretically developing immunity. With this strategy, a second-wave would be prevented in the fall and the Dutch economy would not come to a social-distancing induced halt.
This policy was an easily predicted disaster. First, it is still unknown whether immunity to the virus can even develop naturally. Second, young people can still contract severe cases that require hospitalization, take up valuable intensive care unit beds and lead to preventable deaths when people cannot get the care they need. The actions of the Rutte government have caused the unnecessary infection of Dutch citizens and have overloaded the medical system, which has led to the 7th highest deaths per 1 million rate in the world.
Their German neighbors, on the other hand, acted in mid-January to develop widespread testing capability and enacted extreme social distancing measures. This response led to a large number of confirmed infections, but one of the lowest mortality rates in the world. As of Wednesday, April 15th, the German deaths per 1 million stands at just 43, more than four times smaller than the Dutch rate. The Germans, with their extra ICU capacity, have since announced they will be accepting Dutch patients.
At least the German willingness to hospitalize their Dutch neighbors is an example of how Europe is growing closer in the midst of a global crisis, right? Wrong.
On Thursday, March 26, Germany, Finland, Austria, and the Netherlands shot down a proposal to issue “coronabonds,” which would draw on funds from member states across the Eurozone to finance the pandemic response. The proposal would ensure that the countries hit hardest by COVID-19, like Italy and Spain, would not experience prolonged economic stagnation and see a quicker recovery as all Eurozone states come together. The four states who rejected it expressed worries similar to those from the Euro Debt Crisis nearly 10 years ago, where northern states did not want to be responsible for the debt invoked by their southern neighbors. Rutte stated, “It would mean that you would cross the line of the Rubicon, into a eurozone which is more of a transfer union than was envisioned by its creators… I cannot foresee any circumstances in which we would change that position.”
Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic, where the Dutch have been hit hard because of the government’s own incompetence, Rutte and his government are rehashing a decades-old debate on fiscal responsibility. Dutch Finance Minister Wipke Hoekstra even reportedly suggested that Brussels should investigate why southern EU states are unable to bear the economic burden of the pandemic. Hoekstra has since walked back his comments, but the damage is already done. A founding member of the European Union has made it clear they want a national response to the crisis, unless, of course, they are the ones to benefit, as the Dutch are with Germany’s extra ICU capacity. This move will deepen the divides between the north and south in Europe and only embolden Euroskeptics in Italy who see the EU as a quasi-imperialist front for northern European interests. Instead of using the crisis as an opportunity to increase the EU’s reach and ability to guarantee the well-being of all Europeans, Rutte is deteriorating the legitimacy of the entire European project.
To salvage their European response to the pandemic, the Dutch need to be the leading force pushing their fellow frugal members to aid southern Europe. The aid should not come in the form of European Stability Mechanism (ESM) funds, which are stigmatized in Europe and increase the debt load of the recipient countries, defeating the original intent of coronabonds. Instead, the Dutch should walk back their hard line on European budget talks of not increasing domestic contributions beyond 1% of GNI and support a larger budget which would finance the economic recovery to the virus, as proposed by European Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis. This way, the hardest-hit countries do not have to pay for a crisis which they have no responsibility for, the Dutch maintain some legitimacy in the eyes of the south, and the EU actually comes out of the crisis a stronger, more resilient institution.
Peter Brukx is a sophomore at the George Washington University, where he is studying International Affairs with concentrations in International Politics and European Affairs and is minoring in Germanic Language and Culture. He is interested in Western European affairs, energy policy, and European integration.