The Netherlands tried Friday to calm outrage in southern Europe over its stance on the economic response to the coronavirus after a Dutch minister’s comments were branded “repugnant” by Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa.
In an unusually blunt rebuke to a fellow European Union member, Costa lashed out at Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra after a tense videoconference with fellow EU national leaders on Thursday night. Spain also weighed in on Friday to publicly chide Hoekstra in a north-south quarrel that reopened wounds still raw from the eurozone debt crisis a decade ago.
The divide has crystalized in a debate over whether the European Union should issue so-called corona bonds — a proposed, joint debt instrument which all member countries would guarantee. Nine countries including France, Spain, Italy and Portugal have backed the idea while Germany and the Netherlands have rejected it.
Hoekstra reportedly called for Brussels to investigate why some countries did not have enough financial room for maneuver to weather the economic impact of the crisis, which has claimed thousands of European lives and put the Continent on lockdown.
“That statement is repugnant in the framework of the European Union. And that’s exactly the right expression for it —repugnant,” a visibly irritated Costa declared. “No one has any more time to hear Dutch finance ministers as we heard in 2008, 2009, 2010 and so forth.”
Costa also described the remarks as “senseless” and added, “this recurrent pettiness completely undermines what the spirit of the European Union is.”
Hoekstra made the comments in a video call with other EU ministers on Monday, calling for the European Commission to prepare a report on which EU countries have built up “financial buffers” in recent years, diplomats said. He suggested the report should include a section on lessons learned for countries that did not have such buffers in place, they said.
That view provoked anger among southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal, which were hit hard by the debt crisis and argue that austerity policies forced upon them by the likes of the Netherlands and Germany left them with little flexibility to build up such buffers.
The dispute reflects broader resentment among both southern Europeans, who feel they are often unfairly lectured by German, Dutch and Nordic leaders on financial housekeeping, and their northern neighbors, who argue that they should not be required to bail out governments who pursue what they see as irresponsible fiscal policies.
Asked about Costa’s criticism on Friday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tried to cool things down. “I’ll just let it go for now. It doesn’t make much sense to comment,” he told reporters.
A Dutch diplomat said the intention had not been to point fingers at other countries. “The question asked was to see what lessons could be drawn for the future. The minister did not name or single out any country,” the diplomat said.
But Costa stood by his criticism on Friday. Asked if he had gone too far, he replied: “Are you kidding me?”
“Either the EU does what it needs to be done or it will end,” he said. If anyone went too far, Costa said, it was the Dutch minister.
“The last thing a responsible politician can do when we see the dramas in Italy, Spain and in all the other countries, is to not understand that the priority of priorities is to fight this virus,” Costa said.
Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González joined the criticism on Friday, writing on Twitter: “Wopke Hoekstra, we are in this EU boat together. We hit an unexpected iceberg. We all share the same risk right now. No time for discussions about alleged 1st & 2nd class tickets.”
While Rutte avoided fanning the flames in the dispute, he made clear the Netherlands would stick to its position on corona bonds. “We’re not alone,” he said.
“There really was a difference of opinion between a number of more northern and southern countries, along the well-known geographical lines, but nothing that cannot be solved,” he said, referring to Thursday’s videoconference of EU leaders.