A brief introduction to the Netherlands
5th February 2014, 2 comments
It may be a small country in size, but certainly not in impact. Famed for its liberal social policies, maritime trading traditions, battles to hold back the sea, robust multiculturalism and leading technological communications, the Netherlands is a mosaic of cultural intrigue.
High living standards
The Netherlands consistently ranks among the top places in the world to live and work in. The OECD's Better Life Index shows high rankings for life satisfaction and work-life balance in the Netherlands, while Dutch children are ranked as the happiest in the developed world, topping two surveys conducted by UNICEF.
No Dutch city has yet reached a million inhabitants and each retains a unique character and architectural style. The capital is something else entirely, and in terms of atmosphere and attitude, Amsterdam and the Netherlands could be two different countries.
To newcomers, Dutch society might seem open and informal, but some complex social rules are at play. Ostentatious behaviour is frowned upon, egalitarianism is valued and Dutch people "like to be as normal as possible," according to Martijn de Rooij, author of The Dutch I Presume? The Dutch saying ‘Doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg' (just act normal, that's crazy enough) is an anthem against eccentricity.
Living and working in the Netherlands
Culture and quality living combined make the Netherlands an attractive place for expats, who are are an intrinsic part of the country's knowledge-based economy. The Dutch people are generally receptive, curious, cultured, and friendly. English is widely spoken – a survey by Education First ranked the Netherlands as third in the world for its English proficiency as a second language – but this can be a drawback for those learning Dutch. With many international companies headquartered in the Netherlands, there are plenty of employment opportunities.
International residents tread a well-worn path to the ‘Lowlands'. Out of a population of almost 16.8 million people, more than three and a half million have a foreign background (statline.cbs.nl). This multi-ethnic characteristic of the country's population has historic roots stretching back several hundred years, though most rapid changes in population demographics have come about in the last 40 years.
Foreign policy has impacted domestic politics in recent years, and two governments collapsed in the space of around two years. The last collapse in April 2012 under the incumbent Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, resulted from a breakdown in coalition support over a budget plan to steer the Eurozone's fifth-largest economy back below the EU deficit ceiling of three percent, still projected to sit at 3.3 percent in 2014.
Traditionally, the Dutch government is a coalition of two or more parties, earning the nickname of the ‘land of compromise'. However, a majority coalition formed for the first time in the last general election in September 2012. The Netherlands also strengthened its stance on austerity with large gains achieved by pro-European parties, with the central-right liberal VVD taking 41 seats and the social-democratic labour party PvdA winning 39 seats. In contrast, loses were incurred by the Christian Democrat CDA and Geert Wilders' Freedom Party (PVV), a nationalistic party known for its right-wing focus.
With Mark Rutte continuing as prime minister, a coalition with Diederik Samsom's PvdA gives the current Dutch government a comfortable majority to pass budget cuts, although further opposition support is needed to pass laws in the Senate. Recent economic downturn, however, has seen a large shift in public opinion towards cuts of up to EUR 6 billion planned for 2014.
The Dutch Royal Family
Change followed from politics to royals, with Queen Beatrix abdicating in 2013 after a 33-year reign. The Netherland's national party, Queen's Day (Koninginnedag), was particularly celebratory as it was tied to the coronation of the first Dutch king in 123 years. As Europe's youngest monarch, King Willem-Alexander pledges to modernise the royal image, even forgoing the traditional ‘your majesty' if people want.
Now the Netherland's biggest national party will be King's Day, breaking the traditional date of April 30, which has honoured the previous Queen Juliana's birthday since 1949, to celebrate the king's birthday on April 27. Regardless, the ubiquitous oranjegekte (orange madness) will surely take over, where people wear orange shirts, hats, dresses and wigs to celebrate while enjoying the annual free market (vrijmarkt), as it's the one time when people can set up shop without a trading licence.
The Netherlands: Facts and figures
> Population: 16 779 575 (January 2013 cbs.nl)
> Density: 496/km2 (the highest in Europe)
> Administration: The constitution dates mostly from 1848, and revisions undertaken in 1983. Parliament consists of an upper chamber (eerste kamer) of 75 members elected by provincial councils and a lower chamber (tweede kamer) with 150 members elected every four years by proportional representation. The cabinet is the executive body and its constituents cannot be members of the cabinet and parliament at the same time.
> Monarchy: The House of Oranje-Nassau has governed the Netherlands since 1815 and King Willehm-Alexandar, born 1967, was crowned this year, along with his Argentinean wife Maxima, who will serve as the queen consort.
> Landscape: A fifth of the Netherlands is reclaimed from the sea (polders) and about a quarter of the country is below sea level. There are 20 national parks and a few modest hills, with the country's highest point reaching 322 metres in Limburg.
> Agriculture: The Dutch cow is a revered milk machine, producing 35 litres a day. Tiny Netherlands is one of world's top three largest agricultural producers, and responsible for just over 20 percent of the world's potato exports.
> Media and culture: The Netherlands has the highest museum density in the world, with nearly 1,000 institutions. The television programme Big Brother is a Dutch invention and Paul Verhoeven is known internationally for his direction of RoboCop and Total Recall.
> Design: Dutch icons of style are nurtured in the revered Design Academy Eindhoven and the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam, attracting large ratios of international students. Dutch design is admired for its minimalist, quirky and often humorous qualities.
Updated from 2012.
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