The Netherlands in the 21st century

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

The Netherlands is often pictured as a quaint little country of tulips and dams, cannabis and canals, bureaucracy coupled with a deep rooted toleration of lawbreaking and an almost dogmatic insistence on consensus in everything.

These cliches, however, are being challenged left, right and centre at the moment as the Dutch re-examine and question ideas which have long been assumed to be acts of faith.
Cliches depict the Netherlands as a quaint little country of tulips and canals.
Outside observers, and the Dutch themselves, had believed the Netherlands had found the alchemist's stone that would allow the seamless absorption and integration of thousands of immigrants from different cultures every year. The rise of populist politician Pim Fortuyn — who attracted huge support with his declaration "the Netherlands is full" — put pay to that notion. Fortuyn's assassination on 6 May 2002 was another profound blow to the Dutch psyche — preventing a person from speaking his or her mind, not to mention murdering someone because you do not like their brand of politics, just was not the Dutch way of doing things. Until now. Also, the country's image as a mass exporter of food has been tarnished by food scares; allegations of cartels in the building industry and a US-related accounting scandal at the multinational supermarket group Ahold sullied the business world in many people's eyes; and to top it all, even the dependable House of Orange Royal Family has had to endure the washing of some dirty linen in public. These events and more have led to a deep-rooted examination of what it means to be a resident of the Netherlands and whether long held attitudes and beliefs have to be changed. It will take some time for these questions to be answered. This alone makes the Netherlands a challenging and exciting place to live in the first decade of the 21st century. But in addition, The Netherlands remains one of the most open, level headed and dynamic and modern societies in the world. Expatriates and locals alike find time on occasion to moan about certain aspects of life here, but most can't help falling and staying in love with at least some part of the Lowlands. The country The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy, of 16.2 million people, in north-western Europe. Technically the term Holland refers to only two provinces. The country covers an area 41, 528 km square, some 7,655 km2 water is covered with water. As nearly a quarter of the land is below sea level, the Dutch have had to come up with innovative dams and dikes to prevent the sea from encroaching. Figures released by national statistics office CBS in March 2003 show the Netherlands is by far the most densely populated country in the European Union, with an average of 475 people living on each square kilometre of Dutch soil. The country has a temperate maritime climate with temperatures ranging from an average of 2.6 degrees in January to 18.3 degrees in July. Average rainfall of 797 mm was recorded for 2001. Amsterdam (population 734,000) is the capital but the government sits in The Hague (442,000). Together with Utrecht (256,000) and Rotterdam (595.000), the cities form the Randstad conurbation on the west coast. Politics Politics in the Netherlands has undergone a massive upheaval since early 2002, when Fortuyn entered the politic scene. A "purple coalition" of Labour (PvdA), the free-market Liberals (VVD) and smaller liberal democratic party D66 appeared to engrain the concept of total consensus into Dutch culture between 1994 and 2002. Consensus was the order of the day in everything, particularly the economy and the unique "polder model" concept of wage moderation, restrained public spending, plus labour market reforms was praised by outside observers as a new course between free-market economics and state intervention. The great experiment has been called into question with the disintegration of the purple coalition in mid 2002 and the rise of Fortuyn's back-to-basics, common sense approach. Spurred on by his murder, some 1.6 million voters gave his LPF party 26 seats in the 150-seat lower house of parliament and a place at the cabinet table with the the Christian Democrat CDA and the VVD. But the electorate received a slap in the face when the new coalition collapsed due to bitter infighting between two LPF ministers. In the subsequent election on 22 January, the voters went for the safe option of the CDA and Labour. The two parties are bitter rivals but have worked together in government before. The country is holding its breath to see if the marriage of the 'odd couple' will bear fruit. Economy The Netherlands has an impressive economic track record for such a small country. It is the sixth largest exporting country in the world and the third largest in terms of food exports. Amsterdam Schiphol airport and Rotterdam port are two of the biggest entry and exit points for passengers and cargo in the world. The 6.8 million-strong workforce (64 percent in the services sector and the rest divided between manufacturing, agriculture and the government) has put the Netherlands in fourth place in the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). In common with the rest of the world, the Dutch economy has been left a bit punch drunk in the wake of the economic slowdown which was partially accelerated by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. Economic growth, which averaged 4 percent in the late 1990s, fell to a 20-year low of 0.3 percent in 2002, according to CBS. And the government's macroeconomic think tank, the CPB, warned in December 2002 that the new government would have to deal with a EUR 10 billion budget deficit. So why stay in the Netherlands? The standard of living remains high; the road network and the public transport systems are very good, public services are well maintained and the culture welcomes newcomers who want to prosper in a new land. Above all, the population — regardless of ethnic background, creed and political beliefs — is generally welcoming, friendly and open to new ideas. It may not be heaven here, but to very many expats it is home. March 2003 Subject: Life in Holland

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