Which way is the wind blowing for Holland?

1st April 2005, Comments 0 comments

As the Dutch faced a Cabinet crisis amid continued debate about immigration problems, crime and economic security, we took a look at where the Netherlands is today. What makes the country tick and where is it heading?

The Netherlands is busy trying to find answers to these very questions. Until recently such a debate would have been unimaginable, but now everything is being questioned.

The international media has long portrayed the Netherlands as a curious little country with extraordinarily liberal policies and remarkably little social division.

At the same time the Netherlands was admired for its impressive economic performance in the mid 1990s, as well as its pivotal role as a major transport hub for goods entering and leaving the European continent.

The success of the consensus-style decision-making in labour relations — known as the Polder Model — was the envy of the world.

While other countries stood by and watched — sometimes in awe, more often in unease — the Dutch legislated for drugs, prostitution, gay marriage, abortion and mercy killings. The country also operated a loose immigration policy.

Sandwiched between Belgium and its giant neighbour Germany, the Dutch (population 16,258,000 in 2005) seemed to have discovered the perfect combination between the most liberal social policies and a modern, efficient economy.

The Netherlands bordered by Germany, Belgium and the sea

A major element of the Dutch model was relativeren, putting things in perspective, and gedogen, the policy of toleration, which is applied unofficially. This often materialises as: 'If it doesn't hurt me directly or it is not going to go away, I can find ways of tolerating it'.

As a trading nation, the Dutch expect a return on this investment of goodwill: when they decriminalised soft drugs and treat hard drugs primarily as a medical rather than a criminal matter, they expected a corresponding drop in the problems associated with drugs.
Instead, more than 1,000 cannabis coffeeshops and businesses selling drug paraphernalia have sprung up around the country and drug tourism and international trafficking is rampant. The Netherlands is also considered the main ecstasy-producing country in the world.

Rules and regulations enacted — often to protect workers and the consumer — have created a bureaucratic maze which often does more to hinder, rather than help the ordinary citizen.

Through the 1970s to the 1990s, the Dutch worked hard to cater for what they perceived were the needs of newcomers from the former colonies Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, and then for the Turkish and Moroccan people who moved here.

Since the slide of the country's economic fortunes from 2000 onwards, there has been a growing feeling among native Dutch people that immigrants have not been pulling their weight and have failed to integrate as they should.

Security was increased in The Hague due to fears of terror attacks

It was this type of dissatisfaction that led to the rise of anti-immigration politician Pim Fortuyn. The murder of this populist by a native Dutchman on 6 May 2002 triggered a loss of innocence and destroyed the sense of quiet satisfaction of a multi-cultural society at peace.

Society suffered another blow with the horrific killing of filmmaker Theo van Gogh in November 2004. The suspected killer this time was a Muslim man, in his mid 20s, who was apparently incensed by Van Gogh's short film 'Submission' that accused the Koran of advocating domestic violence against women.

The authorities subsequently arrested a dozen young Muslims who were allegedly part of an active terror cell that was bent on attacking society.

As a result, the country is undergoing a deep-seated re-examination; principles and ideas long held to be self-evident have been put under the microscope.


Politicians and opinion-makers are working at a feverish pace to find answers for issues that are exercising minds in other countries too: immigration, culture clashes, terrorism, public safety and basic values, to name but a few.

To date, consensus has taken a back seat to ideas such as a return to older Dutch norms and values; tighter enforcement of rules; tougher punishment for offenders and a limiting (or complete halt) to immigration, coupled with compulsory integration for people who wish to live here permanently.

There is no denying that there are serious issues to be addressed and that all rights come with corresponding obligations.

But there is a danger that the current debate is being used by some people to scapegoat others, with Muslims cast as the main villains.

The media in the Netherlands has, for example, given disproportional coverage to politicians such as Geert Wilders, who has built a reputation on his hostility to Islam. For his troubles, he and Somali-born MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali were forced into hiding for months because of death threats.

Interestingly, the widest coverage given to Wilders and his views on Muslims has been in the left-leaning papers 'De Volkskrant' and 'NRC Handelsblad' as they shift their political views to the right. The biggest selling daily 'De Telegraaf' has been more critical of Wilders although the paper is firmly rooted in the conservative camp.

The debate in this small Western European country is being followed with interest abroad — partly because outsiders are amazed at radical suggestions being put forward, and partly, perhaps more secretly, to see if a Dutch model will emerge that can be applied successfully elsewhere.

The current centre-right coalition, led by Christian Democrat CDA Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, is heavily influenced by Fortuyn's views.

Legislation has been enacted to compel would-be immigrants (except those from certain countries) to complete an integration course — involving the Dutch language and culture — in their home countries as a pre-condition to being granted a residence permit. This legislation is considered to be a world first.

The Dutch reputation as a 'safe haven' has also been called into question by the decision to deport 26,000 long-term asylum seekers, many of whom have been waiting for five years or more to have their applications finalised.

Though this has given rise to some heart-wrenching accounts, it has also become apparent that many of those earmarked for deportation will in fact be allowed to stay.

Geert Wilders wants to be the new Fortuyn

And despite the prevalence of gloom-and-doom merchants on the public stage, crime has dropped in Amsterdam for the fifth year in a row, with shoplifting and burglaries at business premises down 13 percent and 26 percent respectively according to a report by the capital's police chief in January 2005. This mirrors a general trend.

Rotterdam has led the way in putting police officers back on the beat in the city centre to help tackle anti-social behaviour and petty crime.


The Netherlands went from being an economic powerhouse in the 1990s, averaging 4 percent annual growth, to being one of the sick men of Europe in subsequent years. Growth fell to 1.4 percent in 2004.

The Dutch economy suffered 0.3 percent negative growth in the last quarter of 2002 and officially entered a recession when Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fell a further 0.3 percent in the first three months of 2003.

Risking the country's envied consensus in industrial relations, the centre-right coalition, headed by Balkenende, decided to slash government spending in September 2003 by EUR 17 billion by 2007 and persuade the trade unions to accept a pay freeze.

Additional cuts followed as budgetary problems worsened. The budget breached the 3 percent maximum of the European Union's Growth and Stability Pact in 2003, before falling to 2.3 percent last year.

Union-led protests in the latter part of 2004 — including a demonstration of 200,000 people in Amsterdam — helped blunt some of the most contentious budget cuts.

But the main elements of the government's reforms — long-term control of government spending, salaries, pensions and healthcare costs — remain in place.

Meanwhile, unemployment has continued to rise significantly. The Netherlands had the fastest growing unemployment rate in the EU, rising by one-third from December 2002 to December 2003.

An average of 500,000 people (6.6 percent of the workforce) was jobless in the Netherlands by the first quarter of 2004. The unemployment rate has continued to pick up and it is estimated it will peak in 2005 at 6.75 percent of the workforce before decreasing to 6.25 percent in 2006.

It is worth noting that while unemployment has been growing, it was still below the EU average of 8.8 percent in January 2004.

The government is hopeful that its tough economising measures are slowly beginning to bear fruit. Macroeconomic think tank CPB has forecast Dutch business will benefit from the upswing of the international cyclical situation in 2006, with domestic expenditure also expected to contribute to economic growth.

"For the first time in years, the purchasing power of households is projected to rise, enabling people to spend more. The foreseen increased profitability of companies will contribute to a considerable increase of investments," the CPB forecast said, predicting economic growth of 2.25 percent in 2006.

International role

Ben Bot suggested a social charter for the EU

The Netherlands ran the EU presidency effectively in the second part of 2004, the first presidency to follow the big bang expansion of the EU to 25 states.

Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot used the opportunity to call for a social charter to boost enthusiasm for the European ideal by making the EU more accountable to its citizens.

This is an idea the Dutch government should pursue both in Europe and domestically. A social contract between the public and The Hague could be a significant step in helping to restore some of the consensus that was too quickly jettisoned in recent years.

The Netherlands has also worked hard to maintain close links the US. As the contingent of 1,300 Dutch troops ended its peacekeeping mission in Iraq in March 2005, The Hague agreed to provide elite troops for service in Afghanistan and opened discussions with the Pentagon about future military co-operation.

So what attracts expats to the Netherlands?

Notwithstanding the cuts in public spending and the fastest-growing unemployment rate in the EU, the Netherlands still has a high standard of living.

The UN's Human Development Report 2004 also ranks the Netherlands fifth in the world in terms of health and life expectancy, education and earnings. It is placed second in the EU behind Sweden.

Amsterdam is rated 12th in the latest Mercer report on the most liveable cities in the world.

The country has a good road network, plus land, sea and air connections with the rest of the globe. Many international businesses are headquartered in the Netherlands, ensuring opportunities for expats.

The heated discussions on immigration and national identity can also be seen in a positive light. Not all of the proposed answers will appeal to everyone, but at least the Netherlands is looking for answers — while many other countries sit back and wait.

1 April 2005

[Copyright Expatica 2005]

Subject: Life in the Netherlands

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