The Netherlands is a small country in the middle of Western Europe, bordering Germany, Belgium, and the North Sea. One of its best-known geographic characteristics is that one-third of the flat country lies below sea level. The Dutch waterworks are famous throughout the world, which is not surprising if one considers that the Netherlands had already started to impolder (drain) land in the 1600s. Although the Netherlands has only 16 million inhabitants, it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. It measures approximately 300 kilometers (185 miles) north to south by 200 kilometers (125 miles) east to west. The most densely populated area in the midwest of the country, de Randstad, has approximately 1,000 inhabitants per square kilometers. This area, revolving around the capital Amsterdam, the political center at The Hague, and Rotterdam with its seaport at the Rhine delta, is also the hub of economic activity.
In socioeconomic terms the Netherlands can best be described as a social welfare state with a high standard of living. In 2002, with a gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately U.S.$26,000 per capita, it was one of the fifteen wealthiest countries in the world. Only 20 percent of the working population of 7million are employed in production and agriculture. The economy depends largely on trade and services, which together provide almost half of all jobs. The remaining 30 percent are employed in public services, health care, and education. Because of the funding systems for health care and education, about one-third of the working population is, in effect, directly or indirectly paid by the government. The post–World War II (since 1945) ideal of state care "from the crib to the grave" has resulted in an extensive Social Security system, providing unemployment, sickness, and disability benefits and a state pension.
These socioeconomic and geographical circumstances have made the Netherlands dependent on international trade, and this trade has been facilitated by its good relations with surrounding countries. It was one of the founding members of the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the European Union (EU), in 1957. Its strong economy has furthermore made the Netherlands into a "netto-payer," which means that the (obligatory) amount of money the Netherlands contributes to the EU exceeds the amount it gets back by way of subsidies and grants. These factors have resulted in the Netherlands often being regarded as the biggest of the small countries within the EU.
the political system
Historically, the Dutch state has been the result of a process of evolution rather than revolution. The Netherlands became a unified state with a centralized government in 1798. After an unstable beginning, in which regimes and constitutions followed each other quickly, and a brief incorporation in the French Empire, the monarchy was instituted in 1813. However, fear of the unstable situation in surrounding countries, especially France, soon provided a climate for change in a more democratic direction. This change came in 1848, when the constitution was completely revised by a well-known statesman, the liberal Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1798–1872). This constitution introduced the concepts of the sovereignty of parliament and ministerial responsibility for the monarch. Ministers are responsible for the acts of government. The last pillars of the Dutch constitutional system, proportional representation and universal suffrage, were introduced in the early part of the twentieth century, with men receiving the right to vote in 1917 and women in 1919.
In the early twenty-first century the Netherlands remained a democratic constitutional monarchy in which the power of the monarch was, to a large extent, ceremonial. From 1890 until 2004 the head of state has been female. Queen Wilhelmina (1880–1962), who reigned from 1890 until 1948 and was known as the "mother of the nation," guided the country through Nazi occupation (1940–1945) during World War II. Her daughter Queen Juliana (1909–2004), the monarch between 1948 and 1980, was well known for her kindness and unassuming nature, and the reputation of Queen Beatrix (b. 1938), who ascended the throne in 1980, is grounded in her competence and professionalism in matters of state. The heir to the throne as of 2004, Prince Willem Alexander (b. 1968), will be the first king in over a century. Traditionally, there has been a high level of support for the monarchy among the population. Some 85 percent of the population favor the Netherlands remaining a monarchy.
After World War II the most prominent prime ministers were Willem Drees (1886–1988), Ruud Lubbers (b. 1939), and Wim Kok (b. 1938). Drees, a member of the Social Democratic Labour Party, guided the postwar reconstruction of the Netherlands between 1948 and 1958 and was the force behind the development of a welfare state with the introduction of state pensions. The Christian Democrat Lubbers, who served as prime minister from 1982 until 1994, is well known for his involvement in building Dutch consensus politics, called the "polder model." Kok, who held the office between 1994 and 2002, was the first prime minister of a government not formed by Christian Democrats since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1917. In 2002 the Christian Democrats regained control, with Jan Peter Balkenende (b. 1956) serving as prime minister.
The Netherlands has a multiparty system; between ten and twenty-five political parties participate in elections. Elections are usually held every four years, although it should be noted that only seven out of twenty-four governments since World War II have managed to complete their term. Following national elections, the king appoints an informateur, a person who investigates the possible makeup of a new government after consulting with the leaders of the parties elected to parliament. A coalition government (composed of ministers and state secretaries) will be formed from the candidates advanced by the coalition parties. No single party has ever had an overall majority in parliament, so a coalition government is inevitable. Usually, the leader of the main party in parliament is assigned the task of forming a government and will become prime minister.
The Dutch parliament consists of two chambers. The 150 members of the Second Chamber of parliament are directly elected; the 75 members of the First Chamber are indirectly elected by the provincial states, the directly elected regional level of government. The Second Chamber essentially controls the government. It has a number of powers, among them the rights to submit written questions to ministers, to summon ministers to the chamber to answer questions, and to form investigative committees. Both chambers play a role in the legislative process: The Second Chamber, involved in the political process that leads to the drafting of laws, has the right to amend proposed legislation. The First Chamber has veto power over all proposed legislation, but it does not have the authority to amend legislation. Rather, its function is to review legislation, and for this reason it is sometimes referred to as the "chamber of review."
The Netherlands is a relatively calm society. It is one of the oldest and most stable modern nation-states. When change has occurred, it generally transpired fifty years later than elsewhere. Dutch society has become somewhat more dynamic in the early twenty-first century, but systemic change is still highly incremental. Sessions of the Second Chamber of parliament are usually orderly and without significant emotion. For decades the Christian Democrats dominated Dutch politics. With the exception of the period of occupation (1940–1945) during World War II, they have been represented in every government since 1917. Sometimes they have formed coalitions with the Social Democrats, sometimes with the Conservative Liberals. In 1994 this spirit of cooperation changed. Liberals (both Conservative and Progressive groups) formed a coalition with the Social Democrats and forced the Christian Democrats into the opposition. This melding of Liberal "blue" factions with Social Democratic "red" ones gave rise to the so-called purple coalition that existed from 1994 to 2002.
The high degree of stability and slow pace of change have had a significant impact on society as a whole. Dutch society is a consensus society. Many institutions have been largely transformed since the successful appeasement of tensions between Protestantism and Catholicism. Until the 1960s society was organized along religious lines. These religious groups, as well as the socialist movement, formed their own political, economic, cultural, educational, and recreational associations such as political parties, trade unions, newspapers, schools, children's homes, hospitals, broadcasting organizations, and sports clubs. And, although religion does not continue to play an all-important role in society in the early twenty-first century, there still are, for instance, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic schools, which are entirely funded by the state. This, of course, enhanced the complexity and costs of the welfare system.
Dutch culture bridges innumerable contradictions. Many mechanisms exist for diffusing conflict and drawing extremes into the mainstream. In the words of the historian Han Van der Horst, Dutch society is "non-exclusivist"; all points of view will be considered and included, albeit under the condition that parties to the dialogue remain reasonable and willing to participate in the open discussions that lead to rational consensus. Such a culture of consensus has uncontested status in society. In Dutch culture, strong criticism and opinions are frequently kept hidden.
This consensus society with its polder model (or Dutch model) incorporates not only the consensus between political parties and religions, but also that between employers and trade unions. According to this model, the discussion among differing factions will continue for as long as it takes to reach an agreement, and no final decision will be made until a general consensus develops. It also implies gedogen, which means to openly allow, as a policy, what is legally prohibited. For example, the use of recreational drugs is prohibited, but their sale is tolerated.
In the early twenty-first century the political climate dramatically changed. In response to growing public discontent about the nation's consensus culture and the growth of immigrant groups, including their attempts at integration, Pim Fortuyn (1948–2002) formed a new political party in 2001. "New politics" and immigrants became his major issues in the 2002 elections. According to the pre-election polls, his party was poised to become the largest national party, expected to capture over 25 percent of the vote. The political establishment and most of the media reacted very strongly, characterizing the party, List Pim Fortuyn, as racist, or at the very least as a one-issue party. Ten days before the elections Fortuyn was murdered. Subsequently, the List Pim Fortuyn won twenty-six seats in parliament and forged a coalition with Christian Democrats and Liberals. The party fell apart quickly, however, and the coalition collapsed after three months. In the next elections, the List Pim Fortuyn garnered only 8 of the 150 seats in parliament.
Legal culture is no exception to the Dutch model. The dissenting opinions of judges are never published, and judges are obliged to maintain the secrecy of their deliberations. In order to reach a common decision (or verdict), judges must negotiate and compromise. Moreover, the judiciary has a limited political role in society. Although the legal system is based on a written constitution, there is no court that has the power to strike down legislation as unconstitutional. Article 120 of the constitution disallows the judicial review
of acts of parliament. However, a judge can declare acts of parliament to be at variance with international treaties.
Judges are not elected and no political associations exist within the judiciary. In the Dutch version of the doctrine of the separation of powers, conflict models are abhorred; in late-twentieth-century publications on the subject one finds titles such as "Co-operating Powers," "Constitutional Partners," and "Balancing Powers." Decision making by the judiciary is informal, pragmatic, and consensus-oriented. For instance, a judge will feel bound by precedents, but when an earlier decision has not resulted in the desired solution or has been heavily critiqued in legal periodicals, he or she will frankly acknowledge it and reconsider the legal issues involved. The objective is reaching a fair decision, without polarization or the introduction of extrajudicial motives. Sometimes, judges tend toward activism, thereby strectching the limits of the separation of powers, for example, when trying to counterbalance parliamentary decisions. Arguments in such cases are never partisan, however, and the court is largely nonactivist in politically sensitive cases.
Citizens' legal rights vis-à-vis the national and local government are fairly strong. The General Administrative Law Act provides for appeals against most government decisions except the most general rules. Citizens may also seek compensation for (nongeneral) acts of government under tort law. Large projects that require the cooperation of the authorities in the form of permits, such as industrial development, home construction, and road-building projects, are usually accompanied by a large number of court cases directed against government decisions.
The Netherlands has recognized the legal authority of the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. The rulings of the European Court of Justice are directly binding and individuals have the right to individually bring a case before the European Court of Human Rights. Even more important is the direct applicability of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms; citizens can invoke the Convention before a national judge. In combination with the constitutional provision forbidding judicial review of acts of parliament, this has resulted in the European Convention becoming the de facto bill of rights in many court cases.
early twenty-first-century developments
The popular image of the Netherlands is that of a quiet, stable, consensus-oriented welfare state. Certain early twenty-first century developments have indicated a shift in character, albeit a small one. Three factors illustrate this shift. First, the circumstances surrounding the 2002 elections have hardened the political climate, both in parliament and outside it. In particular, views on immigrants and criminals have become harsher across the entire political spectrum, including among Social Democrats and smaller left-wing parties. Traditionally, these groups were protectors of the rights of immigrants and criminals; in the early 2000s they have instead emphasized the importance of the viewpoints of ordinary citizens and victims. This change in the political climate, together with the second factor, an economic recession, has also had its effect on the consensus model. Whereas the consensus model was accepted as the general way to cope with all kinds of problems, for example, the country's recession in the 1980s, in the early twenty-first century it was often thought to be a problem itself. Employers' organizations and the government have become less willing to negotiate with unions, and have called for hard measures rather than talks. Also, many regard the high level of social security programs and the massive bureaucracy as untenable in the long run, and as a consequence, measures have been taken to limit benefits and to downsize government institutions. A third factor has been the worldwide war against terrorism declared after September 11, 2001. In most countries antiterrorist laws have been introduced, and the Netherlands is no exception. Nevertheless, these factors play a relatively small role in the Netherlands, and the nation is still best described as a quiet, stable, consensus-oriented welfare state.
Central Bureau for Statistics in the Netherlands. <http://www.cbs.nl/en>.
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Leny E. de Groot-van Leeuwen