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A certain idea of the Netherlands

by Jos de Beus

“An interesting era is always an enigmatic one, which promises little rest, prosperity, continuity, security” Paul Valéry, Variété (1938), quoted by Eugen Weber The Hollow Years, France in the 1930s, London Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995, p.3.

The distance of two related European peoples The Netherlands, recently, has experienced a crisis of national identity and a clearly pessimistic atmosphere[1]. The average Dutch person feels threatened or upset, anxious or angry, resigned or doubtful, but depressed in all cases. This is a path that other Western democracies such as France had followed since the end of the twentieth century.

Senior officials, heads of multinational companies and social science researchers have everything to learn from a current analysis of Dutch society and politics with France in perspective. But who else is interested? For a long time now, there has been talk of the distance that is emerging between the French and Dutch mentalities. It is a gradual process, which takes place despite the many cultural initiatives of the embassies concerned, the Descartes House and the Dutch Institute and despite the constant emergence of excellent interpreters[2].

The French do not deal with the Netherlands, unless they are interested in an incident highlighted by the press. In these very rare cases, the Netherlands is a very instructive alternative for the disgruntled Frenchman or the intelligent left-wing man interested in how to solve the problem of euthanasia through transparent consultation, or the joint management of the State by the government, social organisations and advisory bodies. The satisfied Frenchman and the intelligent right-wing man also see it as an illustration of the inferiority of the foreigner through the good of drug use, which particularly affects socially weaker citizens, or through indifference disguised as multi-ethnic tolerance. On the Dutch side, there is a similar interest, just as selective and accidental. Self-aware Dutch people generally think they know more than Paris (down with the French nuclear force, the protection of the peasant and the omnipotence of the President!). Those who do not feel confident seek their salvation in the Canadian or Swedish model, but never or almost never in the French model.

I exaggerate, of course. In 1851, only a few hundred Dutch people lived in northern France. They were among the 380,000 foreigners who represented 1% of the French population at the time. In 2005, thousands of Dutch people had a second home in France and a few hundred thousand of their compatriots were happy to spend their holidays in France. On the Dutch side, we still know French cuisine, the Cannes Film Festival, Roland Garros and the Tour de France, the Parisian master of thought (whether it be Bourdieu, Braudel, Foucault or, to talk about the living, Finkielkraut, Guéhenno and Manin), the scandalous beginnings (Houellebecq), the Islamologist (Kepel, Roy), the great footballer (Platini, Zidane), the French contributions to universal civilization (Lanzmann’s Shoah), not to mention the Walloon Church (essentially composed of descendants of Huguenots). However, the Dutch interest in the French way of life has become more limited, more exclusive and less committed than during the “thirty glorious years” (Fourastié), at the time of existentialism, the New Wave and the revolt of 1968. Not to mention the French orientation of the Dutch regents before the Fourth Republic, which was part of Prehistory.

Whether it is a culture with a large or small c, the need for a relationship with France has long since disappeared in favour of an idiosyncratic, somewhat frivolous choice. The decline of French song is the best illustration of what appears to be the disappearance of a “second homeland”. However, we should also note that this lesser attraction of France does not give rise to any regrets on the French side, as evidenced by the outcry against the liberalisation of services decided by European Commissioner Bolkestein. These protests had Dutchophobic (“Frankenstein”) features. The Dutch are sometimes considered to be the ones who carry Voltaire’s coconuts: less French ideas mature in Britain and philosophers like Bolkestein transport them to Paris.

There are even prominent Dutch people to defend this lack of involvement in everything that is happening in France – as the example of the Liberal Minister of Transport and Water in the Wim Kok governments shows. For them, it is the answer that suits the French reserve, arrogance and cunning. Mitterrand and Chirac are seen, on this side of the borders, as the embodiment of a Realpolitik with multiple declinations. But this is a Freudian reasoning. The distance between the two countries has relatively little to do with the mistakes of French or Dutch diplomats or heads of government. On the other hand, it is closely linked to a larger scale evolution of society.

After the Second World War, the hegemony of the United States emerged. In the Netherlands, young people have turned away from the sickly Old Continent and turned to the energetic culture of Americans, as it manifests itself in jazz. The example of the post-war generation was followed, albeit in a different way, by each of the new generations: anti-authoritarian in the 1960s, disoriented during the crisis of the 1980s, pragmatic and committed[3] during the “new economy” of the 1990s. Anti-Americanism linked to the conflicts in Vietnam, Israel/Palestine and Iraq is explained by a cultural obsession with the new great power, even if events take place outside the European zone.

Another trend is the loss of language skills in both countries. In the Netherlands, trilingualism (German, English, French) has given way to bilingualism, which weakens and deteriorates the mastery of both Dutch and English. In France, the willingness to speak English is still limited. It is therefore inevitable that conversations, radio and television news, e-mails, letters, novels, poems, treatises, documentaries and other words of collective action will dry up.

The latest trend is the decrease in the curiosity of French and Dutch journalists and intellectuals towards each other. The French rarely seek to understand what has been called the “polder model” of economic modernization (seeking consensus through broad agreement on wage moderation, restraint measures in the public sector and regulation of the social market economy). The Dutch rarely seek to reflect on the model of secularism that is supposed to form the Nation (republican values, strictly private nature of religion, public education in the service of equal opportunities). Sometimes, for a sigh, it happens like a regurgitation when government delegations and political parties visit each other’s capital. This was the case when the Stasi Commission (2003), in its final report on the secularisation of Islam, referred to the failure of the Netherlands to receive non-European immigrants. But these contacts do not go very far. The French and Dutch know less about each other’s daily lives than they do about the United States. Few French people are aware that the Netherlands has become a unitary state, where the separatism of the Friesians, Limburgers or Zeelanders has little chance of success. Few Dutch people realize that the French continued to study the East even after the loss of their colonies – which was not the case in Holland, so France preceded the Netherlands when it came to recognizing at all the imams, the place of mosques and other elements of Arab life.

This distance, in short, contributes to the European integration of French and Dutch laws, public services and companies, without the political space becoming European, neither national identity nor citizenship. This situation will quickly become untenable.

The interest in reconnecting with bilateralism

It is tempting, from a simply practical point of view, to accept the differences between France and the Netherlands. A large country and a small one, a republic and a royalty, recurrent revolutions since 1789 and aborted revolutions since 1781 (the “Battle Revolution” of 1781-1795), a centralized authority and a strong bourgeois society, an anti-liberalism and a dynamic liberalism, a perpetuating colonialism (Africa, New Caledonia, the French-speaking world) and a sublimated colonialism (development aid, humanitarian action, international law), a love of beauty and pragmatism, tartufferie and a narrow-minded spirit, etc.

It is equally tempting to claim that similarities do not bring grain to grind to the practice of everyday life: two myths of resistance to National Socialism; two traumatic decolonizations (Algeria and the Dutch Indies), two semi-victims of feminism; two failed humanitarian interventions (Kigali in Rwanda and Srebrenica in Bosnia), two examples of technocratic discredit (“enarques” and “interim managers”), two radical changes in party policies, characterized by ideological rapprochement, permanent campaigns, populism, the decline of parliamentary life in favour of the media, cases of corruption (therefore Jospin and Kok, Le Pen and Fortuyn, Bové and Marijnissen); twice no to the Constitutional Treaty of Rome and two quarters of recession and fear in the face of globalisation[4].

There are, however, good reasons to argue for an improvement in Franco-Dutch relations, here and now.

First of all, France and the Netherlands can define themselves as blocked societies. They struggle against an inaction of their own accord generated by the absence or failure of collective meaning among many individualists: wealthy selfish, conservative middle classes and deliberate laggards. Despite their high level of technology, organizational capacity, wealth, humanity and democratic freedoms, the two countries have still not found a balance between the way they have organized themselves and their adaptation in a period of instability (terrorism, competition from Asia, imbalance in the world economy, ethnic tensions, Islamism, electoral malaise, lack of coordination both within segments of society and between these segments and the public sectors). In France as in the Netherlands, an elementary achievement is at stake: the faith of leaders and citizens in an ideal of an open society – where no one has to fear being called to order by their neighbours or the authorities.

Secondly, the idea of a dislocation of the European Union is no longer hypothetical. For the time being, the French and the Dutch do not feel the slightest solidarity on issues such as the proper functioning of the internal market, the management of economic and monetary union (European Central Bank, Stability and Growth Pact), the successful enlargement to the East and the European treatment of terrorism. If the European Council were to push the Netherlands to the limit to choose between a pro-American method of European union and an anti-American method, it would no longer opt for neutrality, but would form a coalition with Britain, the Scandinavian countries and the countries of the former Central Europe. This would then be the end of a nearly sixty year collaboration with France – or Belgium. There would certainly be a price to pay for this, without any benefit to the peoples concerned.

Thirdly and finally, the Netherlands has everything to lose from a decrease in French influence among foreign influences, but France has nothing to gain from it. The Netherlands has always learned positive lessons from the French formation of elites, from the French faith in the debate on its own history and greatness (including through irony and hypocrisy), from the French vision and imaginative pragmatism in European affairs and integration through the European institutions; they were inspired by French geopolitical realism, France’s martial tradition and its fight against terrorism, the French alternative to the globalization of American institutions and practices (by protecting, for example, the French language and culture). If Dutch policies used the current weakness of the French model to increase the influence of the United States and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain in the unilateral orientation of development, this would mean a break in the Dutch balance, but also a weakening of European and global diversity.

It is on this basis that I would like to put forward a triple thesis. First of all, I would argue that the Netherlands is experiencing a kind of false start for the 21st century, which touches the very foundations of its political order. The impasse is not only about economic weakening, the transition from a progressive spirit of the times to a conservatism beyond the normalisation of the European model of instability. Secondly, I would argue that the Netherlands, in the face of galloping globalisation, is currently struggling to become itself again. This is about the renewal of national consciousness, internal dividing lines, the constitutional framework and the role of the authorities in The Hague. And thirdly, I would argue that the Netherlands can draw inspiration from France in this respect and that it does not have to ignore its own tradition.

The Netherlands made a false start at the dawn of the new millennium

Various studies show that the Dutch are happy with their lives, but that they are very dissatisfied with society, the authorities and their common future. Insofar as it is not attributed to the characteristics of national character (as well as placidity, attachment to the home and a sense of economy), this gloom is a new fact and has only rarely appeared at the height of the “polder model” (1995-2000). Some observers consider that the media have amplified the phenomenon and that it is rather the result of the deliberate desire of the Balkenende I (2002-2003) and Balkenende II (2003 to the present day) governments to create fear and a sense of crisis. The two successive coalitions, which brought together on the right the Christian Democrats and Liberals – to which were added, in the first Balkenende government, the populists of the Fortuyn movement – engaged in a moral critique of individualization and the unintended effects of progressive thinking (tax evasion, decline in volunteering) while calling for individual responsibility on citizens to face adversity.

But these observers are wrong. The gloom of Dutch public opinion reflects a clear “false start” of the whole country in this new century, even if the announced debacle of the computer network in the year 2000 did not finally take place. First, the economy has come to a standstill. Production has fallen, unemployment has risen, inflation has risen (especially in 2001 and 2002), the competitiveness of exporting companies has weakened and the breakthrough of new information and communication technologies (to catch up with the United States) is still pending. The company’s evolution towards shareholder capitalism has continued, without silencing civil society’s criticism of the enrichment of leaders without entrepreneurial skills, in the absence of any rigorous control by boards of directors, independent bodies and representatives of the people. The accounting scandal within the multinational Ahold is the Dutch equivalent of the case that affected the American group Enron.

Secondly, in cities there has been an increase in tensions between the Dutch of origin and the new Dutch (West Indies, Moroccans, Turks), while in the west of the country the demographic superiority of immigrants is becoming apparent. These tensions have resulted in the segregation of neighbourhoods and schools, the increase in feelings of insecurity, the radicalisation of young people (Islamism, right-wing extremism) and support for Pim Fortuyn and his fight against the Islamisation of the Netherlands. The Blok Committee (2004), which conducted a parliamentary inquiry into thirty years of immigration policy based on “integration with group identity maintenance”, found that the situation of ethnic minorities in the Netherlands was much worse than in neighbouring countries, including France. The Netherlands has a higher degree of relative segregation, unemployment, dependency on social benefits and over-representation of ethnic minorities in prisons compared to the national population.

Third, frustration and disappointment with the quality of public services has increased among the population. This public sector has been the subject of campaigns of liberalisation, empowerment, commercialisation, privatisation and Europeanisation for more than ten years. While there are some examples of effective and popular initiatives (such as innovation in communications and the marketing of television), illustrations of the disappointing quality and excessive cost of public services (railways, power companies, educational institutions, hospitals, social insurers) are much more numerous. The collective memory is forever marked by the failure of the public authorities in several dramatic episodes, such as the explosion of a fireworks warehouse in Enschede on 13 May 2000, the burning of a coffee shop in Volendam on the night of 31 December 2001 and the rise in hotel and retail prices after the introduction of the euro.

Fourthly, there were two events that shook the Netherlands: the murder of politician Pim Fortuyn on 6 May 2002 and the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh on 2 November 2004. Fortuyn, which was highly successful thanks to its attacks on the ruling socio-liberal coalition, composed of social democrats (PvdA) and liberals (VVD, D66) since 1994, was eliminated by a fanatical environmentalist. Van Gogh, who had directed, in collaboration with MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a resounding film entitled Submission (denouncing the oppression of women under the guise of devotion to Islam), was killed by a Muslim belonging to a terrorist group. What was unthinkable not long ago has become a cruel reality: many prominent politicians, leaders and intellectuals are threatened by Islamists and are under constant protection, some of them even for three years now!

The Dutch public was also traumatized by several cases discussed by the people’s representatives, some of which led to a parliamentary inquiry. Without trying to be exhaustive, I will give the following examples: . gratuitous violence in places of exit… problems of intensive agriculture (mad cows, dioxin chickens, foot-and-mouth disease, excess animal waste)… consequences of the Bijlmer air disaster[5] in 1992…. failed constitutional reforms (introduction of a corrective referendum, election of mayors)… embezzlement of European subsidies… fraud in higher education…. ineffective drug controls and corruption at Schiphol airport. passivity of the Dutch blue helmet battalion in Srebrenica (an investigation report on this subject will lead to the fall of the second Kok government in April 2002). misconduct by large construction companies in the context of major works commissioned by the authorities. ineffective supervision of criminals with mental disorders. lack of control by the judicial and police authorities over organised crime (settling scores, money laundering, drug production). too slow professionalisation of officials responsible for border surveillance and the fight against terrorism.

While voters have remained critical and demanding, their confidence in political parties and public authorities has declined and is more subject to conditions[6]. With the exception of the 1998 elections, the most recent legislative elections in the Netherlands (1994, 2002, 2003) have been among the most eventful in a European democracy since the introduction of universal suffrage. Let us note, in general, that since the beginning of the third millennium, the sense of belonging to the Dutch community has declined, this mixture of mutual respect, trust and cohesion in the relations between citizens (at the societal level) and with the authorities (at the political level). This decline is a phenomenon that gives rise to constant warnings and painful attempts at reassessment in radio and television broadcasts, newspaper columns and opinion pieces, political party manifestos and speeches by various leaders and spokespersons. Even professionals who have long been accustomed to public debate are starting to scream. This is a sign that Dutch-style peace, often confused harmoniously, is being disrupted. The Netherlands “after 1989”, with its boring political life, its soft administrative system and its relaxed society (sometimes until decadence) quickly transformed itself in the Netherlands “after 11 September 2001”, with its turbulent political life, its rigid administration and its tense society (sometimes until anxiety). Today, this northern neighbour of France has lost its bearings and cohesion, which it shows ostentatiously and bluntly.

Four points of view on the same impasse

How can we explain the impasse in the Netherlands? Given that the Dutch have an impressive history of commercial spirit and work ethic, it seems obvious to start here with the hypothesis of temporary waste and under-exploitation of economic resources. In a number of areas, the Netherlands is still well placed internationally: prosperity (7th), overall satisfaction (7th), competitiveness (12th), human development[7] (12th), hourly labour productivity rates (until 2002, the Netherlands was ahead of the United States at the top, with Belgium, France and Norway), poverty reduction (3rd), integrity of governments (11th) and government capacity (6th). Has the success of the polder model made the Dutch lazy, spoiled and unpleasant? It may also be that the current epidemic of gloom has a real function: it may be the prelude, within new power relations between power and scarcity, to a change in attitude that models and contagiously affects all kinds of people and social organizations. Such a phenomenon has already occurred, the most recent dating back to 1973-1983, a difficult period that began with the oil crisis and ended with the advent of a new realism and the seizure of power by the elites.

The second explanation is the fluctuations in the history of modernity in the Netherlands. The period 1813-1848 was a period of conservatism (Restoration), 1848-1901 was dominated by progressivism (liberalism) and 1901-1945 by a very pronounced conservatism (confessionalism). Are we currently experiencing the last chaotic hours of a progressive post-war period, interrupted halfway through and amplified by the New Left and post-materialism (1945-2001)? It is true that public attitudes and ideas towards justice and morality have become more conservative, while the political agendas of the old and new generation parties have shifted to the right. Curiously, the Third Way ideology, which emerged under the Kok government, has vanished, while the social democrats, greens and socialists, whose parties are subject to internal divisions, have put themselves on the defensive. We will also note the return of conservative ideas among academics, intellectuals and journalists in the weekly press. This hypothesis remains problematic insofar as it does not explain the chronic unpopularity of Prime Minister Balkenende and his Conservative government. Moreover, there is still no sign of the re-Christianisation of the Netherlands (by a start for the Catholic Church and Protestant communities) or suspicion of a Dutch variant of the “dynamic” American conservatism – a movement that believes in free competition and democracy without limits for the majority, rejects abortion, euthanasia and sexual freedom, defends the death penalty and the right to own a weapon and advocates the abolition of the welfare state. The neo-conservative spirit therefore still has no formal existence in the Netherlands.

A third vision is based on the concept of standardization. The serenity of the Netherlands during the golden age of the polder model was, if you look at it more closely, an anomaly, whereas the current concern is rather normal. This concern manifests itself in both small and large Member States of the European Union and even characterizes contemporary citizenship and the Western democratic spirit. On the one hand, no one can find an answer to excessive globalization. On the other hand, everyone belongs to a political system characterized by a proliferation of individuals who claim to represent “we, the people” and to defend the collective interests of certain categories of the population. This third view is factually correct, but remains far too vague from a standards perspective. It is also surprising that some obsolete theories on mass society and totalitarianism are once again becoming all the rage in the Netherlands. Unlike the Czech-Dutch sociologist Ernest Zahn, author of Das unbekannte Holland (1993), few observers today dare to rely on the centripetal forces of Dutch civilisation.

For my part, I would explain the current impasse by first breaking down the crisis of the nation-state into several factors – the collapse of traditional notions of solidarity, tolerance, openness to others and the search for compromise – and then pointing to the imminence of a key moment for Dutch constitutional policy. In 1848, 1917, 1945 and 1982, the Kingdom already experienced such perilous moments as well as founding moments for the formation of the Dutch Nation and State. If we imagine that an episode of Dutch modern history corresponds to one hour on the dial of the world clock, then the unrest in society would represent five minutes, constitutional changes fifteen, while forty minutes would be reserved for ordinary politics on the basis of a renewed peace and new agreements.

Small anatomy of an identity crisis

The identity crisis from which the Netherlands is currently suffering corresponds to the fortuitous simultaneous bankruptcy of the old forms of solidarity, tolerance, openness to others and acceptance of compromise.

First of all, the Dutch-style welfare state has been undergoing a restructuring process since 1975 that has proved to be both lengthy and laborious. At the moment, two considerations are at stake: the first concerns the inevitability of radical reforms in the field of social rights due to excessive inactivity (such as the massive use of insurance against incapacity for work), the over-dependence of immigrants (including through the policy of discouraging entrepreneurship of these immigrant groups), the prohibitive cost of labour, the ageing of the population, the lengthening of working hours and the administrative complexity of many regulatory systems. The reflection on social protection, as in the period of reconstruction (1945-1955), takes into account the concern for the employer’s own profitability and meritocracy as seen by employees (wage differences being the expression of differences in benefits). The second consideration concerns the resistance of social values. The State and the social partners are largely in favour of abandoning the system of comprehensive protection, “from birth to death”. But studies show that the Dutch population remains committed to group insurance schemes, human contact in and out of the workplace, modesty (rather than ostentatious consumption) and the principle of equality. In practice, this telescoping leads to a readjustment of public charges and expenditures, but it also results in an endless quest to find a new mutual balance[8]. A revealing event in this regard took place in October 2004: the major demonstration by the political and trade union left against the government’s plan to abolish tax benefits linked to early retirement (before age 65). This was the first time that serious divisions had emerged between the new and old generations of employees and the self-employed.

This has been achieved through active support for the construction of mosques, education in Arabic and Turkish, the creation of interest groups by non-Western immigrants, multicultural television, Islamic schools and specific advisory bodies (in which ministers and community representatives meet). The Turks of the Netherlands, above all, through their many and varied organisations, have formed almost a pillar of society on their own. But the policy implemented has not led either to the desired integration of populations of foreign origin (i.e. the emergence of Turkish Dutch, Moroccan Dutch, etc.) or, far from it, to their acceptance by the indigenous population. The reaction of both sides was one of mutual indifference and avoidance reflexes, followed by aversion and confrontation, sometimes even hostilities (incivilities committed by gangs of Moroccan youth, racism displayed by groups of Dutch youth).

The myth of the Batavians and the myth of the Golden Age have long since been ineffective. Until recently, two other Dutch myths governed relationships between individuals of different convictions. The Dutch Resistance’s one led people to believe that the trials of the German occupation and American reconstruction aid taught the people of the Netherlands to distinguish between good and evil. Thus racism is always evil and development aid is always good. The myth of the 1966 youth movement (the Provos) made the Dutch believe in a second liberation. This phenomenon has led to the end of the partitioning of society into confessional and ideological “pillars”[9] and has paved the way for “cautious progressivism”: good Dutch people are aware of the advantages of assertiveness, pleasure and experimentation, but they also have the caution to impose limits on their individual nature, limits of laws and social conventions, religion and other traditions, on a small, fragile and densely populated territory where it is necessary to work well together.

However, both myths are broken forever. In 2002, one and a half million Dutch people voted for Pim Fortuyn, whom the well-meaning society presented as a reincarnation of Mussert, the Dutch Nazi and collaborator. Fortuyn’s supporters did not feel concerned by a superfluous Bien/Mal scheme, which no longer concealed the failure of multicultural citizenship. According to the second myth, a “cautious progressive” Dutchman should have accepted newcomers into his world of “letting it go, letting it go”. But this good Dutchman refuses to enrol his child in a “black” school and to live in a neighbourhood with a majority of immigrants. It generally defends its own privileges and cosmopolitan self-image by keeping a respectable distance from non-Western immigrants (individuals described as “black”), both physically and intellectually. Some people, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, raise the issue of multicultural lying. They risk taking an anticlerical position without any caution or relativization. Tolerance, a standard of leniency in the grey area between war and the rule of law, is thus not defined in the Netherlands.

The benevolent consensus on the Netherlands’ membership of Europe has turned into popular scepticism. At first, it was not said (we “stayed at home” during the European elections). During the campaign for the first referendum ever held in the Netherlands, it came to the surface. This critical attitude was manifested late, i.e. not at the time of the Maastricht Treaty, the euro or the Nice Treaty, but on the occasion of the draft constitution proposed by Giscard d’Estaing. On June 2, 2005, no less than 62% of the population rejected this project. For years, the majority of the Dutch supported the European policy of their successive governments, provided that:

(a) these governments take credible action in internal affairs

(b) ensure national interests beyond the maze of federalist rhetoric and that

(c) European institutions and regulations are proving their effectiveness, especially in advancing peace, prosperity and environmental protection.

During the fierce struggle between supporters and opponents of the European Constitution, it became clear that the elites of society and politics unanimously and unconditionally supported the European Monetary Union and the enlargement of the Union to the East, the arrival of new countries (such as Turkey) and the compromise between Europe’s powerful on the relationship between small and large states, even as the majority of the population withdrew their conditional support and felt more attracted to the no side formed by the small left and right parties.

Further analysis shows that the following reasons and motivations have played, in order, a certain role in Dutch anti-federalism: lack of information, concern about the loss of sovereignty, dissatisfaction with the current government, the excessive cost of the European project, the dystopia of the unification of Europe, the possible participation of Turkey and the radical nature of the Constitution. By arranging the noes in a somewhat different order, the result is as follows: the European Union is too expensive (contributions, euro), too powerful (loss of national identity and independence), too unfair (power exercised by other countries, jobs for foreigners), too expensive (bureaucracy, retail policy) and disadvantageous[10]. Just like tolerance towards immigrants and social reciprocity, the Netherlands’ openness to Europe remains indefinite at the moment. Many support the diplomacy of the “pause for reflection”: for the time being, i.e. until the end of the mandate of the Barroso Commission (2004-2009), there is no question of a new convention, a new Member State, new major projects or new priorities. The last component of the identity crisis in the Netherlands concerns the traditional politics of consensus. This way of solving political and social problems has proven its worth for centuries and has become more refined over time. By involving all the groups and individuals concerned in the decision-making process and allowing them to reap the benefits of the policy thus defined (proportionally), a compromise is reached that guarantees social peace (in the interest of established categories), but also emancipation (in the interest of emerging categories) or even a new integration of these two types of categories into the political community. We know the conditions that allow such a constructive consensus are well known: the Netherlands must face a thorny problem affecting vital interests (urgency); the most influential actors must be divided on the solutions to be found and have the power to block an outcome they would not like to see (real threats); some solutions are feasible and beneficial to all parties, but are only possible at the cost of a binding compromise (possible improvement in the relatively short term); each party considers itself jointly responsible for the success or failure of joint initiatives (lack of hegemony).

It can now be seen that the Dutch authorities continue to use this method. Thus, after the demonstrations of October 2004 mentioned above, the government and the social partners concluded agreements on the rights of older employees in the event of a general extension of working hours, on the reform of the unemployment insurance system and on the reorganisation of the healthcare system. Similarly, but less obviously, dozens of collective agreements have been amended to freeze virtually any wage increase. But since Fortuyn’s arrival on the political scene, the revelation of immigration as a new social problem and the highlighting of the danger of Muslim extremism and authoritarianism, this consensus policy has been the subject of very virulent criticism. Its opponents are not only calling for new leaders and new measures, but for a major reform of the political system in the direction of an American or English-style majority democracy. In other words, consensus on consensus is under great strain. It is true that this is not the first time since the Second World War: we remember the tumultuous beginnings of the seventies, nineties and nineties. However, this does not detract from the misery of democratic representation in the broad sense (political parties, interest groups, social movements, idea networks, gatherings of assertive citizens). Can we, for example, in the same way that the school battle between liberals, Catholics and Protestants has been ended, put an end to the new conflict raging within the school over clothing, religious education, civic education and the participation of Muslims in biology classes? Or should we imagine a better solution? [11]

Let me formulate the problem in a broader and more constructive way. A people that no longer has a great story to tell, that dares not freely show its love of the country except during national football team matches, is a people adrift, on the verge of discouragement and mystification. Thorbecke[12] used the expression “positive popular power” when referring to the fundamental credibility of the unitary state. How could a positive popular power be derived from a series of traumas? Is it possible to see a new Patriot movement emerge from the ruins of the old regime of modernity?

A key constitutional moment in the French style[13]

To answer the above question, I will limit myself to a few elementary aspects of Dutch reconstruction, which are correlative but also controversial. Language If participation in society and political decision-making is to be extended, the Dutch of origin and the new Dutch must speak the same language. The Dutch language has already been embellished by Abdelkader Benali, Kader Abdolah, Hafid Bouazza and other young talents from elsewhere. However, teenagers with vocational education problems, fathers unable to work at tea houses, housewives wearing headscarves and young Muslim women in independent professions must also adopt this language. It is the vehicle used in the North Sea Delta to express feelings to strangers, to express a different opinion, to set appointments and to continue the dialogue in order to express repugnance for a perverse system of ordinary avoidance, which is interrupted only by ethnic crimes and riots in countries of immigration. In this sense, English plays a similar role in the European Union space. Compulsory education in Dutch and the three languages spoken in neighbouring countries (English, French and German) should be strengthened.

Freedom of expression Anyone who does not simply fight alone for his or her survival, who takes responsibility for democratically defending himself or herself and his or her ties to the rest of society, who contributes to the reconstruction of large cities and their suburbs under the sign of diversity and social progress, must be free. Dutch citizens, on the other hand, are free to acquire and express well-considered convictions and to amend them through exchanges of opinions in public places. John Stuart Mill’s universal theory of the right to freedom of speech (as long as it does not harm the vital interests of others) must go hand in hand with Coornhert’s tradition of tolerance[14]. Freedom of expression and tolerance must continue to be the object of just pride, which includes not only the official recognition of mosques in the Netherlands, but also the performance of the play Aïsha and the screening of the film Submission, as well as the unbiased discussion between Michiel Smit of the New Right and Nabil Marmouch of the European Arab League. This free speech is becoming the means par excellence for immigrants who want to join an existing party or create a political movement themselves. It is exchanged from one to the other and makes it possible to disarm extremism and slow its progress. In the long term, it ends Islamic traditionalism and allows the establishment of an open and benevolent “oumma” on Dutch territory and in all European Union Member States where Muslims form a minority (unlike their countries of origin, where they are usually in the majority). Freedom of expression is also a recognized remedy to combat discrimination, intellectual fraud and political abuses by the new Dutch populists and nationalists, such as the forced repatriation of Turks and Moroccans.

Constitutional reform The fundamental rights of the individual are in conflict: the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sex is irreconcilable with the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief; the freedoms of conscience, expression, association, assembly and demonstration are in conflict with the prohibition of discrimination. Individual fundamental rights are, by their very nature, in contradiction with the solidarity bias defended by independent associations and public authorities in their fight against segregation. Today, lawyers are discussing at length the meaning of the constitutional provisions of European law, the delegation of power to independent administrations, the judge’s review of the constitutionality of ordinary laws and the system for the election and appointment of politicians and leaders. But the main shortcoming of Dutch citizenship and cohesion within the central authority is the lack of popular attachment to the Constitution. That is why the 1983 Constitution, which codified past ideologies of emancipation and well-being, must be amended. It is not only Article 1 on equal treatment and Article 23 on equal public funding of public and private schools: it is the whole range of relationships between the community, authorities, associations, minorities and individual citizens that must be rethought and reformulated.

A critical and non-exclusive historical awareness It is up to the school and public debate to educate the Dutch people about their country’s long historical past and not to limit themselves to the spectacular twentieth century. It is a question of telling how the Dutch people were formed, without forgetting the periods during which they mingled with others, including those who are nowadays concerned by emigration and Europeanisation. The bloody subjugation of Aceh by the Netherlands should be studied in the same way as the bloody subjugation of Armenia by the Turks. In addition to the important dates of May 4 and 5, these days of remembrance celebrating the end of the Second World War, there are new commemorations, such as the abolition of slavery in the West, as well as non-Christian public holidays, such as Eid Day. The new Netherlands should renounce some unnecessary symbols, such as Ascension, and replace them with commemorations and celebrations that better reflect the crucial time that the people of the Netherlands are living through together and their shared vision of the future.

Weights Who venture out of the national political culture, find themselves losing out in one way or another. Whoever wants to breathe new life into this culture must, in the case of Holland, achieve the following weighting: the disappearance of freedom and the benefits it brings is sooner or later compensated, in the ideal of Dutch civilisation, by business acumen, tolerance and pragmatism. The inequality that creates cleavages is tempered by moderation, consensus and petty-bourgeois behaviour. And the relaxation that undermines the sense of collective belonging that is characteristic of a small nation-state is balanced by simplicity, common sense and a friendly spirit.

A Brussels consensus on the political minimum The existence of the European Parliament and its political families is under serious threat. These institutions can only survive by becoming forums for cross-border discussions, like the Franco-Dutch dialogue. Politics in France and the Netherlands must take risks to promote consensus in Brussels on:

a) the place of public services, social achievements, national heritage and non-profit activities in the European Union’s internal market

(b) the principles and ideal of pluralism common to the Member States and the candidate countries (by adjusting the French and Turkish republicanisms, Dutch and Swedish corporatism, Spanish and British liberalism at European level)

(c) common principles and ideals aimed at democratically establishing an international, transnational and supranational form of politics and government.

The challenge is not to let France or the Netherlands fight to be right, but to narrow the gap between the macrodialogue of statesmen and the microdialogue of ordinary citizens in both countries. I do not expect proposals such as mine to be translated immediately and literally into action at The Hague. On the other hand, I know that such proposals will only contribute to ending the current identity crisis if the Dutch take seriously the ideas, experiences and views of the French on this essential aspect of politics.

Notes :

1. I would like to thank Marcel Mausen who is preparing a thesis on the construction of mosques in the cities of France and the Netherlands for the lively dialogues on Franco-Dutch relations. I owe a lot to the discussions I had with Jan Drentje, Hendrik Jan Schoo and Bart Jan Spruyt, which shed light on the constitutional moment in Dutch history. I would like to thank Gilbert Van de Louw of the French Embassy for his very strong support in getting this test started.

2. Chavannes, Ephimenco, Sommer, De Voogd, Wesseling and Wester.

3. This is how Niet Nix (in French: “not nothing”), a movement of young social democrats wanting to renew the PvdA Labour Party, was characterized.

4. The average growth in gross domestic product per capita (in constant prices) in 1981-1990, 1991-2000 and 2001-2005 was 1.58%, 1.48% and 1.14% respectively in France, 1.7%, 2.34% and 0.1% in the Netherlands. These figures explain somewhat why the French authorities believe that strict compliance with the Stability Pact leads to lower expenditure than available appropriations, while the Dutch authorities consider that failure to apply the terms of the Pact too easily undermines confidence in the euro.

5. On 4 October 1992, an Israeli company El Al freight plane crashed into this district of large suburban areas of Amsterdam.

6. Between autumn 1997 and spring 2004, the Dutch confidence rate in political parties, large companies and the Church fell by 28%, 31% and 38% respectively. This low level of confidence also applies to the government (from 68 to 40%) and the European Union (with an increase from 38 to only 40%). These figures were provided to me by Paul Dekker (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau).

7. The Human Development Index (HDI), developed by the United Nations Development Programme, measures a country’s level of life expectancy, education and adjusted real income.

8. Between 1994 and 2006, with Gerrit Zalm in Finance, public spending increased from 46.3 to 43.2% of GDP (about €15 billion) and public charges from 42.8 to 41.6% (about €7 billion), while family allowances and income tax decreased significantly.

9. Until the 1960s, Dutch society was organised into “pillars” corresponding to different families of religious, political or philosophical thought. Each “pillar” (Protestant, Catholic, Socialist, Freethinker…) had its own vertical organization for schools, newspapers, political parties, hospitals, sports and cultural associations, etc.

10. The first results cited were provided by TNS-NIPO, the last by Interview-NSS

11. Since 1917, the Constitution has stipulated that the State must subsidize public and private (religious) schools in the same way. This article of the Constitution is currently being challenged as it automatically involves public funding of Islamic schools.

12. Johan Rudolf Thorbecke (1789-1872) was the father of the 1848 Constitution and head of government from 1849 to 1853, from 1862 to 1866 and from 1871 to 1872. He is the Dutch Guizot, the one who reconciled radical patriotism and moderate liberalism.

13. In Dutch, the expression “op z’n Frans” (“à la française”) means “any way”. It is used here literally.

14. Dutch humanist of the 16th century, generally considered as the initiator of the principle of tolerance beyond the Protestant and Catholic divisions that marked the Eighty Years’ War (1548-1648). He was the author of the first Ethics in popular language in Europe.


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