Homes for hipsters

Why are Dutch houses are becoming unaffordable

A few months ago, my wife and I sold our apartment in Rotterdam. It was a nice place and we’d loved living there, but in truth there was nothing remarkable about it: four rooms plus a balcony the size of a bathtub, all squeezed onto the upper floors of a building which listed like a sinking ship. Given that, we were thrilled to sell it within a couple of weeks for much more than we’d expected. The champagne had barely been poured, however, when we received a sheepish phone call from our estate agent, explaining that the buyer had been unable to secure a mortgage, and had withdrawn his offer. The apartment wasn’t sold after all. We were despondent, but it didn’t matter too much: three days later we managed to sell it again; to a buyer who didn’t just match the previous bid but exceeded it by a significant amount. The price, it seemed, had risen by about 25,000 euros in a week. The apartment – small and wonky and in a slightly tough neighbourhood – was apparently worth roughly double what it had been eight years ago.

In the past, such stories were rare in the Netherlands. Despite their anarchic, fun-loving reputation, the Dutch generally are quite conservative when it comes to financial matters. file-10Debt is often frowned on, executive salaries are unspectacular, and houses are usually small. Even the wealthy often live surprisingly humble lives; dressing casually, cycling to work and eating homemade sandwiches for lunch. For years, these attitudes seemed to be reflected in property prices. In the Randstad (the urban heart of the Netherlands, where most of the population lives) it was until recently still possible to buy a fairly nice apartment for perhaps 100,000 euros, and a habitable one for perhaps half that; a fraction of what it would cost in some other countries. As a result, even in big cities like Rotterdam and the Hague, it wasn’t unusual to meet single people in their twenties, living on fairly low incomes, who owned their own homes – something which was almost unthinkable in London or New York.

Now, though, that’s all in the past. After dipping after the financial crisis, Dutch property prices are rebounding spectacularly. According to the national statistics agency, housing prices in the Netherlands rose by 9.3% in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Around a third of houses are selling for more than their asking price, and it’s increasingly common to hear of buyers paying tens of thousands above the asking price. According to estate agents, the average sale price reached a record high of €288,000 in early 2018, and is forecast to hit €300,000 soon. The Netherlands isn’t the only place where prices are rising, but the rate of increase here is roughly double that of the UK, Germany, or France; and one study found that houses on the Dutch side of the Dutch-German border were about €23,000 pricier those a few miles away in Germany, despite being smaller. In the more rural east and north of the Netherlands prices are still relatively low but in Amsterdam, growth has been dazzling: the price of the average home rose by nineteen percent in the last year alone, to €462,000. Some buyers inevitably pay even more: Justin Bieber reportedly bought an apartment in Amsterdam’s city centre for a cool $27 million. “I’ve been in the business for twenty-five years, but I’ve never seen it like this”, one estate agent in Gouda told me. “People are buying apartments faster than I can sell them”.

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The reasons for the Dutch property boom are complex, but it’s essentially down to a familiar cocktail of factors: an expanding economy, low interest rates and a shortage of new homes. Like many countries, the Netherlands suffered an economic downturn after 2008, but has since recovered strongly. As consumer confidence improves, people are keen to get moving again. On the other side of the equation, there are also problems with the housing supply. The Netherlands’ population is growing slightly, and Brexit has pushed some big organisations to relocate from London to Amsterdam. Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren has said 700,000 new homes will be needed by 2025; but in the most crowded country in Europe, there aren’t that many places to put them. “A lot of the houses in Rotterdam were built in a hurry after the war, and so aren’t very good quality”, another estate agent told me. “But that doesn’t seem to matter – there aren’t many new homes, so people are desperate to buy whatever’s available”.

Politically, it all represents a headache for the government. Plans to build more affordable housing have stalled, and there are long waiting lists for social housing. At one local election debate which I attended a few months ago, candidates from across the political spectrum tied themselves in knots arguing for rapid housebuilding while also pledging to keep the local area unchanged . “We need to build hundreds more homes which young people can afford”, one right-wing candidate said, moments before complaining about the loss of local green spaces, the overcrowding of the nearby town centre and the number of east Europeans working for low wages in the building trade.file-7

Economically, meanwhile, the big concern is that the whole economy could take a nosedive if the house price bubble bursts. “Extreme house price growth is unsustainable”, Rabobank has warned, and is leading to “an increased risk of stronger market downturns once a turning point occurs”. Socially, too, the explosion of property values has caused strains. The Netherlands is known as an egalitarian place, where the proletariat and the elite live happily together in a beehive of tiny apartments and offices. However, as property prices soar, people on lower incomes risk being displaced; forced to the periphery of urban centres, or out of town altogether. This isn’t always a problem – most places in the Netherlands are within an hour or so of each other by train, and many Dutch employers are happy to pay employees’ commuting costs. Some cities have also made efforts to make commuting easier. There are more trains between Amsterdam and Utrecht, for example, and a new north-south metro line is helping open the north side of Amsterdam to development. However, preposterous prices are no longer confined to the capital, and prices in cities like the Hague are now rising even faster than they are in Amsterdam. “My job’s in Amsterdam but I have to move to Westzaan!” one acquaintance told me in despair, referring to an unexciting town north of the capital. “Imagine that! Westzaan! It’s like living in another country!” To Brits or Americans who suffer through long commutes, living twenty miles from work might sound like a good deal. But for some people in the Randstad, the ‘Dutch dream’ – a nice neat apartment a short bike ride from work, in a neighbourhood with bars and shops – looks increasingly hard to attain.

A final challenge is gentrification, as relatively deprived urban neighborhoods are abruptly reshaped by affluent arrivals. Walking around my old neighbourhood in Rotterdam this week, I was shocked by how quickly it was changing. When I first moved there, years ago, North Rotterdam still felt fairly gritty. It was relatively rare to hear people speak English, and tourists were in short supply. If I wanted finer foods – Italian ham, say, or nice Belgian beer – I’d buy them in other cities. Now, though, things are rather different. Rotterdam’s gleaming new train station offers a warm welcome for foreign visitors, who flock to the fancy food stalls in the new market hall. ‘Brown bars’ (bruine kroegen) where sozzled locals once grumbled and gambled over little glasses of Heineken are now fashionable bistros, serving expensive brunches of salmon and sourdough. After years when Rotterdam felt like a poorer, scruffier sister to Amsterdam and the Hague, it’s suddenly hip: a Berlin or Brooklyn on the Maas. From the perspective of people like me, it’s all rather wonderful. But it’s also not hard to see how people like my old next-door neighbour could be disgruntled: the nice Dutch family over the road has been replaced by a group of American students, the local bar has been converted to a fancy coffee shop, and the local grocers’ is now a vintage record store. Between the 1960s and 2000s, the arrival of thousands of (largely Moroccan) immigrants  transformed many Dutch neighourhoods, and made some older residents feel that the Netherlands was becoming a foreign land. Now, rapid gentrification may be having a similar effect.

Before leaving Rotterdam, I went for a pastel de nata and cold-press coffee, and then stopped briefly to look in the windows of a local estate agent. file-9Browsing the properties, I was mildly disappointed to realise that prices had risen sharply yet again, and my wife and I probably could’ve made even more profit if we’d waited a few months. The couple standing next to me at the window didn’t seem to mind, though. A  young woman with flowers tattooed on her arms pointed to a photo of an ugly modern apartment which was on sale for well over a quarter of a million euros. “We should buy something soon”, she told her boyfriend, “before it gets expensive”.

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The Last Resort

A medical mistake and the limits of forgiveness

Adrienne Cullen was at work in Amsterdam when the phone call came. It was her doctor, calling from his hospital in Utrecht. An Irishwoman in her 50s, she had been living in the Netherlands for several years.

She had been treated at the hospital – the University Medical Centre Utrecht (UMCU) – in 2011, but had been assured by her doctor that she seemed healthy. Now, two years later, he wanted to see her urgently.

Early in the summer of 2013, she visited the hospital, where the doctor gave her shocking, terrible news. A review of old pathology test results had found that a test for cancerous tissue which he had conducted two years previously had, in fact, been positive. The cancer which Adrienne did not know she had was going to kill her.

Read the rest of the story in the Irish Times here

Exploring the Rhine

I usually aim to post articles or blogs posts on this website quite regularly, but recently I’ve been shamefully lax in doing so. There, is however, a fairly decent excuse: I’ve been busy writing a new book. It’s called ‘The Rhine: Following Europe’s Greatest River from Amsterdam to the Alps’, and will be released later this summer (and, since you asked, is available to pre-order here).cover the Rhine

Writing a book is a long and strange process. I’ve often thought of it as a little like building a house: you spend ages planning what you hope the end result will look like, painstakingly laying the foundations and drawing up plans. Then comes the construction: first building a solid framework, and then adding more and more detail until the whole thing finally looks beautiful enough to invite guests around. After nearly two years of work, I’m now at the final stage: touching up a few last bits of paintwork before the public arrives.

As I write in the book, the river Rhine often seems to get overlooked these days. The problem is partly that a lot of travel writing is essentially based on hyperbole: everyone wants to be the first person to ride a donkey across Tuvalu, or drag a fridge around Honduras. In that context, the Rhine can seem rather familiar or un-exotic. It’s also fair to say that rivers don’t permeate our consciousness in quite the way they used to. In times gone by, a major river like the Rhine would have been a maker and breaker of nations; a combination of moat, motorway, power station and water supply which people would gladly die to defend. In the 21st century, though, rivers aren’t seen in quite such dramatic terms. The world is flat, we’re told, and it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as there’s fast Wi-Fi and somewhere to charge your phone. Against that backdrop, the idea that a river might be worth fighting for has (in Europe at least) come to seem rather old-fashioned. Even the mightiest waterways are seen as nice places to walk a dog or have a picnic, rather than exciting, important things. In the case of the Rhine, there are also some odd cultural biases at play. Younger Dutch people, in particular, often seem prejudiced against the Rhine region, dismissing it as boring even as they fly over its waterfalls and mountains on their way to visit waterfalls and mountains in Asia. Many other Europeans automatically think of the Rhine as a German river, even though it flows through six different countries, and has its source in Switzerland and its mouth in Holland. In the UK, meanwhile, it’s still common to assume not only that the Rhine is German, but that German history began in 1914 and ended in 1945, and that anything German must be a bit joyless and industrial. Like the drummer in a rock band, the Rhine never quite gets the attention it deserves.

This is a shame, because by any measure, the Rhine is still utterly extraordinary. Winding its way some eight hundred miles from the Dutch coast to the Alps, it’s the second-longest river in central and western Europe. 2It charges through not only Germany but also the Netherlands, France, Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein; going from an icy pool through rocky gullies, a country-sized lake, majestic cathedral cities, grassy polder meadows, hipster harbours and then finally a dazzling sandy beach. The river has also played a crucial role in the history of Europe, and is continuing to shape its future. Under the Romans, the Rhine served as the edge of the empire; the boundary at which the Romans effectively gave up trying to claim new territory and decided to build a beautiful big wall. (Caesar wrote that the tribes living north of the river “showed such determination in their bravery that when those in the front rank had fallen, the men behind them stood upon the slain and continued the fight from on top of the corpses”.) Later, the river was fought over countless times, by everyone from Napoleon to Bismarck and the Nazis. During the Cold War, NATO said it would fight “to hold the Rhine River bridges…at all cost”, and stockpiled hundreds of nuclear weapons along its banks. France and Germany have battled over its banks as regularly as teenaged siblings forced to share a bedroom.

More happily, the river has also brought huge wealth to almost everywhere it passes through. It’s probably not entirely a coincidence that several of the countries of the Rhine (Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands) are among the very richest in the world. Culturally, the river has also inspired countless statesmen, warriors, artists and writers, from John Le Carré to Wagner, Byron and Beethoven. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ after a visit to a Rhine castle where a local man was rumoured to be experimenting on dead bodies, and Karl Drais invented the bicycle on its banks. Bertha Benz took the world’s first car for a joyride along the river, and it was in a riverside laboratory that a young Swiss scientist accidentally discovered LSD. As I write in the book, without the Rhine, there might have been no world wars and no European Union, no Golden Age and no Reformation, no Dutch paintings and no German car industry. “The Rhine”, wrote Victor Hugo, “is historical, …mysterious, …spangled with gold, …abounding with phantoms and fables”.

Today, the river still forms, in various places, the border between France and Germany, Germany and Switzerland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, and Austria and Switzerland.4.jpg It has Europe’s biggest port at its mouth, and some of Europe’s most dynamic cities – Rotterdam, Dusseldorf, Strasbourg, Basel, Cologne – on its banks. As I cycled, swam, walked and boated my way up the river, I found it littered with odd and interesting sights: nuclear power stations converted into theme parks, thunderous waterfalls flinging spray into the air, rowdy nightclubs in converted warehouses, glittering modern skyscrapers and Gladiator-style coliseums. I also found it extraordinarily beautiful. In my twenties, I spent years travelling the world in search of perfect tropical sunsets and jungle ruins, but rarely saw anywhere as jaw-dropping as the source of the Rhine at Lake Toma; a shiny blue pearl dropped high in the snowy Swiss mountains.

Setting out upstream from Amsterdam, I was looking forward to re-visiting some places I knew well, but also had a few big questions which I wanted to answer. I won’t give too much away here, but suffice to say I was pleased to find the river thriving. In the 1980s the Rhine was so polluted that people called it “the biggest sewer in Europe”, but after a decades-long cleanup operation it’s now overflowing with fish, beavers and storks. Cities like Dusseldorf are booming, and the port at the river’s mouth in Holland is still by far the biggest in Europe, handling more shipping containers each year than Zeebrugge, Barcelona, Southampton, Felixstowe, Genoa and Le Havre combined. From source to mouth, the river fizzes with energy.

Like everywhere else in the world these days, the Rhine isn’t without its challenges. During the months I spent travelling upstream, Germany was grappling to absorb more than a million refugees, and France had been hit by brutal terrorist attacks. 3Austria had nearly elected a fascist as President, Angela Merkel had been battered in the polls, Donald Trump was gleefully igniting trade wars, and the British were doing their bit to promote free trade by leaving the world’s biggest free trade area. In the Netherlands, there are still serious problems with flooding and climate change, and some of the riverside towns which have grown rich from international trade are (ironically enough) hotbeds of isolationist politics. The French economy continues to stumble, and German manufacturing giants like Volkswagen have had their reputations tarnished. Many places along the river are extraordinarily beautiful and successful but others, like the former industrial town of Duisburg, are not. For a region which has long thrived thanks to its openness to the outside world, the rise of alt-right politics can seem like an existential threat.

In most ways, though, the people who live along the river still seem to represent the very best of European values: open to the world, mercantile and hospitable. Even small towns on the Rhine are surprisingly cosmopolitan: places where Polish boatmen and American businesspeople rub shoulders with Australian tourists, Norwegian chemical engineers and Dutch designers; all busy making money and then going for a drink and a laugh in a kroeg or a brauhaus. Events like Gay Pride parade in Cologne, where there are more leather harnesses on display than at a horse-racing convention, could have been designed to disprove foreign stereotypes about Germany as a boring, sensible place.

In an age when our culture seems increasingly globalized and homogenized, this small patch of Europe is also still amazingly diverse, and it’s easy to walk over a few bridges and visit three different countries within ten minutes on foot. In places like northern Switzerland, the river fronts a bewildering patchwork of dialects, nationalities and opinions. Inevitably, many people along the river proud of their local traditions. The Dutch like to make jokes about Germans, and the Germans quick to look down on French. The Swiss moan about lazy Austrians, and the Austrians grumble about German drivers. The Alsatians gossip about the Parisians, and the Liechtensteiners complain that no-one knows their country exists. But as an outsider, it’s also interesting to notice that the people of the Rhine often have more in common than they’d like to admit. From Utrecht to Basel, people are open and laid-back but also oddly conservative; with a love of hard work and a reflexive aversion to risk, and a fondness for keeping everything in its place and on schedule. The Swiss are the Dutch of the mountains.

Writing a book is a strange process, often daunting and often stressful; like endlessly studying for an exam which never seems to arrive. (“I love deadlines”, Douglas Adams once said. “I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”) Most of the time, though, writing – particularly travel writing – feels like the best job in the world: effectively making a career out of travelling to beautiful places, meeting unusual people and learning about interesting things. For me, writing this latest book was a great opportunity to explore more of the Netherlands and beyond, and also a lot of fun. Strictly in the name of research, I managed (among many other things) to go rowing through the centre of Amsterdam, explore underground nuclear bunkers, climb through forests to ruined castles, ride on a cow through the mountains, dance at a carnival, discuss politics naked with a group of elderly Germans, take my African dog to a ski resort, go wine-tasting in three different countries and eat fondue on a snow-capped Liechtenstein mountain. 1I learned about all sorts of things, from how the Romans brewed beer with ox-guts to what the French really think of the Germans, why the Swiss like shopping, why the Dutch eat so much cheese, and why gambling a book advance in a casino isn’t a good idea. Above all, writing about the Rhine helped me fall further in love with a region which I already knew well, but (like many people) had too often ignored in favour of more exotic things. I hope that (in due course) many of you will enjoy reading all about it, and fall in love with the Rhine too.

Splitting the Difference

Why the new Dutch Government isn’t as boring as it seems

Like a man in a diving suit trying to complete a marathon, Mark Rutte has finally staggered over the finish line. Nearly seven months after Dutch voters went to the polls, the incumbent Prime Minister has finally managed to negotiate a new coalition agreement with the progressive D66 and the conservative Christian Democrats and Christian Union; an odd collection of allies which the NRC newspaper memorably described as representing both “the cargo bike and the church pew”.

Dutch politics is often pretty boring, but when the elections took place this spring they generated a terrific fuss in the international media, focused largely on the possibility that the populist Geert Wilders might end up running one of the world’s most liberal countries. Many months later, the media’s reaction to the coalition agreement has been much more muted. This is perhaps because – like most people with any sense – journalists simply got bored of watching the marathon talks drag on and on. However, the low level of interest also reflects the fact that the result is completely unsurprising. It wasn’t impossible that Wilders would make a breakthrough, but if you’d asked an expert a year ago to predict the eventual outcome of the elections, they’d probably have said: Mark Rutte will win the most votes, Geert Wilders will do well but not well enough, and Rutte will eventually return to power with an unwieldy coalition of smaller parties, pledging to deliver a moderately right-wing agenda.170316090557-01-mark-rutte-dutch-election-results-0315-super-tease

In many ways, that’s exactly what’s happened. The agenda announced by Rutte and his partners this week contains little that would disappoint centre-right leaders in Britain, Germany or Scandinavia: lower taxes for individuals and businesses; more funding for the police, military and counterterrorism; tougher steps to fight climate change; and stricter rules on immigration. Coalition negotiations inevitably have rounded the sharper edges off the pre-election pledges, and grand promises about transforming the economy have been replaced by sensible but technocratic changes to the tax code. Controversial issues like euthanasia have been kicked into the long grass.

All coalitions are compromises, and Rutte’s latest is no exception. A blockbuster budget for the military is counterbalanced by a pledge to close coal power stations and build more windfarms. Tax cuts for corporations are offset by more paternity leave and more money for development aid. Stricter rules on refugee residency are balanced by lower tuition fees, and cuts to sick pay bills for small firms are offset by more money for teachers and nursing homes. Rutte himself described the new government’s programme as “ambitious and balanced”, but in practice it’s far more balanced than it is ambitious – a set of compromises which will (in the grand tradition of Dutch coalitions) make no-one entirely happy, but not really offend anyone either.

Looking a little deeper, though, there are a few things which are more unexpected. Along with the fairly mainstream stuff about taxes and education, there are also a few dog-whistles: odd little policies which most voters will hardly notice, but which will delight the bases of the smaller parties in the coalition. The idea of giving all 18-year-olds a book about Dutch history, for example, is unlikely to tilt the earth on its axis, but will delight conservative voters who are horrified about the fecklessness of young people today. The lefties get more houses being built without natural gas connections in the kitchen, and there’s a proposal to establish government-run cannabis farms to supply the country’s coffee shops. The real-world impact of these policies may be limited, but if you’re the kind of traditional-values voter who loses sleep over the fact that not enough Dutch schoolchildren know the words to the national anthem, you’ll be thrilled.

It’s also interesting to see the coalition agreement in the context of the broader currents reshaping Europe. Rutte has long been a reliable ally of Angela Merkel in her efforts to make Europe less free-spending and more competitive; a member of the am‘Northern Alliance’ of conservatives standing up to the spendthrift ways of hapless Greeks and Italians. Under the new coalition government, with the leftish Labour Party (PvdA) now out of power, that dynamic looks set to continue. The new government has firmly ruled out Eurozone governments forming a joint budget, and said the creation of new Eurozone debt mechanisms would be “undesirable”. They’ve also made it clear that future bailouts will require investors to take involuntary “haircuts” on their debts; and said they’ll expect all EU member states to “fulfil their responsibilities”. This kind of stuff doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing, but is likely to please Merkel and disappoint people like Emmanuel Macron, who has his own grand plans to reform Europe. Post-Brexit, the EU may end up looking more Dutch than before.

Within the Netherlands, the reaction to the new government has been largely positive. The parties which aren’t in the coalition are naturally opposed to it, but most people seem relieved that the circus over, and the government can get back to doing what Dutch governments do best: running the country quite competently without making any radical changes. However, it’s also worth noting that the story may not be completely over yet, for two reasons. Firstly, despite all the talk of how the Dutch “defeated the virus of populism” this year, the new government’s grip on power is strikingly fragile. Together, the four parties which make up the new coalition hold only 76 seats in the 150-seat parliament. Slender majorities aren’t unusual in the Netherlands, but the new administration will be the first four-party coalition for forty years, making it harder than usual for the Prime Minister to hold all the pieces together. The Christian Union and D66 remain bitterly opposed on issues like euthanasia and abortion, and it’s not unthinkable that one big bust-up over immigration or climate change could collapse the whole administration, forcing new elections. Mark Rutte is now on his third coalition in six years and has acquired a reputation as a canny negotiator, but – like a circus ringmaster trying to keep the peace between tigers and lions and bears – his future isn’t completely secure.

Secondly, it’s also worth noting that the new government’s whole agenda rests on a single basic assumption: that the Dutch economy will keep growing strongly. After a shaky few years, the Dutch economy is firmly on the upswing again, with GDP growing at its fastest rate for nearly two decades. During the coalition negotiations, this gave Rutte and his partners a lot of flexibility: they could afford to reverse some of Rutte’s own previous spending cuts, and increase funding for popular things like the police and schools, without having to make unpopular cuts elsewhere. However, this dynamic also means that the new government’s position is again rather fragile – even a slight dip in growth rates could play havoc with their plans, and potentially force the coalition to make some very difficult decisions. Like a man running up credit card debts ahead of payday, Rutte is assuming that he’ll be able to cover the bills, but it wouldn’t take much for things to go wrong. For now, the outlook is good, but it might not be too long before Dutch politics gets interesting again.

Pride and Prejudice

Germany’s mixed record on equal rights – and how Merkel gets away with it

For anyone who believes the clichés about Germany being a sober, sensible, slightly humourless country, the Gay Pride parade in Cologne might come as a big surprise. Travelling down the Rhine yesterday as part of a book project I’m working on, I found no shortage of eye-catching attractions on the big river bridge in Cologne; from bearded men in ball-gowns to topless women spraying champagne, and a man dressed as a dog on a leather leash, barking at the city’s twin-towered cathedral.

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Cologne’s Pride parade – better known as ‘Christopher Street Day’, in honour of the place where the Stonewall riots began in 1969 – has long been a major fixture of the Rhineland summer, attracting hundreds of thousands people to drink and dance, protest and celebrate. This year, the mood was perhaps even livelier than usual. Just ten days before the parade, the German parliament had voted to legalize gay marriage; an occasion which saw the Bundestag erupt in cheers, glittery confetti tossed across the debating chamber and same-sex couples kissing in the gallery. It was, as the German Lesbian and Gay Association said, “a historic day, not only for lesbians and gays, but also for a more just and democratic society”.

Across Europe, gay rights have taken huge strides forwards in recent years. The Netherlands voted to legalize gay marriage in 2001, and was soon followed by a host of imitators, including France, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and even the United States. There are still serious problems with discrimination in many places, but in countries like Britain, the political turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Twenty years ago, it was routine for senior British politicians to advocate banning the discussion of homosexuality in schools. Now, even on the conservative right, it’s almost as unacceptable to oppose gay marriage as it is to love taxes or dislike dogs.

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In all those years of progress, though, there’s been one major exception. Same-sex couples in Germany have been able to register their relationships on a legal basis for several years, but when it came to actual marriage, the German government has bucked the European trend, refusing to change the law even as the rest of the world moves on. The reasons for this are complex, but include the personal views of the Angela Merkel. The Chancellor has recently become a hero of the European Left, thanks to her refugee policy and her principled opposition to Donald Trump. However, at heart she’s fundamentally a right-wing politician; a pro-business conservative who’s the devout daughter of a Protestant pastor. “Man and wife, marriage and family, stand at the centre of our social model”, she said in 2005. “Other lifestyles should not receive comparable constitutional protections.” In government, Merkel has depended on the support of a Bavarian conservative party, the CSU, whose president recently promised to launch a “family-oriented offensive” in support of traditional values. And outside government, too, the gay rights lobby has faced other formidable headwinds. The churches still play a significant role in German civic life, and (like the Dutch) many Germans are still quietly but profoundly conservative in their attitudes to work, money and family. Until very recently, the legalization of gay marriage in Germany looked like a passionate affair between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin: something which could theoretically happen, but was almost impossible to imagine.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, everything suddenly changed. DSCF8698Answering a question from a member of the public, Merkel unexpectedly relaxed her opposition to same-sex marriage. Five days later, parliamentarians were allowed a free vote on the issue, and history was made. German politics isn’t usually known for its rapid pace, and the change came so quickly that even some supporters were left reeling – in Bonn last week, I met someone who was convinced that the whole thing was essentially a mistake, with a few careless words by Merkel triggering a vote which she’d never expected. The Chancellor herself has claimed that the shift was more deliberate, and she changed her mind after talking to two gay women in her constituency who were caring for eight foster children.

That twee tale may well be true, but there’s also little doubt that politics again played a role. In late 2016, a poll found that 83 percent of Germans back same-sex marriage, and 95 percent think gays should be legally protected from discrimination. German elections are looming, and although Merkel looks likely to win , she’s facing a sparky liberal challenger in Martin Schulz, and must be worried about succumbing to a Clinton-style shock defeat. As in the Netherlands, German governments are almost always coalitions, and two major parties had already announced they wouldn’t agree to any future power-sharing with Merkel unless gay marriage was on the table. With prominent members of her own party coming out in favour of change, the populist AfD making homophobic comments, and Schulz noisily trying to position himself as a German Martin Luther King, Merkel was being squeezed from several sides. DSCF8774Weighing the odds, she may have judged it was best to leap without looking for too long. U-turns on other issues like nuclear power and military conscription haven’t always been popular with her conservative base, but they have enabled her to keep firm control of the centre ground. By being flexible on gay marriage too, and allowing MPs to vote on the issue immediately, she’s effectively killed off the issue before the election campaign really gets started. Ever pragmatic, the Chancellor seems to have pulled off the neat trick of keeping both sides happy – personally opposing gay marriage while heading a government which makes it possible. One can’t help but wonder whether poor Theresa May (who once opposed gay marriage but then changed her mind and helped implement it as Home Secretary) would be quite so easily forgiven if she now voted against gay rights.

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Of course, the battle for equality is far from over, and in Cologne on Sunday there were plenty of lurking criticisms: snarky posters of Merkel hugging Hillary Clinton, campaign ads for Martin Schulz, and protest banners accusing the Christian Democrats of persistent homophobia. Overall, though, in a country which often seems haunted by the moral failings of its past, the mood was grateful and joyful. And politically, the U-turn seems to provide further proof that whatever her faults, Merkel is still an unusually savvy operator. As the public broadcaster ZDF put it on Twitter on Friday: “Merkel’s vote against ‘marriage for everybody’ is a shame. But she has another eight terms as Chancellor to think about it”.

Little Britain

The Tory Party Turns Inward

Just over eleven years ago, a young politician called David Cameron traveled to Norway, where he rode a sled towed by husky dogs to a remote glacier.

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Cameron had recently been elected as leader of the venerable Conservative Party and wanted – he told waiting photographers – to see the effects of global warming “first-hand”. In the months and years after the trip, Cameron’s sled ride was widely derided. In both the left- and right-wing media, ‘husky-hugging’ became something of a by-word for the worst kind of political posturing, hollow environmentalism and photo-opportunism. At the time, though, to some people at least, it seemed like a ground-breaking step: a moment when the Conservatives stopped talking about ‘bringing back matron’ in hospitals, and began to engage with the modern world. I started working for the Conservatives around the same time as the Norway trip, and can remember the palpable sense of relief and excitement which swept through parliamentary offices and Westminster bars as Cameron made his vision clear. Finally, we thought, a leader who was more interested in Kashmir than in fox-hunting, more worried about abolishing poverty than banning abortion, and more likely to spend his holidays surfing in France than making jam in the Home Counties!

In hindsight, of course, Cameron’s record is far from unblemished. But even in retrospect, the husky stunt was a signifier of something important: a worldview which one might call centre-right internationalism. In five years as Conservative leader, and another six as Prime Minister, Cameron spoke strongly in favour of international development aid, and co-chaired the UN process to set new global development goals. He built alliances with other centre-right globalists like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Domestically, he modernised the party’s platform and promoted candidates who were comfortable with the way the world actually is today, rather than the way it was in the 1950s. Economic conservativism was married with social liberalism; tax cuts with gay marriage; a hawkish military policy with proud support for British charity abroad. Cameron insisted the party should stop “banging on” about Europe, and then (having foolishly called a referendum) campaigned in favour of Britain remaining a strong, reformist voice in the EU.

 

 

Of course, all this had its downsides – Cameron and his acolytes were (among other things) rightly criticised for seeming aloof and detached from the lives of people who couldn’t ski and did’t read four newspapers before breakfast. Above all, as Prime Minister he’ll be judged by the single disastrous decision which made him, as a woundingly accurate Sky News headline put it, a ‘Serial Gambler Who Lost It All’. However, in terms of his outlook, Cameron at his best embodied (like Tony Blair before him) what Britain could and should be in the 21st century: cosmopolitan, assertive, globally engaged and outward-looking. For many people like me – members of that privileged, globe-trotting generation who were just as likely to spend weekends in Lisbon as in Leicester – the Conservatives of 2005-2010 seemed to embody what we wanted Britain to be, if not domestically then at least on the world stage. One of the reasons I was happy to stay working for the party, on and off, for about five years was that I didn’t want to see that vision – for confident, tolerant, centre-right internationalism – defeated, and replaced by something more old-fashioned.

Yet sadly, under Theresa May, that’s exactly what now seems to be happening. This year’s British election campaign has been pretty disagreeable in many ways, but one of them is its sheer parochialism. Politicians across the scale seem to be competing to prove they believe that there’s no good sense to be found south of Brighton or west of Harwich.

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This is partly about Brexit, of course, and the loss of influence which leaving the EU will entail.

It’s also partly about May’s baffling decision to align (or at least, be seen to align) with Donald Trump at the expense of people like Macron and Merkel. But even looking beyond Brexit, the Conservatives seem to be embracing the idea that Britain should withdraw from the world stage.

Efforts to balance Brexit with a new global role for Britain have been half-hearted at best. The international aid commitment has been kept, but only after a bruising internal fight, and is now treated like a dirty secret best not talked about. Brussels is treated as an enemy, and geopolitics as a zero-sum game where Britain only wins when other countries lose. Foreign experts reportedly have been banned from advising the government on Brexit, and foreign students are discouraged from doing anything as foolish as going to Britain to learn about the world. Businesses may be forced to reveal the proportions of their workforce which are “foreign”, as if hiring people from (say) Germany or the Netherlands were something to be ashamed of. ‘Immigration’ is considered a dirty word, and the triumvirate of politicians running British foreign policy – Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis – do little to inspire confidence in their strategic vision. On issues like Russia and Ukraine, British policy is difficult to define. Ironically, an administration which will be judged almost solely on its ability to manage foreign policy doesn’t really seem to have one.

One might well argue that all this represents a necessary retreat from the over-reach of previous years, which lead to calamities in places like Iraq and Libya. However, 631880596watching the election campaign unfold, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the petty domesticism of it all, and the extent to which leaders have focused on issues which could be designed to discourage first-time voters: grammar schools, dementia, inheritance taxes, fox-hunting and clamping down on internet freedom.

Above all, the government sends countless small signals about the new world order they wish to build; pledging to create a post-Brexit “Empire 2.0” in which “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. There seems to be little in Theresa May’s worldview with which UKIP would disagree.  At best, this represents a weakening of the internationalist tradition which has served Britain (and the Conservatives) well. At worst, it represents a wholesale rejection of Britain’s strategic role as a defender of liberal values, and the beginning of a long process which will see the UK turn from a global hub into an isolated, grumpy fortress.

When Brits go to polls on Thursday, May’s Conservatives will almost certainly win a comfortable majority, and continue governing in much the same way as they have done before. Given the feeble alternatives, that’s probably a good thing. In my opinion, a government lead by Jeremy Corbyn would be a disaster, and (like any reflexive, populist backlash) harmful to the very people it would claim to be helping. After the election, post-match analysis will probably focus on the decimated centre-left: those centrist New Labour supporters who feel abandoned or betrayed by Jeremy Corbyn, and may (if he clings on as leader) break away to form a new party. However, it’s perhaps also worth sparing a thought for those of us who are stranded on the internationalist centre-right, too. nintchdbpict000329243420

Faced with a choice between a pro-Brexit, pro-Trump, anti-globalist Conservative Party and a pro-Brexit, pacifist, socialist Labour Party, a former Tory internationalist could be forgiven for feeling a distinct lack of enthusiasm for either.

This week, someone erected giant effigy of Theresa May atop the White Cliffs of Dover, giving the middle finger to the rest of the world. No-one seems to know who put the effigy up, and (unlike the huskies) it certainly wasn’t an official Conservative Party campaign stunt. But the fact that it could have been speaks volumes.

Pim, Populism and Polder Politics

The Mixed Legacy of Pim Fortuyn

Fifteen years ago this weekend, the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn attended a radio interview in Hilversum, a small town not far from Amsterdam.Pim_Fortuyn_-_May_4 There was just over a week to go until the 2002 national elections, and opinion polls showed that that Fortuyn’s party was on track to win a significant number of votes – so many, in fact, that he might even become Prime Minister of the Netherlands. After a lively discussion of his future career prospects, Fortuyn left the studio, ready for his next engagement. But as he strode towards his Jaguar, a young man stepped forward and shot him several times. Fortuyn bled to death in the car park.

For the Netherlands – a country where no leader had been assassinated since William of Orange, more than three centuries previously – the assassination was a landmark event in the country’s history; a crime so heinous as to be profoundly “un-Dutch”. Thousands filled the streets in tribute to Fortuyn, and a sea of flowers swept across the pavement in front of his house in Rotterdam. A decade and a half later, the shock has naturally faded, and commemorations of the anniversary are largely low-key. However, long after his death, Fortuyn’s legacy remains significant.

Most obviously, Fortuyn’s meteoric rise helped lay the foundations for a new kind of populism which was once rare, but now dominates headlines worldwide. Geert Wilders, for one, differs from Fortuyn in many ways, but is a clear ideological descendant. “Today we remember a great man”, Wilders tweeted on Saturday, before quoting Fortuyn on the “aggression of Islam”.

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In today’s climate, it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary such populist sentiments once seemed. In the Netherlands, for much of the post-war era politics was sensible to the point of being utterly boring. Under the so-called ‘polder model’ of government, Dutch votes were usually split among a large number of political parties, and the Netherlands was run largely on the basis of compromise and negotiation. The convergence of major Dutch parties over several years made grand coalitions across the right/left divide possible, but also created a perception that nothing ever really changed. People who rose to the top in Dutch politics were usually boring technocrats rather than consensus-shattering Thatchers or Reagans.

In that context, Pim Fortuyn’s arrival on the scene was the political equivalent of a Groningen earthquake. He was flamboyant and outgoing; a snappy dresser with a soap-opera love life, who deliberately courted the media by saying things which others thought unsayable. “Ik zeg wat ik denk en ik doe wat ik zeg!” he liked to say. “I say what I think and I do what I say!” As tensions rose after 9/11, Fortuyn deftly exploited fears that the Netherlands was in decline and the Dutch had taken tolerance too far, looking the other way even as immigration undermined the very fabric of society. “This is a full country”, he once said. “I think 16 million Dutchmen are about enough.” Many Dutch were appalled by his views, but many others were thrilled: in March 2002, Fortuyn’s party stunned the establishment by winning more than a third of the vote in local elections in Rotterdam. Shortly afterwards, opinion polls showed that Fortuyn was among the front-runners to become the next Prime Minister, or at least secure a major role in a coalition government. Ultimately, history intervened and prevented that happening – but fifteen years on, it’s hard not to conclude that much Dutch political debate – including the recent Wilders-dominated election campaign – is still conducted in Fortuyn’s shadow. He was a populist before it was popular to be one.

Fortuyn’s other great legacy was to reset the parameters for political debate in the Netherlands. In almost every country, there are certain red lines which any sensible politician would never dare to cross.220px-Beeld_Pim_Fortuyn_Rotterdam In America, for example, it’s all but impossible for prospective leaders to criticise the military, while in Britain it’s career suicide for a politician to express anything less than a deep love for the National Health Service. In general, the positions of these red lines are well-established along party lines: politicians who take a conservative stance on economic issues also take a conservative stance on social issues. Conservative Republicans and French National Fronters who aren’t keen on open borders and free trade are also not usually big fans of gay marriage.  In the Netherlands, issues relating to race and immigration were long considered well over the red line – newspapers were restricted from reporting the race of criminal suspects, and any politician who criticised immigration risked a firestorm of criticism. Dutch tolerance only went so far.

Fortuyn, though, helped completely redefine those parameters, taking a strong right-wing stance on some issues while remaining very liberal on others.  Crucially, he argued that his own intolerance of Islam was a means of safeguarding Dutch tolerance: when a Dutch imam famously said that homosexuals were “pigs”, Fortuyn said that the imam had a right to voice that opinion – but that Fortuyn himself also had a right to say that the imam’s religion was “backward” or “retarded”. Media interviews would move seamlessly from discussions of how much Fortuyn hated radical Islam to how much he enjoyed pursuing young men in Rotterdam’s gay bars. “I don’t hate Arab men – I even sleep with them”, he said. For all his outspokenness, the red lines which Fortuyn drew were clear: criticism of immigrants or Islam was fair game, but hostility towards gays, transsexuals, drug users, divorced people or single parents was beyond the pale. Nearly a generation later, these red lines still exist – Geert Wilders is happy to stand trial for promoting hatred against Moroccans, but staunchly defends gay rights. This careful straddling of fences also helps explain why Fortuyn’s reputation has survived relatively intact: in contrast with people like the Le Pens, he’s often remembered as someone whose views were controversial rather than hateful.

Looking back, it’s impossible to guess what might have happened had Fortuyn lived and won the elections. Looking around today’s Netherlands, and surveying its political scene, one suspects he would not approve. Yet whatever one’s politics, it’s fairly certain that if Fortuyn had risen to power, many of his cheerleaders would have turned against him sooner or later. In the worst case, his anti-immigrant policies might have been taken to their logical, Trumpian conclusion: discrimination and deportations on the polder. In the best case, a Prime Minister Fortuyn might have stayed true to his better instincts, but still ended up disappointing those who hoped he’d deliver radical change, just as every other inspiring leader from Blair to Obama (and, soon, Emmanuel Macron) inevitably does. Either way, to many Rotterdammers, he remains an iconic figure: a kind of Dutch Princess Diana, about whom it’s impossible to say a bad word.