The New Brazil

A second wave – and realising I was wrong

About a year ago, I started writing another book. The premise was simple: as someone who was born in Britain but has lived in the Netherlands for years, and who now has dual nationality, I’ve long been fascinated by how well things work here. When I need an appointment at a Dutch hospital, I can get one almost immediately. When a pothole appears in the street near my house, it’s usually repaired overnight. When I catch a train it’s almost always on time and connects perfectly with waiting buses and ferries. Crime rates are low and incomes high. People work part-time, take long holidays and cycle everywhere; Dutch children are regularly reported to be the happiest in the world. The Netherlands seems, in short, an excellent example of how you should run a country. “Everything just works”, I remember one expat saying to me in amazement, not long after they arrived from Brexit-bashed Britain. “All the bloody time”.

Twelve months into my writing project, however, such arguments are becoming increasingly difficult to make. When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, the Netherlands stumbled a bit at first, incurring a heavy toll in lives, but eventually got things under control; implementing a laid-back ‘intelligent lockdown’ which (while never quite as effective as its architects claimed) did a reasonably good job of bringing infections and deaths under control while allowing some form of normal life to continue. In early April, at least one hundred and fifty Dutch people were dying from the virus every day, but as the country locked down, this fell to around five a week. New infections plateaued at close to zero. By June, Prime Minister Mark Rutte was announcing that the crisis was over and “a new normal” had arrived; handing out flowers to his staff and striking a celebratory tone which was, in retrospect, rather unwise. People were given the impression that the war was over, when in fact it was still only 1940.

Fast-forward a few months, and things are spinning badly out of control. As the lockdown was relaxed in the summer, infections inevitably crept upwards again, rising to a few hundred per week in early August. By the start of September, they’d reached about three and a half thousand cases a week. Two weeks later, they’d more than doubled to over eight thousand cases a week, and by this week had roughly tripled again, to over twenty thousand cases a week. The daily data looks even worse: this time last week, new infections were running at well under four thousand per day, but yesterday (Thursday) they reached nearly six thousand a day. Rotterdam now has more daily infections than Denmark. More than a thousand people are in hospital because of the virus, with about a quarter of these in intensive care. Deaths are running at around a hundred a week. According to figures from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the Netherlands has had, in the last fourteen days, roughly the same number of new Covid-19 infections as Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden combined.

The emergence of a second wave isn’t unique to the Netherlands, of course – many countries are now seeing infections rise again, and some of those once praised for their effective responses are struggling. But the Netherlands unfortunately seems like a particularly acute case: after spending months being appalled about the uncontrolled spread of the virus in places like Brazil and the US, the Dutch now find themselves in a worse situation. To some of us, this summer felt like the last days of Rome, with everyone drinking beer in the sun and going out for pizza while the Vandals and Goths gathered at the gates.

The problem isn’t just that infections have risen, it’s that the authorities’ response is increasingly muddled. In the last few weeks, I’ve tried five times to obtain an appointment for a coronavirus test (mostly for other people), and always found both the telephone booking system and the website over capacity. On three occasions I gave up trying; the other two times I eventually secured a testing slot about five days later and nearly an hour and a half’s drive away. The samples these people gave may well be sent to Dubai or Germany to be analysed, because the Netherlands itself has run out of processing capacity: proof, I suppose, that rumours the pandemic would kill off globalisation were greatly exaggerated. Contact-tracing systems, meanwhile, have periodically been suspended due to lack of capacity, while the corona-tracing app which the government announced with great flourish in April is only now being launched, six months and thousands of deaths later. And when it comes to protective masks, the Netherlands has, like the United States, managed the rare trick of ensuring their use has become heavily politicised, so that (broadly speaking) people of one political persuasion think wearing them is sensible, while those of the opposite persuasion think they’re something from Orwell’s 1984. Appallingly, the Dutch government has not just declined to enforce masks but actively discouraged their use, with Rutte being one of the few European leaders almost never photographed wearing one. Last week, the Prime Minister said on Monday that there was no point compelling people to wear masks, then on Wednesday (in the face of fierce parliamentary pressure) issued an “urgent recommendation” that people wear them in shops and other enclosed spaces. Then on Friday, his top science adviser, the head of the RIVM, was all over the news telling people that there was no point wearing a mask after all. Incredibly (according to Nieuwsuur) official advice to elderly care homes still doesn’t order the wearing of masks by staff, saying merely that mask use should be “considered”. Other restrictions are also poorly enforced. When the justice minister was famously caught celebrating his own wedding in clear violation of social distancing rules, he refused to resign and the government cut the fines which people who break the rules must pay. In Gouda, the town nearest to where I live, the Mayor has this week been in the news complaining that social distancing rules which limit church services to thirty people are intolerably burdensome and shouldn’t be enforced. Even with infections soaring, the government still insists the current distancing measures are probably enough, and has ruled out any further changes until next week. I used to often tweet satirically during the Prime Minister’s bi-weekly press conferences but largely gave up around the time when Rutte said, with all the gravity of a doctor announcing he’d found a cure for cancer, that the explosive rise in infections would be solved by asking bars to shut at 1am. In such situations, parody becomes indistinguishable from reality.

What, then, has gone wrong here? How did a nation known for its level-headedness and pragmatism end up in one of the worst positions in Europe? It is, inevitably, difficult to say. As with the first wave, the new outbreak is probably due partly to uncontrollable factors, including the fact that the Netherlands is a major international transport hub and is incredibly densely populated. However, it also seems to me that the near-unique badness of the current Dutch situation is also caused by a confluence of several other factors: a governing party which has a deep-seated attachment to abstract ideas of “freedom” from state control; a somewhat libertarian public which often resents being told what to do; governing institutions which have spent so many decades successfully grappling with existential threats that they’ve blithely let their guard down; a public which despite it’s independent-mindedness has an unusually high level of trust in government; a mistaken perception that the first wave wasn’t that bad so a second one wouldn’t matter; a coalition-based political system which helps co-opt and mute parliamentary opposition to whatever the government does; a news media which is sometimes too gentle when it comes to holding the powerful to account; a sizable minority which indulges reckless Microsoft-5G-made-coronavirus conspiracy theories; a prolonged dalliance with the idea of building ‘herd immunity’; a persistent tendency to blame small minorities such as partying students for rising infections while ignoring the behaviour of the majority; a mercantile worldview which puts profit and loss ahead of social concerns; a policymaking process which prioritises consensus-building and difference-splitting over decisive action; an enduring national sense of breezy superiority which means people assume bad things only happen in badly-run countries like Italy and Spain, where people lack the good sense to organise things properly…. It all adds up to a toxic brew, in which some of the things we assumed were national strengths start to look more like critical weaknesses. The Netherlands had pre-existing conditions.

It’s probably important to emphasize again here that the Dutch experience is not entirely unique: many countries have struggled to deliver a coherent response. It’s also always important not to conflate coronavirus infections with deaths – in wealthier countries, even people aged 75 who contract the virus have only about a one in twenty-five chance of dying from it. While the number of new coronavirus infections is rising rapidly in the Netherlands, the number of deaths remains relatively low (although is a lagging indicator, and already running at about a hundred a week). Lockdowns have serious side effects, and Rutte could turn out to be right that after a couple of weeks, earlier closing times in bars will miraculously bring infection levels down. There are also glimmers of hope: after months when people seemed in denial about the severity of the pandemic, more are starting to take it seriously. Anecdotally, we seem to have moved from a situation where most people didn’t know anyone who’d been directly affected by the virus to one where most people have a friend, colleague or relative who’s ill. Hopefully, this might mean behavior starts to change.

However, even the most ardent supporter of the current government would probably have to acknowledge four basic facts. Firstly, that the “lockdown” restrictions here have, since the pandemic began, been unusually light-touch, and haven’t hardened all that much in the last few weeks. Secondly, that the Netherlands is one of the few countries in Europe where masks remain rare, and where their use is actively discouraged by those in power. Thirdly, that there have been bad problems with testing, and that capacity to diagnose and trace infections remains patchy at best, and sometimes non-existent. And fourthly, that the number of new infections here is now rising at an alarming rate, with the Netherlands currently suffering (according to NRC, and relative to its size) more infections than the US, Brazil, Belgium, France, the UK or almost anywhere else in the wealthy world. Yesterday, for every two people who tested positive for Covid-19 in Germany, there were three testing positive in the Netherlands – despite the Netherlands being about one-fifth the size. Put simply: things are not going well here.

Personally, I still believe that this is, on balance, an unusually high-functioning society, and a wonderful place to live and work. I’m proud of my new citizenship. I also don’t take much delight in condemning the current government – I’ve always quite liked the cut of Mark Rutte’s jib, and politically am inclined to look favourably on a government which is fiscally conservative, pro-EU and socially liberal. There is, I think, still a small chance the country could turn things around, and surf this wave as well as we did the first one. But that window of opportunity to do that is shrinking fast. As the crisis accelerates, the authorities often look like one of the hares or hedgehogs which I see when driving on the country lanes around my house: frozen in the headlights, so bewildered by the approaching tragedy that they’re incapable of deciding which way to move. And for me, all this presents something of a challenge to some of my assumptions about Dutch society and culture. A country which I thought was unusually sensible suddenly looks rather reckless. A government which prides itself on its flexibility seems stuck in a rut, unwilling to change direction even as a cliff edge looms. A country where disaster prevention has long been a national religion now resolutely refuses to prevent a disaster. A nation which has an uncanny knack for generating triumphs out of adversity now appears determined to do the opposite. And people who always seemed unusually close-knit and communal turn out to be distressingly relaxed about the deaths of thousands of fellow citizens, as long as they can keep going out for coffee and apple tart. I’m still writing another book, but the project about the Netherlands being well-run is currently on hold.

The Invisible Lockdown

Is the Netherlands sleepwalking into catastrophe?

Visiting a Dutch city during a deadly pandemic can be a bizarre experience. Cautiously travelling to a few different places for work this week, I found the shops busy and the streets bustling. Squares and canalside terraces were filled with people drinking beer in the sunshine. Museums were open, and in some places people were queuing to get inside tables at restaurants. Face masks were about as common as mountains. Walking through Amsterdam and the Hague, I found myself thinking that if a Dutch person now woke from a six-month coma and went out for a walk, they probably wouldn’t notice much different from an ordinary summer. Even the Dutch love of foreign travel doesn’t seem much diminished. “It was nice and sunny”, I heard one older woman tell a friend about the holiday she’d just had in Italy, “but there were just too many Dutch people everywhere”.

All this is surprising not just because of the state of the coronavirus pandemic worldwide – 20 million confirmed infections, 750,000 deaths, increasing evidence of airborne transmission – but because of the state of the pandemic in the Netherlands. A few months ago, the situation here was terrible: in early April, at least one hundred and fifty people were recorded as dying from the virus every day, with the true death toll certainly much higher. But then, despite a lockdown which was relatively light compared to those in places like Britain and France, the numbers began to fall. By late April, the daily death toll had fallen to more like fifty per day, and two months after that had hit nearly zero. On June 24th, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the “crisis atmosphere” was over and the country had entered “a new normal”. Now, though, the figures are going up again, sharply. In the last week, close to five thousand people have tested positive for the virus, including over six hundred people yesterday (12th August) alone. This was the fifth week in a row that infections have risen, and epidemiological graphs now look not mountain-shaped, but N-shaped. The Netherlands has had roughly as many coronavirus cases in the last fortnight as Greece has had since the pandemic began.

This turnaround in fortunes isn’t unique to the Netherlands, course. With lockdowns being eased across Europe, many other countries have followed similar ski-jump pattern of rapid decline followed by renewed steady rise. Even some countries which were recently being lauded for their COVID-fighting performance (such as Germany) are now battling to contain localized outbreaks, while others (such as Australia) are already experiencing second waves which appear worse than the first. What is more unique, however, is how the Dutch government has responded. Last Thursday, as newspapers began filling with worrisome stories about spiking infections, and parts of England were going back under lockdown, Mark Rutte and health minister Hugo de Jonge gave a press conference at which many expected them to announce new restrictions in at least some parts of the country. However, their response amounted to little more than a stern lecture telling young people not to get sick and then visit their grandparents, and an announcement that people who visit bars and restaurants should leave their contact details behind to assist with contact tracing – something which the British and Germans have already been doing for weeks. “Planning to grab a cocktail on a terrace, spend an afternoon shopping or visit family or friends? Everything is possible!” one local council tweeted a few days later.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the Dutch response to the virus has seemed underpowered. In early April, for example, de Jonge and Rutte announced an app would be developed to help trace the contacts of people who tested positive and prevent infection spreading. For months, the government insisted this app would form as a critical part of the solution to the pandemic. However, a contest to actually develop the app fizzled out embarrassingly, and four months after the original announcement, a version of the app is only being trialled by a small number of people in Twente. Germany’s app, meanwhile, already has roughly as many users as the Netherlands has people. Similarly, efforts to step up more low-tech means of test and tracing have not gone particularly smoothly. While the number of coronavirus tests completed has risen quickly, and some patients have reported excellent service, there have been worrying delays in some regions, and continued problems with contact tracing. Official data shows that a few weeks ago, about 98% of people who tested positive for the virus went on to complete a full contact-tracing process, but that’s now fallen to around 76% – meaning one in four patients don’t have their contacts traced at all. Last week, the health board in Amsterdam announced it would be forced to cut back on contact tracing because it had run out of capacity; reportedly partly because the authorities had wrongly estimated it would take five hours per case to complete the tracing, even though the WHO warned it would take twelve. Several people have told me that upon falling ill and requesting a test, they were told to travel to other cities to obtain one, which seems a bit like advising someone to put out a flaming match by taking it to a bucket of petrol. 

In the media and in parliament, the debate has focused mainly on the issue of face masks. It’s fair to say that the evidence on whether masks can prevent infection among the public has always been somewhat mixed. It is, among other things, possible that people may act more carelessly when wearing them, may wear them incorrectly or may be more likely to touch their faces when wearing a mask, thereby increasing the risks of contamination. However, as time has passed, these fears largely have been discounted. The WHO, for instance, shifted from recommending that masks don’t need to be worn by healthy people in March to recommending widespread use of masks in high-risk locations in April, before recommending masks in most public places in June. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has similarly moved from scepticism to outright endorsement. In response to this shift, many countries have adjusted their own policies: masks are now effectively compulsory when shopping in much of the UK, Belgium, France, Germany and the USA. Yet following the advice of their own scientific advisers, the Dutch government remains adamant that masks aren’t just pointless, but perhaps actively harmful. In contrast with other world leaders, Mark Rutte has largely avoided being seen wearing one, and come close to actively telling people not to wear them. Amazingly, Donald Trump is now more pro-mask than the Dutch Prime Minister is.

The government has been quick to emphasise that they’re simply following the lead of scientific advisers, and that city mayors have the power to enforce stricter rules if they want to. However, the official explanations have sometimes seemed disingenuous – the website of the RIVM health advisory agency says “it is not necessary to wear a face mask [and] in these measures, the Netherlands is following the recommendations of the WHO” – but then links to WHO guidance which explicitly says non-medical masks should be used by the “general population in public settings, such as grocery stores, at work [and in] social gatherings”. The decision to devolve authority to the local level also means rules have varied widely from place to place. In Gouda, near where I live, you’re about as likely to encounter a mask-wearer on the street as you are to bump into an escaped lion, but in both Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the mayors have made masks compulsory in certain places. For members of the public, the contradicting policies are sometimes hard to navigate: if the mayor of your city says masks are essential but the Prime Minister says they’re useless, who should you listen to? And is it really essential for public safety that you wear a mask if you visit (say) the H&M store in Amsterdam, but not if you visit the H&M in the Hague or Utrecht? When I visited a hospital a couple of weeks ago I wore a mask, as it seemed the sensible thing to do. I was amazed to find that of the dozens of other patients, doctors, nurses and visitors on site, almost no-one else was wearing one. “Why are you wearing that?!” the receptionist asked when I arrived, as if I’d walked in wearing a fluffy panda suit.

When discussing all this, the most common response one hears is that masks are unnecessary because is distancing what matters. As the RIVM puts it on their website, “it is not necessary to wear a face mask” in the Netherlands because “we are avoiding crowded areas as much as possible, and we are staying 1.5 meters apart”. The problem is, though, that if you spend much time in any Dutch town or city, you may well conclude both these things are untrue: people very often don’t avoid crowded areas, and don’t stay 1.5 metres apart. A couple of weeks ago, an RIVM survey found that only 28 percent of Dutch people said they always or mostly obey distancing rules, compared with 63 percent a few months ago. Most alarmingly, asked how they behaved if they had coronavirus symptoms such as a bad cough, 89 percent said they went shopping, 63 percent said they visited friends or family and 47 percent said they still went to work. Things which some other Europeans accept as routine these days – social “bubbles”, strict curfews, quarantines, no visitors at home – are almost completely unfamiliar to the Dutch these days. “Many people who have symptoms are still not getting tested”, the RIVM has warned. In that context, it’s hardly surprising that infections are rising.

Why, though, has the government been reluctant to clamp down harder? As mentioned above, it’s partly down to an insistence on following expert advice, which is in principle an admirable thing to do, and in keeping with the Dutch tradition of consultative decision-making. Cultural factors also probably play a role: as I’ve written elsewhere, trust in public institutions in this country is high, and there’s a long tradition of assuming the state will intervene to protect you from existential natural threats, albeit usually of the watery variety. The laissez-faire instinct is also quite strong here – Rutte has repeatedly emphasised that he’s “not a dictator” and that people shouldn’t be treated “like children” and told what to do. Perhaps the best example of this libertarian impulse came when the city of Groningen announced a very Dutch form of curfew – no new customers in bars after 1.30 am – and some locals reacted with outrage at the gross infringement of their civil liberties. Dutch people seem laid-back, but don’t like being told what to do. More troubling is the air of triumphalism which emanates from certain members of the commentariat and political class, who point proudly at declining infections while ignoring the horrendous overall death toll; like airline pilots who’ve lost passengers in a terrible crash but are boasting that they’ve lived to fly another day. One wonders how many of those who lament the terrible handling of the pandemic in other countries are aware that by some measures, their own country hasn’t done that much better. In terms of excess mortality, about 27% more Dutch people have died this year than in a usual year, compared with 31% more in France, 45% in the UK and 40% in Belgium, but only 6% in Denmark and 5% in Germany. Rutte’s decision to label his policy the “intelligent lockdown” was clearly a genius piece of branding, even if the main thing which distinguishes it from its foreign rivals is that it’s hard to detect at all. “Invisible lockdown” might be more appropriate.

In the interests of balance, it’s fair to point out that the Netherlands’ response to the virus hasn’t been unusually terrible so far, and things could still turn out relatively well, if one overlooks the minor matter of ten thousand dead. This country is inherently more vulnerable to the virus than somewhere like New Zealand is, and the country’s leaders were, like everyone else, flying blind at the beginning. The government has responded decisively at times and approached the pandemic in an admirably pragmatic and bipartisan way. Many other nations would think themselves lucky to have such moderate and sensible leaders. At the practical level, testing has been scaled up and hundreds of extra intensive care beds have been created, meaning the country is better prepared to handle a spike in infections than it was a few months ago. Quarantine rules for travellers are about to be tightened. By some measures the rules aren’t that lax already – Oxford University’s government response tracker, which also takes into account things like school closures and travel advice, actually rates the Dutch policy as stricter than Britain’s. Politically, Rutte’s strategy also appears wise: a poll this week by I&O found that three quarters of voters support the general approach of the government, while only 29 percent think the authorities are losing and control. Many shops and businesses have adapted their facilities well, and the activities which many people are now doing – meeting friends outside, going to the park, sitting on a terrace – are not particularly dangerous, yet provide a huge boost to both mental health and the economy. The early signs are that the export-dependent Dutch economy has been hit hard, but not quite as badly as some other countries: the IMF currently forecasts Dutch GDP will shrink by nearly 8% this year, compared to about 10% in Britain and nearly 13% in France. A rise in infections is probably inevitable at some point, but another lockdown now, or even the adoption of masks, could damage the economy further and make it harder to enforce stricter rules in the winter. The death toll has been distressingly high, but in the two countries which are arguably most similar to the Netherlands in culture, geography and economy – Britain and Belgium – the toll seems might higher. It’s also important to note that although the number of infections here is rising sharply, the number of new hospital admissions and deaths remains, at the moment, low: in the last few days, more people have drowned swimming at Dutch beaches than have died from coronavirus. 

A few months ago, I wrote that it was possible that the pandemic response would prove to the be the Dutch Polder Model’s finest hour, and I think that could turn out to be the case. It’s entirely possible that in the future, we’ll look back and conclude that the Netherlands achieved roughly similar outcomes to comparable countries in terms of lives lost, but at less cost to the economy, society and mental health. It could well be that I and others are – as I’m told on social media daily – fretting over minor problems which will soon fizzle out like a firework in the rain. However, as one looks at the juxtaposition between the increasingly dire infection data and increasingly blasé attitudes to infection control, there are serious reasons to be concerned. Deaths and hospital admissions usually lag a few weeks behind people getting sick, and many infections currently are among the under-40s, who are less likely to get seriously ill. However, if (when) the virus starts spreading to more vulnerable people again, we could easily end up back where we were a few months ago. Unfortunately, Thierry Baudet’s confident prediction that the virus would disappear when warm weather came has not proved correct. In late May, the basic reproductive number in the Netherlands (R0, or the average number of other people which an infected person infects) was 0.52; now it’s 1.3. Whatever one’s view of masks or lockdowns, it’s undeniable that the Netherlands is something of an outlier in northern Europe with respect to its current policy. It’s also clear that there have been genuine problems with testing and tracing, and that social distancing guidelines are being only loosely adhered to. And it seems undeniable that despite the breezy atmosphere, things are quickly getting worse. The French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, said this Tuesday that his country was going “the wrong way” on the pandemic and announced stricter guidance on masks and on public gatherings, after France saw nearly 1,400 new infections in a single day. That same day, the Netherlands – a country with a population roughly one-quarter that of France’s – reported 779 new infections, yet life here goes on unchanged. A scolding from the Prime Minister feels necessary, but insufficient. With terrible irony, a country which is essentially one big disaster prevention scheme might be sleepwalking into a catastrophe.

The Laid-back Lockdown

A coronavirus horror story – or the Polder Model’s finest hour?

King’s Day in the Netherlands is always more or less the same. Almost the whole country takes the day off, and the streets are flooded with people dressed in orange, drinking beer and generally acting as if they’ve been given get-out-of-jail-free cards. Except this year, in the age of coronavirus, it wasn’t like that at all. The celebrations last Monday were muted, and when I passed briefly through Gouda that morning I found no music being played, no beer being drunk, and almost no-one wearing orange. The bars were closed and the main square was empty. Arriving back home, I caught the tail end of the King’s address to the nation on TV. “I intensely looked forward to images of … the Dutch going completely out of their minds”, he said, posing rather awkwardly next to a staircase in one of the royal palaces. “However, it was not to be so… The disappointment was palpable.”

The King isn’t alone in finding the current situation difficult to comprehend. In many ways, the Dutch have experienced the Covid-19 pandemic just as many others in Europe have. With the health system under terrible pressure, the country has been locked down for weeks. Millions of people have been working from home, holidays have been cancelled and businesses are operating awkwardly using Zoom. Schools and daycare centres are largely closed, most restaurants are shut, and even the brothels have switched off their red lights. People without kids are apparently watching lots of Netflix, while people with kids are quickly coming around to the idea that teachers should be paid more. Everyone misses bars, and everyone needs a haircut.

In many other ways, however, the Netherlands’ lockdown is quite different to those imposed elsewhere. In other parts of Europe, most “non-essential” stores remain closed and personal freedom is tightly restricted, but here much remains open. In Gouda (the town nearest to where I live) most of the eateries on the main square have been sealed off like crime scenes but many of the clothes shops, bookshops, cookery shops and jewellery shops are still open. (Sadly, the local risk consultancy business is closed.) I’ve mostly stayed at home for two months now, but if I wanted to I could go out to browse new shoes in the sports shop tomorrow, get some keys cut, eat a sandwich at Subway, choose some new furniture at the woonboulevard, have a new passport photo taken and then buy a fresh stroopwafel on the way home. At the national level, one large-scale survey carried a few weeks ago by the bank ING found that forty percent of Dutch people were still going out to work every day as normal. Many of those people are probably essential workers, but some are not, and the definition of what constitutes “essential business” often feels loose. Last week, Dutch social media feeds were filled with photos of long lines outside Ikea stores across the country. “It really is not a good idea to go to Ikea to buy a mug or a plant”, one virologist in Leiden told the Parool. “I understand that people want to go out and do normal things again. But, unfortunately, life is not normal.” The Dutch lockdown, in short, isn’t that locked and isn’t that down.

The differences between the Netherlands and many other European countries aren’t just anecdotal. According to Oxford University’s “government response stringency index”, the lockdown here not only started later than those in countries including Belgium, Denmark, Germany and France, but has mostly been much laxer. (The British locked down later than the Dutch but have been somewhat stricter since then.) The Dutch “intelligent lockdown” feels in many ways like the epitome of the famous ‘Polder Model’ in action: the government has consulted with experts, discussed everything for ages, and then ended up choosing a middle way which feels like a hybrid of the American, Scandinavian and German approaches, and which doesn’t really please anyone. Comparing Dutch government’s lockdown rules directly with their British equivalents, the differences are striking. In Britain, the government says “you should not be meeting friends unless you live in the same household”; while in the Netherlands, the official guidance says merely “have as few visitors as possible (no more than 3 at a time)”. In Britain, the government says “you can… go outside once a day for a walk, run or cycle [but] you must minimize the time you are out of your home”; while in the Netherlands they say unlimited “walking, cycling or running outside remains permitted”. In Britain, the government says “make sure you are at least two metres or six feet away from other people”, while in the Netherlands they say “keeping your distance means staying at least 1.5 metres away from others”. And so on. “This is a grown-up country”, Prime Minister Mark Rutte explained, in the proud tones of a parent letting a teenager borrow the car keys for the first time. “People are glad that they are treated as adults, not as children”.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to find evidence that the laid-back lockdown has come at a price. As armchair epidemiologists have been quick to point out, the Dutch death toll is (relative to the size of the population) far lower than in places like Spain or Italy, but far higher than in Denmark, Germany and most of Scandinavia. At the time of writing, the Netherlands has roughly three times the population of Denmark but more than ten times as many recorded coronavirus deaths. And (as in many countries) the official death tolls here are probably seriously under-reported, with coronavirus testing very limited and many deaths (including in elderly care homes) likely going unrecorded. The government’s strategy has sometimes been unclear, and foreign verdicts on the Dutch approach to fighting the pandemic (including an early dalliance with ‘herd immunity’) have often been harsh. “The Dutch government is incompetent and ridiculous in its response to the coronavirus crisis,” the mayor of one Belgian town near the border said in March, when the Belgians were locking down hard but the Dutch weren’t. “The Netherlands is doing nothing, so we have to protect ourselves.” The mayor of another border town called the Netherlands “the weakest link in the European chain.” A Dutch acquaintance of mine was even harsher. “If even the Belgians think you’ve f***ed up, then you must have done something really wrong”.

Within the Netherlands, there’s also been strong criticism of the government’s approach. Geert Wilders, for example, has moved seamlessly between castigating Muslim women for wearing face coverings in public and expressing outrage that more people don’t wear anti-viral face masks. Yet overall, it’s striking how little dissent there’s been. Mark Rutte has won plaudits for his calm, bank-manager leadership style. As so often, the Dutch state has also been a model of constructive bipartisanship – when the health minister abruptly resigned a few weeks ago, he was replaced not by someone from within the governing coalition, but by a member of the opposition Labour Party, or PvdA. (“This crisis is so big that party colour is irrelevant” Rutte said.) Some people I speak to are angry at the government’s performance, but most seem quite content; trusting their leaders to do the right thing. Curiously, one of the more reliable mortality datasets, produced by the FT using excess mortality figures (that is, the difference in the total number of people dying now compared with the same time last year) shows that the Netherlands has experienced 52% more deaths than in a usual year – exactly the same increase as in Britain. Yet the political atmosphere is far less febrile, and most people seem surprisingly content. A few weeks ago, posters appeared on many of the roads around Gouda, addressed to Rutte and several other politicians (from multiple parties) who are leading the coronavirus response, bearing a simple message: “THANK YOU, for leading our country in this Dutch way”. A little trite, maybe, but oddly touching – and not something one’s likely to see in certain other countries right now.

Why, then, has the Dutch lockdown been so laid back, and so widely accepted? The explanation is, I think, partly cultural. The Netherlands is a nation surrounded by existential natural threats, and the Dutch authorities have over the years become exceedingly competent at keeping them at bay. Talk of “first waves” and “second waves” deluging the country have a particular resonance here. Political turmoil is limited, serious violence is rare, and there’s been no conflict on Dutch soil for three-quarters of a century. Partly as a result, surveys show that most people have faith that the government is competent and trustworthy, and are reasonably content to just let them get on with things. However (if you’ll forgive a bit of cultural stereotyping) the Dutch also don’t much like being told what to do. Watching the lockdown unfold, I’m often reminded of the Dutch policy on soft drugs, which essentially consists of making clear rules against things but then refusing to enforce them. Above all, the Dutch often take pride in not panicking during a crisis. Even vaguely hinting that they might be ill-informed or careless can feel like telling French people that their food’s bad or Germans that they don’t know how to make good cars: a blatant assault on core national values. The problem, though, is that the much-loved nuchterheid (sobriety) sometimes veers uncomfortably close to roekeloosheid (recklessness).

This week, the government announced that most of the lockdown will be lifted soon. Things like nursery schools and hairdressers will reopen next week, and bars, restaurants and cinemas soon thereafter. Sex clubs will sadly remain closed until September. The changes in some ways feel inevitable – lockdowns can’t last forever, and impose their own colossal economic, social and public health costs. But again, the Dutch seem to be taking a more liberal approach than many of their neighbours. In Germany, for example, the lockdown is also being eased, but mask use is widespread and the plans for reopening cinemas, day care and restaurants remains unclear. The UK, similarly, also looks set to announce some easing, but hasn’t been in a hurry to provide much detail – Dominic Raab has said setting a timetable for changing the strategy would be “irresponsible”. In France, restrictions are easing but will remain stricter in Paris. Things are changing fast, but the Dutch lockdown looks likely to have started later, been less strict, and been lifted earlier than those in many other places.

As restrictions are eased, it’s easy for people like me (with a pre-existing health condition) to be worried. Testing remains limited, and tracing apps seem a long way from widespread roll-out. Even after nearly two months of lockdown, I’m amazed by how many people still approach me with basic questions about what the current rules are: are they allowed to have friends around? Can they go clothes shopping? Isn’t this just the flu? People interpret the guidelines differently, and while some act as if there’s been a nuclear war and it’s perilous to step outside, others carry on with normal life much as they did before. As new rules are introduced, these problems with consistency may worsen – why, for example, should people feel compelled to work from home to stay safe if they’re also allowed to go out for beers and have dinner with friends in the evening? When I cycled past my local park this morning, I noticed it was busier than it’s been for weeks – partly because the weather’s nice, but probably also because people have already started to relax. When I think about the primary schools re-opening next week, and all the parents going to drop their kids off and seeing their friends for the first time in months, and arranging to have coffee at the weekend, and then stopping at the shops on the way home, I find it hard to imagine that infections aren’t about to increase sharply again. The road to normalcy is a proverbial slippery slope, and there’s a serious risk of a second wave.

However, the big plot twist is that the laid-back lockdown might actually be working. As discussed above, it’s easy to build a case that the Dutch response to coronavirus has been a disaster. But in many other ways, the Netherlands seems to be doing about as well as one could expect. This country is in many ways particularly vulnerable to an emerging pandemic, given its high population density, open borders, massive ports and airports, and sizeable elderly population. Given its small size, the Netherlands is also always likely to look bad on those deaths-per-million-people data tables – and at this point in the pandemic, international data is so varied and unreliable that making meaningful comparisons is almost impossible. (Belgium, for example, looks pretty bad but diligently counts deaths in nursing homes in a way that most of its neighbours don’t.) Yet there are also reasons to be optimistic. The Dutch healthcare system, for example, has been stretched hard but before the pandemic was regularly judged to be the best in Europe; and the widespread habit of cycling means it’s easier for people to avoid crowds on public transport. There’s plenty of data which suggests the country has turned a corner and got things under control. The FT’s excess mortality dataset shows Dutch fatalities following a fairly smooth bell curve: rising quickly at first, but then being brought under control as the lockdown kicked in, and turning sharply downwards even as deaths in countries like Britain and France continued to rise. Similarly, the Dutch government’s official records of coronavirus deaths and intensive care admissions have shown declines for weeks now, with bar graphs looking more mountain-shaped than any of the landscape around here. Intensive care use has stayed within capacity, and the worst visions of a month or two ago have not (yet) materialised. Things have been bad, but now the curve is flattening, and many feel we’ve turned a corner. And crucially, normal life is continuing here in a way which it doesn’t in many other parts of the world. “I’ve been ashamed of how things have gone in many ways”, someone said to me last week, “but people need hope, and they need reasons to live, and the intelligent lockdown has given them that”.

It will probably be months or even years before we can compare ‘performance’ internationally in any reliable way; let alone make complex judgements about whether the trade-offs between liberty, economy and healthcare were worthwhile. At the moment, the uncomfortable truth is that countries’ experiences depend on so many different factors – lockdown stringency, timing, medical capacity, demography, race, obedience, government competence, lifestyles, attitudes, weather – that trying to identify the perfect policy response is like the children’s book ‘George’s Marvelous Medicine’, in which the hero creates a magical potion but then can’t figure out which mix of ingredients he needs to make it again. Clearly, the Dutch experience has been awful – between February and March alone, an extra eleven thousand people signed on for unemployment benefits. At least 5,000 people have died; an unspeakable tragedy which should never be downplayed. However, at this point it also seems possible – absolutely not certain, but possible – that the “intelligent lockdown” will prove to be exactly that, and that the Dutch could provide a road map for how to suppress the virus while allowing some degree of normal life to continue. The Netherlands might – might – end up roughly matching the performance of other countries in combating the virus, while doing less damage to their economy, society and mental health in the process. As the King said in his speech, 2020 might turn out to be the “absolutely the last King’s Day at Home in history.” If so, this might yet be the Polder Model’s finest hour.

The New Right

The new face of populism in the Netherlands

For a Brit in the Netherlands, voting in yesterday’s elections was a strange experience. I cycled to the polling station, of course, along a thin strip of land sandwiched between lakes and rivers, past advertising banners which pledged no more windmills in the surrounding fields. The polling station was a church built in the fourteenth century, and a traffic jam had formed outside as a farmer left his tractor running while he voted. Inside, the options on the voting paper were truly bewildering. Two elections were taking place simultaneously – the local water board and the Dutch provincial authorities, which will in turn choose who sits in the national Senate – and the voting papers included dozens of parties and names. I couldn’t vote in both elections, but picking a candidate to support still felt like choosing a meal from a very long menu at a Chinese takeaway. The choose-your-vote websites I consulted weren’t much help either: did I support investing more in uncoupling rainwater from sewage pipes, or not?

Twenty-four hours later, that bucolic atmosphere already seems a long time ago. In some ways the outcome of the provincial elections was unsurprising: the parties in Mark Rutte’s governing coalition lost some votes, smaller opposition parties gained, and the political landscape grew even more fractured. The new Senate will include more than a dozen different parties – enough to make an Englishman, raised on diet of two-party politics, dizzy. In other ways, though, the results were seismic. Two years after Rutte was re-elected and Dutch populism “defeated”, the far right did stunningly well. Results are still coming in at the time of writing, but in my province of Zuid Holland, Thierry Baudet’s hard-right Forum voor Democratie (FvD) seems to have won more seats than any other party. Together, the FvD and Geert Wilders’ PVV more than three times as many seats in Zuid Holland as the centre-left PvdA or Greens did. In Utrecht, where three people died in a gun attack just before the elections, Baudet’s FvD won six provincial seats, up from zero. This all means that in the national Senate, the FvD is set to hold more seats than Mark Rutte’s VVD, depriving the government of its small majority and forcing it to find new allies. In some towns, the anti-immigrant, anti-establishment right won 40% of the vote.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about all this is that just a few years ago, Thierry Baudet wasn’t a politician at all, and was relatively unknown outside rightwing policy circles. That began to change in 2016, when he helped orchestrate a vociferous campaign against EU proposals to build closer links with Ukraine. The issue at stake may have been obscure, but Baudet skilfully used the campaign as a springboard to launch his own political career, making blistering speeches and making snappy YouTube films of his travels. Media-friendly and technology-savvy, Baudet looks like a Gap model, and knows it. In the 2017 national elections, his FvD managed to win an impressive 187,000 votes; enough to win him and a colleague seats in parliament. For a new party, operating in a system where even major parties might win only a couple of dozen seats, it’s been a meteoric rise. “In three years I’ll probably be Prime Minister of the Netherlands”, Baudet said last year, and he meant it.

Given the way the Dutch political system works, a Baudet premiership is still highly unlikely. However, there’s little doubt that his continued rise could be transformative, given his views. In recent years Baudet has, among other things, signed a letter doubting the Russians were responsible for shooting down flight MH17, praised Donald Trump, implied that women enjoy being dominated by men, and strongly opposed measures to tackle climate change. Many of Baudet’s supporters dispute the allegation that he’s racist, and it’s true he seems to care more about values and religion than skin colour. But there’s also little doubt that he often speaks in terms which appeal to white nationalists; agreeing, for example, with allies who claimed black people were less intelligent than whites, and arguing that “malevolent, aggressive elements are being smuggled into our society in unprecedented numbers”. He met with Marine Le Pen, and also had a five-hour private dinner in Amsterdam with Jared Taylor, a notorious American white supremacist. While other parties suspended their campaigning after the Utrecht attack, Baudet did not, and blamed the incident on the government’s lax immigration policies. Large-scale immigration, he once tweeted, is a “great crime”.

Generalising about groups of voters is always a risky business, but when I’ve spoken to people who support Baudet’s FvD, I’ve often been struck by the dissonance between their politics and their lived experience. Many of Baudet’s supporters have (like other Dutch people) seen their lives improve immeasurably in the last decade or two. Their incomes have risen, their job stability has improved and their quality of life increased. And yet the same people are adamant that Netherlands is on a profoundly wrong course; getting “worse than it used to be” in almost every way. Their experience of recent Dutch history is entirely positive, but their perception of it is wholly negative. And Baudet agrees. “We are standing amidst the debris of what was once the greatest and most beautiful civilization the world has ever known,” he said after the election results were announced.

In other countries, populism is often (largely but not completely) rooted in economic pressures. The stereotypical Trump voter, for example, is low-income worker from the post-industrial Rust Belt, left high and dry as jobs and money flow overseas. With Baudet supporters, though, this explanation doesn’t ring true. Some Dutch people have struggled economically – in harbour towns around Rotterdam, for example, jobs are being lost to automation and unemployment is high. But on the whole, the “left behind” in places like Zuid Holland are a tiny group. The Dutch economy grew at 2.5% last year, and unemployment is low and falling. GDP per capita in the Netherlands remains about twenty per cent higher than in Britain or France. The Dutch Rust Belt would fit in a Michigan backyard.

In that context, the bigger rifts in Dutch politics are arguably not economic but cultural. Despite its reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, this is still a rather old-fashioned country, where families are close-knit and neighbours frown if you don’t wash your windows. Given their history of floods and invasions, many Dutch are naturally risk averse, and have a subtle tendency to see their homeland as a bastion against external forces. In a closely-networked society where many people live their whole lives within a small radius of the place where they were born, the arrival of a handful of headscarves can be very noticeable. More importantly, people like Baudet have also played off a sense that the Netherlands is governed by an elite which doesn’t understand the issues faced by “real people”.

In this, he perhaps isn’t entirely wrong. Mark Rutte is the archetypal Davos man, and places like Spijkenisse feel a long way from the embassies and ministries of The Hague. Coalition governments are the norm in the Netherlands, and governments typically are formed only after weeks or months of secretive negotiation. This tradition of backroom compromise is in many ways admirable – the dogged pursuit of consensus is one reason minority groups have usually been well-protected. Yet it’s also a weakness in that it muddies the relationship between the government and the governed. Talking to Dutch voters, I’ve often been struck by how they take it for granted that their leaders may not deliver what they’ve promised. In Britain, promise to abolish tuition fees and then do the opposite and your political career will be over. Do the same in the Netherlands and many people would shrug: if you end up working in partnership with your rivals, you’re bound to compromise on some things. In that context, the rise of people like Baudet is perhaps unsurprising: when the system looks like a bit of a stitch-up, it’s easy to run as an outsider. In the great tradition of Dutch compromise, Baudet also cleverly plays both sides: presenting himself as a member of the intellectual elite (writing books about art, installing a piano in his office) while also delighting in disrupting the system from outside and offending the governing class. In many countries, populists play up their man-of-the-people credentials but Baudet does the opposite. He’s self-consciously cerebral, but not patrician: a guy who knows how the system works, but hates it and wants to smash it.

Baudet has also benefited from the decline of Geert Wilders and his party, the PVV. A few years ago, when Baudet was unknown, it was Wilders who stormed the polls and Wilders who was talked of as a future Prime Minister. Now, though, the tables have turned, and the FvD’s rise has been fuelled significantly by voters defecting from the PVV. There are many reasons for this, but they include the way that Baudet has been more careful than Wilders about respecting the red lines which no Dutch politician should cross if they want to win mass support: don’t be openly racist, don’t seem intolerant, don’t be homophobic. In my first book, I wrote about how a previous generation of rightwing leaders such as Pim Fortuyn, were careful to “present intolerance of Muslims as a means of safeguarding Dutch tolerance”; arguing that “only by kicking out intolerant foreigners can the Netherlands preserve its peace and prosperity”. Baudet has been doing largely the same: opposing immigration in ways which make it him hard to label as racist. Baudet presumably shares a lot of Wilders’ views, but you would never hear him referring to Moroccans as “scum” or standing trial for hate speech. Instead, he uses the language of a radical but thoughtful scholar, arguing that “the West is suffering from an autoimmune disorder” and “control over our lives is insidiously and increasingly taken away from us by devious acts of surrender”. While Wilders often seems driven by anger and resentment, Baudet pitches on a higher plane: the defence of European culture against the corrosive forces of socialism, globalism and political correctness. As a result, Baudet (who’s still in his thirties) is popular with younger voters who view Wilders as yesterday’s man, and with more educated voters who see Wilders as crude. Even a hint that Baudet might be racist or intolerant brings a flood of protest from his supporters, who insist he’s just an honest man telling it like it is.

Baudet isn’t an appalling fascist and isn’t a threat to democracy. In the Dutch system, it’s not particularly hard for mainstream parties to block extremists from gaining power. It’s also important to remember that only about half of Dutch voters turned up for this election, and only about a fifth of those voted FvD. Some of the parties which did well, such as GroenLinks, are the antithesis of the FvD. Baudet’s rise will, however, upset the balance of power profoundly, and shows that Dutch populism has a long way to run. The European elections in May are bound to be bumpy.

More worryingly, from a foreigner’s perspective, one can’t help but feel that some Dutch institutions aren’t very well equipped to weather the gathering storm. Dutch journalists sometimes seem too busy being appalled at the likes of Viktor Orban to robustly tackle the unpleasantries in their own backyard. And other politicians seem to lack the appetite to fight back. One of the charms of Dutch politics is how gentle and civilised it all seems, but a side effect of that is that when more virulent or unpleasant forces arise, the mainstream isn’t prepared to respond forcefully enough. When politics isn’t usually a blood sport, it’s easier for radicals to rise. And in the grey area between “racist” and “not racist” there are a lot of places to hide.


Water, water, everywhere

Exploring the landscapes which shaped the Dutch

The lighthouse at Schokland stands on a raised sea wall, next to a small stone cottage with a view of the harbour. In front of it, a wooden pier juts out towards the navigation lights marking the edge of the island. It is a charming nautical scene, with only one thing missing: the sea. Schokland, which lies about an hour’s drive northeast of Amsterdam, used to be an island but is now marooned amid green fields, around fifty miles from the coast. The harbour is dry. Fat Friesian cows graze where fish once swam, and a woman leads a horse across a grassy pasture which once lay underwater.

file-18.jpegAnywhere else in the world, a former island would be considered extraordinary. In the Netherlands, however, such things are relatively common. In the area around Schokland several other former islands are scattered like beached whales, and there are countless towns and villages built on former seabed. About a quarter of the Netherlands lies below sea level, and huge swathes of the country consist of land which has painstakingly been drained to make it habitable. “God created the world,” as one local saying goes, “but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

Read the rest of the article in the Daily Telegraph here

Going Dutch

The stormy marriage between Britain and the Netherlands

When Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands arrived in London in May 1940, she was forced to sleep in a basement. The Netherlands had been overrun by the Nazis just a few days previously, and the Dutch monarch had fled on a British destroyer to England, where she would remain for the next five years. However, even London wasn’t entirely safe, and as bombing raids shook the city, the Queen was forced to move every night from her rooms near Grosvenor Square to the cellars under Claridge’s hotel. Dinner guests having coffee in the lobby were (Life magazine reported) astonished to see Her Majesty, “wrapped up in a flannel dressing gown”, descending the staircase to go to bed each evening. Unfortunately, she rarely got much rest: sharing the cellar with her was a man who snored so loudly that the thick curtain between their beds trembled. The Queen protested repeatedly, but hotel staff never seemed to do anything to solve the problem. Eventually, after much Queenly complaining, the truth became clear. The epic snorer was the manager of the hotel, and there was little anyone – even a royal on the run – could do to make him shut up.

Nearly eighty years later, when the Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima visit London this week, their accommodation will be slightly more luxurious. Their schedule also offers plenty of distractions: a welcoming ceremony at Horse Guards Parade, a state banquet at Buckingham Palace, a military exercise on the Thames, and tea with everyone’s favourite republican Brexiteer, Jeremy Corbyn. The whole trip will be – as the Dutch government said – an opportunity to cement “a special relationship”.Ceremonieel tijdens de troonswisseling op de Dam.

The close alliance between Britain and the Netherlands is partly a simple matter of geography. As the crow flies, it’s only about 120 miles from the Suffolk coast to the beaches of South Holland, and London is closer to the Hague than it is to Falmouth or Newcastle. Thousands of years ago, the two nations were even closer; physically connected by a huge land bridge known as ‘Doggerland’. The landscape of the East of England remains strikingly similar to that of the Dutch lowlands: canals and drainage ditches, vast green fields, dikes and windmills. But the relationship goes far beyond mere proximity. Something like 40,000 Brits live in the Netherlands, and perhaps 70,000 Dutch-born people are resident in the UK. Anglo-Dutch companies like Shell and Unilever have been wildly successful, while Britain is the third- biggest destination for Dutch exports, and the fifth-biggest source of Dutch imports. Remarkably, more than 250 flights now cross between Amsterdam and the UK every day – twice as many as between Amsterdam and Germany, and three times as many as there are to France. Centuries after Doggerland collapsed beneath the waves, the Dutch and the Brits remain welded together.

Cliché dictates that there could be few things more different than a Dutch person and a Brit: one formal and class-obsessed and preoccupied with table manners; the other cheerful and freewheeling and smoking pot until sunrise. Yet despite some odd habits which divide them (beans on toast; tea with milk; warm beer) the two peoples share a similar outlook. Britain and the Netherlands are both small countries which became improbably rich and influential, primarily by using their coastlines and navies to build global trading empires. Reliance on trade in turn fostered a certain pragmatism and sensibleness; a belief that few things matter more than being a reliable ally and a good business partner. Above all, both countries have retained an openness to the wider world, and an exposure to global influences which is lacking in some other countries their size. As a French foreign minister said in the 1960s: “the Netherlands was an island in the same sense that the United Kingdom was an island… They had always been looking out over the waters at other areas of the world”. Today it’s easy to find flaws with the Anglo-Dutch model, but it’s a recipe which has helped both the Brits and the Dutch punch well above their weight on the world stage. Together, the two countries account for about a fifth of Europe’s GDP – more than most of eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Belgium and Ireland combined.

Despite these shared values, however, the Anglo-Dutch relationship has had more rivalries and betrayals than a Mexican soap opera. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was usually the Dutch who had the upper hand. From the 1590s onwards, the famous ‘Golden Age’ saw an astonishing explosion of trade, prosperity and cultural advance in the Netherlands. It was at the time easier for a Londoner to reach Amsterdam than Exeter, and Brits who visited were astonished by what they saw. Cultural influences flowed east across the North Sea. English country houses proudly displayed works by Dutch Masters, and when Marlborough House was being built, decorators put in an order for 14,000 Dutch tiles. English architecture, too, was heavily influenced by the grand churches and city halls of the nascent Dutch Republic. Christopher Wren, architect of masterpieces including St Paul’s Cathedral, was helped by two Dutch assistants. Dutch engineers reclaimed Canvey Island from the Thames, uk4drained the Great Park at Windsor and built the first pumping engine to supply London with fresh drinking water, “greatly to the astonishment of the Mayor and Aldermen”. In the economic sphere, the Bank of England was created with capital assistance from Amsterdam, and the first chairman of Lloyds was a Dutchman. Dutch immigrants funded scholarships for Dutchmen to attend Oxford and Cambridge, and Adam Smith’s ‘Wealth of Nations’ included a lengthy digression on the wonders of Dutch banking. Dutch nautical words like “yacht”, “sloop”, and “boom” entered the English language, while John Milton took Dutch language lessons and based large parts of ‘Paradise Lost’ on the poetry of Joost van der Vondel. In an era where swathes of Europe were still mired in poverty, the rise of the Dutch was, for the Brits, a thing of wonder. As Sir Josiah Child wrote in 1665: “the prodigious increase of the Netherlands in their domestic and foreign trade, riches and multitude of shipping is the envy of the present, and may be the wonder of all future generations”.

At other times, though, the Brits and the Dutch were like tigers in a cage, constantly circling one another and frequently drawing blood. Early Dutch immigrants to Britain were a common target – in the sixteenth century, one mayor of Norwich complained that the arrival of immigrants from the Low Countries had “sucked the living away from the English”. Dutch traders were admired for their business skills but despised for the way they undersold their British rivals. Later, as the British began building their sea power and projecting it outwards, they bumped up hard against the Dutch, who had already established trading posts from Brazil to Cape Town and Jakarta. As both country’s commercial ambitions grew, the rivalry intensified, and English ships began regularly hassling Dutch fleets in the North Sea. In 1651, Oliver Cromwell even attempted a barely-disguised takeover of the Netherlands, sending a delegation to the Hague which offered the Dutch the chance to join the English Commonwealth. When this kind offer was declined, the English attitude hardened, and a series of conflicts – the Anglo-Dutch wars – ensued; characterised by fierce sea battles with fairytale names: the Battle of the Kentish Knock, the Battle of Leghorn, the Battle of the Gabbard. Perhaps the most famous scuffle came in 1667, when a flotilla of Dutch ships sailed up the Thames, smashed through the chains which were meant to blockade the river, and burned much of the English fleet moored at Chatham. Coming within a few years of the Great Fire of London (which many English suspected the Dutch of igniting), the Medway raid was traumatic for Londoners. Diarist Samuel Pepys wrote: “All our hearts do now ache; for the news is true, that the Dutch have broken the chain and burned our ships… and, the truth is, I do fear so much that the whole kingdom is undone.” “In all things, in wisdom, courage, force, knowledge of our own streams, and success, the Dutch have the best of us,” he said.

The rollercoaster continued through the following centuries, including the small matter of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in which Prince William III of Orange launched a semi-hostile takeover of the British throne in order to prevent a Catholic assuming power. The Dutch King of England ended up ruling for fifteen years; sparking another wave of acquisitions. British artists and architects eagerly copied the latest Dutch styles, while the Dutch admired English literature and coffee shop culture, launching Dutch versions of the Spectator and creating ‘Sterne Clubs’ to read the work of Laurence Sterne. The English also discovered a deep love of Dutch jenever, or gin. Dozens of small distilleries opened throughout London, hiring distillers who had previously worked in Schiedam, and producing English gins based on slight variations of traditional Dutch recipes. For King William, the rapid expansion of the gin business was an important way of keeping wealthy English supporters onside – as English gin production soared, landowners could sell excess grain which might otherwise be worthless to distillers for a healthy profit. Yet the social costs were considerable. London newspapers were filled with gin horror stories, such as the alcoholics who killed their children so they could sell their clothes and buy gin with the proceeds. In 1751, a survey counted a total of 17,000 “private gin shops” in London alone; many of which provided straw on the floor so gin-lovers could sleep where they fell. In Holborn, one in every five houses was a gin shop.

One might think the Brits would be eternally grateful, but as empires rose and fell, the balance of power kept shifting. As the age of wind and sail gave way to that of coal and steam and steel, and the industrial revolution transformed Britain, Dutch power faded. The British, who’d once looked enviously at Amsterdam’s riches, began to look at their neighbours a little piteously. When Scrooge, in Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, sat shivering over a bowl of gruel, he did so next to a crumbling fireplace “build by some Dutch merchant, long ago”. One London newspaper mocked Hollanders as “Hogg-landers”; describing them as “Lusty, Fat, Two-Legged Cheese Worms” and claiming they’d only got rich by cheating others. Easier travel helped strengthen some ties between the countries, and in the nineteenth century, thousands of Brits crossed the North Sea and travelled up the Rhine by boat. However, many were scathing of local habits, mocking the Europeans for their ‘Popery and wooden shoes’. ‘Good Rhinish wine and salmon, and bad cooks’ was Joseph Shaw’s review. Some Brits claimed that the superiority of their nation’s food reflected the superiority of its people. ‘A true Englishman who loves roast beef and pudding cannot breathe freely out of his own island,’ Lord Boyle wrote. Even during friendly times, the rivalry remained intense. One British poet wrote: “To the new world in the moon away let us go / For if the Dutch Colony get thither first / ‘Tis a thousand to one but they’ll drain that too”.

The details of the Anglo-Dutch relationship are enough to fill several books, but it’s fair to say that any account of it is complicated by the fact that it’s somewhat unequal. For the Dutch, the relationship with Britain is perhaps the most complex and consequential bilateral relationship after the one with Germany. For the Brits, though, the Netherlands is important, but also just one of many countries which lie “over there” across the water. Post-war British statesmen have often worried more about how Dutch fortunes influence those of France or Germany than they have about the Netherlands as a power in its own right. Today, many Brits seem affectionate but somewhat incurious about the Dutch; tending to view them as cute and liberal and vaguely Scandinavian, but not worth monitoring in much detail. A Dutch local election or by-election would rarely be covered in the British press the way that one in Germany, the US or even Canada or Australia uk3would. Yet it’s also clear that the Netherlands and Britain still have an enormous amount in common. They’re both constitutional monarchies, with a benevolent king or queen leaving the day-to-day running to a prime minister and a bicameral parliament. As former colonial powers – they’re also both entrepreneurial, Atlanticist and somewhat hawkish; confident on the world stage and unafraid to project their power overseas.

But then of course comes the B- word. The Dutch have, understandably, long been keen to see the Brits playing an active role in Europe. When Harold Macmillan announced that Britain planned to join the European Community, the Dutch foreign ministry responded that it had “always favoured” strengthening the community and “thus applauds the British step”. Fifty years later, when David Cameron aimed to reform the EU ahead of the Brexit referendum, he originally wanted to announce his plans in Amsterdam, but had to find another venue when the Dutch government could barely hide their discomfort. When the referendum was held, the result was, for the Dutch, baffling. They’d thought they were in an imperfect but happy marriage, but suddenly found their spouse declaring they wanted an immediate divorce. The sense of confusion and dismay has been heightened by the way things have played out since then – for a country which prides itself on running things consensually and undramatically, the current state of British politics is difficult to fathom. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, spoke for many when he despaired, shortly after the referendum result, that the UK seemed to have “collapsed politically, monetarily, constitutionally, and economically”. Others have been forced to bite their tongues. “I’m trying to be as polite, as my British friends have taught me to be”, finance minister Wopke Hoekstra said recently.

Both inside and outside the Netherlands, media coverage of Brexit has inevitably focused on the threat to the Dutch economy. Dutch ports at the mouth of the Rhine act as a major gateway between Britain and the rest of Europe, meaning Brexit will leave the Dutch economy horribly exposed. According to the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, even the “best-case” soft Brexit would see Dutch economic output cut by 0.9% a year. Hundreds of extra customs inspectors have been recruited in Rotterdam, but most experts say that (with the possible exception of Ireland) no European country stands to lose more from a clumsy or hard Brexit.  For the Portuguese or Romanians, Brexit might be an annoyance, but for the Dutch it’s a logistical nightmare. However, it’s also important to note that the effects of Brexit are not uniformly spread. While Rotterdam could be hit hard, in places like Amsterdam, the outlook is more mixed, thanks to the prospect of luring well-paid bankers and bureaucrats away from London. Unilever shareholders recently voted against relocating permanently to Rotterdam, but the European Medicines Agency will move from London to Amsterdam, after the Dutch government pledged to spend tens of millions on new headquarters.

When the history books are written, though, the biggest impact on Anglo-Dutch relations might be played out on a bigger stage; as Brexit forces a redrawing of a complex tangle of alliances at the European level. Within the EU, the Dutch and Brits have long been close allies; leaders of a finger-wagging Calvinist faction which thinks frivolous Greeks and Italians are to blame for their own misfortunes. For the Dutch, the worry is that the post-Brexit EU will become a southern-focused, protectionist bloc; more interested in handing subsidies to French farmers than in promoting free trade. At the same time, if post-Brexit Britain seeks to cut regulation and taxes, the business hubs of Netherlands might be the first to lose out. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, the Dutch would rather have the Brits inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.uk2

For a while after the referendum, it looked plausible that Britain might be the first domino to fall, and the Netherlands might also move to leave the EU. In fact, the opposite has happened. Polling shows about four-fifths of Dutch people back EU membership, and populist parties talk about leaving less than they used to. Now, the smart money is not on ‘Nexit’ but on new alliances. Fearful of being steamrollered by their powerful neighbours, the Dutch are stepping up to take the Brits’ seat at the table, and looking for new friends. “If people talk about ‘the French-German axis’, then I think: ‘what about the French-Dutch axis?’” Mark Rutte said recently. “I want to help shape Europe and you need alliances for that.” In the Hague, people talk of building “a new Hanseatic League”; an alliance of northern countries which can promote free trade in the age of America First. In the past, Britain often liked to think of itself as a bridge between Europe and America. Might the Netherlands now play a similar role, as a bridge between Britain and Europe? No-one really knows. But whatever happens, the two countries are (as the Anglo-Dutch politician Nick Clegg once said) “condemned to work together”.

In 1945, Queen Wilhelmina left her basement in London and returned to her beloved Netherlands; a country wrecked but free. Not long afterwards, she invited Winston Churchill to visit. He was by then, a former Prime Minister with time on his hands, but the visit had many of the trappings of an official Royal Visit – high tea with Queen Wilhelmina, a series of grand banquets and speeches, and cheering crowds on Dam Square, as well as an impromptu stop when the ageing statesman escaped his police escort to enjoy a beer at a terrace bar. At the visit’s climax, Churchill addressed the States-General in the Hague, giving a lecture which was typically sweeping and grandiose. “The tornado has passed away”, he said. “The thunder of the cannons has ceased, the terror from the skies is over, the oppressors are cast out and broken. We may be wounded and impoverished. But we are still alive and free”. There were, Churchill said, “two supreme tasks” facing the Dutch and the British alike: “to revive the prosperity of Europe; and … to devise those measures of world security which will prevent disaster descending upon us again.” “Holland and England were united”, he said, “as the foremost champions of Freedom”; and should now integrate further by forming “the United States of Europe”. After the speech, writing to the British ambassador, Neville Bland, Churchill was a little blunter. The difference between Dutch and British was, he said, that “the Dutch were compressed by the war and are now erect and expanding, whereas we, who were blood donors throughout, are now exhausted physically, economy and above all financially, and find victory bleak and disappointing”. It was time, the great statesman said, for a new relationship.


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”.


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”.

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.