Culture Wars in the Netherlands

by Erik Voeten on June 28, 2011 · 2 comments

in Blogs

I am spending the summer in the Netherlands and I have been struck by just how much Dutch politics has changed. It is hard to resist the temptation to think that the American tea party would be quite enamored of the current Dutch government. The cabinet appears to make its mark by launching initiatives that target immigrants, environmentalists, cultural elitists, and international institutions. Through all of this there is a strong message of nationalism. The analogy with the tea party can be drawn too far and doesn’t hold up entirely (analogies rarely do) but the type of cultural politics that we witness in the US is alive and well in the Netherlands. Let me offer some examples of what keeps people occupied here.

The first story is the source of the New York Times ad above (a similar ad ran in the French daily Le Monde). The new cabinet wants to cut 200 million euros annually from its support of the arts. This means effectively terminating dozens of theater companies, orchestras, and educational facilities. The idea is that within a year-and-a-half, the Netherlands should adopt the American model of philanthropic contributions to the arts. All of this is promoted by a cabinet member (staatssecretaris Zijlstra) who proudly proclaims to have little interest in the arts and contrasts himself explicitly with cultural elitists. There are many within the Dutch arts community who believe that the existing system of subsidies encourages mediocrity and ought to be changed (count me part of that). Yet, no-one thinks that the current cabinet’ concern is about improving the arts. A protest movement held a reasonably well-attended March for Civilization” and the story has dominated Dutch opinion pages for the past week. Protesters also placed the ads in international newspapers, a curious move given how insensitive the current government is to such international reputational concerns.

The second story concerns a ban on ritual slaughter (NYT story here). The Netherlands has a small Party for the Animals let by the charismatic Marianne Thieme. This party introduced a bill to ban slaughter without first sedating the animals. Aside from the one Dutch kosher butcher, this new law only affects Muslims (halal prohibits sedation). The governing VVD lets few opportunities go by to show that it is just as tough as Geert Wilders’ PVV on Muslim immigrants, so it set aside its liberal (in the European sense) principles and supports the initiative (as do all main Dutch parties, except for the Christian-Democrats on ground of religious freedom). Presumably there are much greater issues of animal cruelty that parliament could legislate on but conveniently they picked the one that mostly affects Muslims.

The third story concerns the cabinet’s reversal of a treaty (with Belgium) to flood a small polder for environmental reasons. The story here is fed by agricultural interests, environmental skepticism and nationalism: who would we give back land to the sea for the sake of nature? That would be undutch! An international treaty is just a piece of paper. To add to this, a VVD parliamentarian announced today a legislative initiative to eliminate the main Dutch climate institute because its scientists are too biased towards accepting that humans contribute to climate change.

There are many other examples, such as the VVD’s critique of European judges as “politicians in robes.” Appointees to the Dutch Hoge Raad (Supreme Court) are being scrutinized for their political sympathies (highly unusual here). There are big cuts in health care, shifting decision-making to insurers. I have just picked a few that I have come across in the past two weeks. Let me also add that I don’t necessarily disagree with all of this. I have long thought that he Dutch are much too concerned about their international reputation, that High Court appointees deserve scrutiny from democratically elected politicians, and that there are too many silly subsidies in the Netherlands. What has struck me most about this is the apparent package deal. How do you figure out that if you are against immigration you should also be skeptical of climate change? Is there learning going on here across borders? If there is indeed such a pattern in comparative data, is this new or has this been shaped by elites? I don’t know research in this area all that well so I would be interested to get some references.

Update: A Facebook friend just commented that CDA leader Verhagen is going to give a speech tonight in which he will say that he understands why people fear foreign influence as foreign products bring in “foreign diseases” (among other good reasons to fear foreigners). Background: CDA used to be the most powerful party in the Netherlands but now ranks sixth in the polls. I guess they hope populism pays off.

{ 2 comments }

Michael Blok June 29, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Good overview, but how does political overview of High Court judges add to the democratic character of a country? How does running roughshod over a dozen articles of the Constitution (incl. the clauses ‘All who are present in NL shall be treated equally’ and ‘Government shall foster rule of international law’)? And name 10 silly subsidies that the right does not like that add up to 1 subsidy that the right likes.

Brandon July 6, 2011 at 10:59 am

This was an interesting overview, particularly to somebody such as myself who hasn’t followed Dutch politics very closely in recent months. But I found your discussion of the proposed ritual slaughter ban to be somewhat superficial. First, I don’t think a law should be criticized simply on the grounds that it will disproportionately accept a specific group. This kind of reminds me of the debate over California’s ban on shark fin soup. Many Chinese-Americans, who are the main consumers of the dish, have criticized the bill as an assault on their culture without really addressing the ethical debates over shark finning.

As far as your argument that there are other animal rights issues that the legislature could have addressed instead of this one that mainly affects Muslims, well, who says that Dutch legislators haven’t passed any animal rights legislation with a more general applicability in recent months? Even if not, the fact that there are unsolved problems within a policy area doesn’t seem like sufficient reason to avoid addressing this particular problem (if indeed, you do view it as a problem that needs to be addressed). Finally, ritual slaughter bans exist in several other European countries and have been discussed periodically in many others, so it’s not as if the Dutch are trailblazers in this area.

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