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The country today
The country today
With the 16th largest economy in the world the Netherlands is currently enjoying a healthy, internationally oriented economic climate. In recent years the annual rate of economic growth has been above the European average and this still remains the case despite global uncertainties adversely affecting many neighbouring countries. Inflation is remarkably low, averaging around 1.5%, and unemployment remains steady at just under 3%. The economy is a free-market one and the present government is working towards making it more so all the time.
Sectors of the economy
Food processing – The main focus of Industrial activity lies with food-processing and it is a very prosperous sector of the economy. Witness, for example, the familiar household name of Unilever® (a company based in the Netherlands). Next in importance comes the chemical industry, followed closely by petroleum refining (Shell® is also based in the Netherlands) and electrical machinery (the Dutch-based company Philips, is another household name around much of the world). At Slochteren, the Netherlands is also home to one of the largest natural gas fields in the world, generating profits that are measured in billions of euros.
Agriculture – Agriculture continues to play a significant role in the national economy, notwithstanding the fact that it only employs 4% of the working population. Dairy farming, including the raising of poultry and cattle, is important although more significant is the production of crops like beets and potatoes; the country is famous for its cheese industry. Agriculture is a highly mechanised sector and feeds into the food-processing chain which, in turn, is a vital part of the country’s exports. The total value of agricultural exports – over £25.4 billion ($50 billion) annually – is remarkably high for such a small country.
Probably the best-known agricultural product that is exported is based on fresh-cut plants, flowers, and bulbs, It has been estimated that two out of every three plants or flowers sent abroad comes from the Netherlands. To this surprising statistic can be added the fact that one in four of all tomatoes exported, plus one one-third of the world’s exports of peppers and cucumbers are also Dutch.
Government and Administration
The constitution of the Netherlands only covers the European part of the state. The country as a whole, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, has its own statutes instituting a federate political system and this includes the Caribbean islands of Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.
Head of State – The present head of state, Queen Beatrix, is a member of the House of Orange-Nassau (which has ruled the country since 1815) and as monarch she retains constitutional powers. She has to co-sign every law and could in theory refuse to endorse a piece of legislation. The monarch also holds the chair of the Council of State, and as such has the role of advising the cabinet on new laws. She is also the final court for administrative law. Such power, however, is not usually practised and, like her British counterpart, the role of Queen Beatrix is largely a ceremonial one and the continuing existence of the monarchy is not a political issue in the Netherlands. The heir apparent is Willem-Alexander, her son.
Political power rests with a cabinet of ministers chosen from more than one party. No single party is able to command an overall majority when general elections take place and therefore coalition governments are the norm. The party with the most parliamentary seats usually gains the coveted post of Prime Minister and this has been the case for the last thirty years and more.
The parliament of the Netherlands is called the States-General and consists of two chambers. The one with the major legislative powers, the Second Chamber, has 150 members who are directly elected whenever a general election takes place (usually every four years, or sooner if the coalition breaks down).
The First Chamber
The First Chamber, consisting of 75 members, is elected by the representatives of the provincial assemblies which are also constituted by direct election during a general election. The First Chamber is only broadly similar in function to the British House of Lords in that it cannot directly initiate new laws but only reject them; nor does it have the power to amend legislation.
For purposes of administration and local government, the Netherlands is divided into twelve regions, called provinces. Each province has its Governor, usually called Commissaris van de Koningin (Commissioner of the Queen). The next level of local government is formed by the division of the provinces into municipalities and there are currently 458 of these.
There are three main political parties: a conservative Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) party, a social democratic grouping which is currently dominated by the Labour Party (PvdA) and a right-wing party called the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). For a long time, the Christian Democrats could be relied on to win enough seats to secure a place in any coalition government and at the time of a general election the unknown factor usually came down to whether a centre right or a centre left government will emerge as the next government. Recent elections have been more unpredictable and smaller parties have emerged with the ability to upset the usual arrangements between the main political groupings.
This took a dramatic and unfortunate turn in the run up to the 2002 general election when a new party, called the LPF and based around the populist right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, gained considerable media attention. A week before the actual election, Fortuyn was gunned down and killed by a Dutch extremist. The political situation became quite volatile and following another general election in 2003 a new right-wing coalition government emerged to run the country. Policies to cut back on welfare spending and restrict immigration were quickly implemented. Another election followed at the end of 2006, following the collapse of the coalition, and this time the Christian Democratic Appeal party substantially improved its ratings and became the leading partner in a new cabinet.
Race and Immigration
Issues of race and immigration have recently done much to dent the Netherlands‘ famously liberal image. The political assassination of Pim Fortuyn was linked to his party‘s attacks on Islam in 2007, and in 2008 another political storm developed over a short film made by Geert Wilders, a very right-wing politician and leader of the relatively new PVV (Freedom) party (with nine members). Wilders has called for a ban of the Qur’an, comparing it to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and his film is very hostile to Islam.
The Netherlands has a total population of c. 16 408 557 (2008). With a density of 395 persons per sq km/1 023 per sq mi, it is one of the most densely populated countries in the world (the United Kingdom, by comparison, has a density of 246 per sq km/637 per sq mi). A factor working against the increasing population is the low fertility rate of 1.72 children per woman.
The population distribution is very uneven, and the highest densities are in the provinces of Noord- and Zuid-Holland. Together with the province of Utrecht, these form the Randstad, a large conurbation encompassing the country’s four main cities – Amsterdam (744 740), The Hague (474 245), Rotterdam (581 615) and Utrecht (290 529) – and accounting in total for nearly eight million inhabitants.
The other main cities are Eindhoven (209 601), Tilburg (200 975), Almere (183 738), Groningen (180 824), Breda (170 451) and Nijmegen (160 732).
The population of the Netherlands as a whole is an ethically diverse one, although over 80% of people are registered as indigenous Dutch. The two largest ethnic minorities are Indonesians and Germans (each representing just under 2.5% of the population), followed by Turks (2.2%), Surinamese (2%), Moroccan (1.9%), and Antillean and Aruban (0.8%).
Traditions and Folklore
In the past, the Netherlands had a great variety of local costumes. Today, apart from Marken and Volendam where many people wear traditional costume during the tourist season, there are few places where it is regularly worn, and then it is mostly confined to older women.
In spite of their variety, there are common features shared by all women’s costumes. They consist of a skirt, an apron and a jacket done up at the front, usually with short sleeves. Over the jacket some women wear a stiff bodice or a shawl. The costume, worn on Sundays, is always more elegant than that of other days, and on Whit Sunday in particular, women usually dress up in their finest clothes and jewellery.
Nowadays, these are worn only in a few coastal areas, such as Urk, Volendam and Zuid-Beveland. They are nearly always black, whereas in the past brighter colours were worn. The costume consists of a jacket, often double-breasted, and wide trousers or, around the Zuider Zee, knickerbockers. The shirt, which is rarely visible, is made of brightly coloured cotton with a striped or checked pattern, and has a straight collar with two gold buttonnes. These are the costume’s only ornaments, except in Zuid-Beveland, where two attractive chased silver buckles are used to hold up the trousers. Men also wear a small cotton scarf knotted round the neck, and a black hat; this is often a simple cap, but in Urk it resembles a kepi, and a round hat is worn in Zeeland. Wooden clogs are usually worn as well.
Food and drink
Breakfast a fairly conventional meal and, at its most filling and leisurely, consists of different types of bread, spice cake, cheese, a boiled egg and a selection of cold cuts. In practice, most people rarely eat this much except perhaps at weekends as a form of brunch. A slice of toast, a drink of fresh juice or tea or coffee is a more likely repast for those setting off to work early in the morning.
Lunch (middageten) is usually taken between midday and 2pm and, although a full meal is not uncommon, a sandwich or a light dish is more likely to be eaten.
Dinner (avondeten) in the evening is the main meal of the day for most Dutch families and until very recently took place around 6pm. Even today, when going out for a meal, it is not uncommon for a table to be booked for around that time. One of the few good books on Dutch cuisine is Dutch Cooking by Janny de Moor (Aquamarine, 2007).
For dessert, pancakes are always pleasantly affordable. Poffertjes are sweetened pancakes, traditionally prepared using a shallow copper pan.
The provinces can be better than cities like Amsterdam when it comes to experiencing traditional Dutch cuisine at its most authentic. Dishes to look out for include stamppot, a meat-based stew.
Any mention of typical Dutch dishes must include seafood like haring (raw herring), Zeeuwse oesters and Zeeuwse mosselen (oysters and mussels from Zeeland), gerookte paling (smoked eel), and lekkerbekjes (deep-fried breaded hake or whiting). The month of June or late in May sees the year’s first catch of herring – tradition dictates their being landed in the harbour of Scheveningen near The Hague – and every restaurant is keen to ensure that it can offer the fish to its customers. Vlaggetjesdag (Flags’ Day) celebrates the start of the new herring season, marked by the bedecking of the fishing fleets with flags. When the fresh herring are in plentiful supply after June you will see them being sold from carts on the street; the traditional way to enjoy them is to hold the fish by the tail and let it slip down your throat.
Herring does not have to be eaten raw and you can always try the pickled variety at any time of the year. Zur haring is a marinated version and sometimes herring is baked before being marinated.
Meat-based dishes lay at the heart of Dutch cuisine and pork is likely to feature somewhere on the menu of most restaurants. Smoked pork sausages from Guelders – a province where the easy availability of birch and oak trees made it the first to develop smoking techniques – are a popular choice. A more acquired taste is balkenbrij, a pudding of sorts made from whatever is left over from a butchered pig.
Chicken and beef are also firm favourites and while usually prepared in ways that will not seem novel to the British or North Americans there are some interesting varieties. Rookvlees, for example, is a thinly sliced smoked beef that is typically served on a slice of buttered bread.
The Netherlands does not have many vegetarian restaurants outside of Amsterdam but it is not difficult for non-carnivores to enjoy eating out. In the summer months salads are everywhere and can be sophisticated affairs featuring chicory, leek and bell peppers as well as the more usual ingredients. Given that English is so widely spoken, diners can always ask in a restaurant for a vegetarian dish, or a modification of something that is available, even if one is not specified on the menu.
Dutch breads are wholesome and tasty and can form the basis of a vegetarian lunch. White bread is still inordinately popular, a tradition that can be traced back to the times after World War II, when a sort of white bread was distributed to a near-starving population in the towns and western provinces. In recent years, though, brown breads and French-style varieties have become more common. Rye bread (roggebrood) is always available and comes in a black and coarse variety as well as a more dry version from Limburg and Brabant.
Spice cake, tasting like a sweet soda bread but made from rye flour, is also readily available and comes in various forms: with nuts, raisins or orange peel. The one you most likely to come across is Deventer koek, which gets its name from the town where the bread has been made since the late 16C.
The Netherlands is famous for its cheeses and, while there is a tendency to find your choice restricted to the Gouda or Edam kind, variety comes by way of the stage of ripening the cheese has acquired. Gouda is available as young, ripe, mature and extra-mature and the tastes are quite distinct; there is no mistaking the Parmesan-like taste of an extra-mature Gouda with that of its younger variety.
It is worth seeking out some of the goat cheeses and boerenkaas (farmer’s cheese). When spices were first marketed in the Netherlands in the 17C, cheese-makers started to experiment with them and this accounts for the cumin-flavoured Leiden cheese and a Frisian variety (nagelkaas) that is made with cumin and cloves. Look out also for a hard, dry cheese made on the island of Texel.
The ancient Roman writer Tacitus observed the partiality of people in the Low Countries for the taste of beer and he came to the conclusion that the population could be conquered by controlling the supply of it. Exaggeration aside, the Dutch do like their beer and brew many brands themselves. A good place to experience the surprising variety of Dutch beers is the De Bierkoning store in central Amsterdam at Paleisstraat 125 (b031 206 252 336). Some of them are sold with a special glass from the brewery and come in a packaged form suitable for packing in your hand luggage.
Popular spirits include the juniper-flavoured Jenever (corenwijn), reputedly invented by a Dutch chemist named Sylvius de Bouve. The drink was apparently first dispensed as a medicine in the late 16C and then caught on as a favourite tipple. Other favourite drinks in the Netherlands are brandied apricots or raisins and redcurrant gin.
Dutch wine does not have an international reputation but the Slavante and Apostelhoeve vineyards, from the deep south of the country near Belgium, produce a white wine that should not disappoint.
Water is safe to drink straight from the tap anywhere in the country. Coffee-drinking is extremely popular and is usually served freshly brewed and strong. Tea is also widely consumed, and is generally taken without milk, and often with lemon.