Posts Tagged 'dutch'

The lives of others

Linocut illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Asked recently why Germany does not have a xenophobic populist party, Helmut Schmidt, the 91-year-old former Social Democratic chancellor, responded, “Nazism and Auschwitz.”

Its dark past has so far helped to spare Germany the rebirth of any influential anti-immigrant party, the likes of which have established themselves in nations with strong democratic credentials such as Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, its defenders say, has been working hard to make sure things stay that way – but not without some controversy.

Speaking to a gathering of young members of her Christian Democratic party in Potsdam last month, Merkel said that the country’s attempt to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed.” Merkel, known for her deft diplomatic approach, said that the idea that Germans and foreign workers could “live happily side by side” was an illusion.

The chancellor’s remarks were widely interpreted as a shift to the right, bringing her more in tune with her party’s conservative wing, which has advocated a more hard-line approach on the Integrationsverweigerer, or integration-deniers.

But some analysts beg to differ.

“It seems to me that she is misunderstood in the English media,” Riem Spielhaus, an Islam expert at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin, told Athens Plus. “Actually in German you can interpret her statement as a shift from an exclusive to an inclusive approach, while she would still spice this up with some demands from immigrants,” she said.

The German model, however, can hardly be called multicultural. Germany invited millions of guest workers in the 1960s and 70s who were recruited almost exclusively in the country’s industrial sector. Most of them returned to their home countries but millions of others stayed. About 4 million Muslims live in Germany, a nation of 82 million. Most of them are of Turkish heritage.

“There was a lot of encouragement to go back until the late 1990s, but very little encouragement to integrate into German society in order to stay. And I think this is what Merkel was referring to with her statement,” Spielhaus said. “This has been the German model to ‘muddle through’ – if one can speak of one at all. That means there never has been a state policy accepting multicultural life,” she said.

At the same time, many immigrants have been reluctant to expose their offspring to the culture and values of the host country. Many refuse to even learn the language.

Merkel has from the beginning of her first term in government tried to change this by supporting the integration of immigrants and their offspring. Speaking ahead of a national integration summit this weekend, she said that more immigrants should work for the state in Germany.

Not everyone seems to share her cause. Last month, Horst Seehofer, state premier of Bavaria and a member of the Christian Social Union that is part of the coalition government, urged putting a halt to immigration from Turkey and the Arab countries. Seehofer underscored the need to defend the “dominant German culture” while warning that unless the country overhauled its immigration policy, it risked becoming “the world’s welfare office.”

His comments were no match for the controversy caused by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin. In his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany does away with itself) published late in the summer, Sarrazin, a social democrat, said Muslim immigrants were dumbing down German society because they are less educated but have more children than ethnic Germans. Sarrazin was fired from the Bundesbank but his book is flying off the shelves in Germany.

Data show that more Turks returned to Turkey last year than came to live in Germany, while a recent report by the German chamber of industry and commerce mentioned that the country lacks about 400,000 skilled workers. Nevertheless, a recent survey found that one-third of Germans think the country is “overrun by foreigners.” The same survey found 55 percent of Germans consider Arabs to be “unpleasant people.”

Freedom fighters

Analysts agree that economic insecurity and an influx of foreign migrants, both exasperated by globalization, have fueled popular anger at established political elites across the continent. Xenophobic populist parties have sought to capitalize on the trend – only this time they are not using the argument of race, but rather hijacking Enlightenment talk about freedom.

The party of Geert Wilders in The Netherlands – which recently signed up to a minority center-right coalition in return for a government pledge to introduce a ban on the burqa and stricter immigration controls – claims to be defending Western values of freedom and democracy against Islam.

“There is only one value right-wing parties have not borrowed from the Enlightenment, so to speak, and that is universalism,” Sjoerd de Jong, editor at the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, told Athens Plus. “Sure, they promote Western culture, but many times it’s just a universalized form of particularism: our culture as we know it,” said De Jong, author of “Een wereld van verschil” (A World of Difference) an analysis of Holland’s well-tested multiculturalism.

Wilders is currently on trial for inciting hatred against Muslims after remarks in which he compared Islam to fascism. But the procedure has not exactly caused him harm. “Wilders’s prosecution for hate-speech has only increased his popularity, as an angry outsider attacking a corrupt and ‘politically correct’ establishment,” De Jong said.

Wilders, De Jong argues, is cashing in on a major breach in trust between the Dutch government and a sizable part of the electorate regarding major issues such as immigration and integration. Holland, he says, is experiencing a backlash against the technocratic way the left-liberal coalition ruled from 1994 to 2002 that gradually evolved into a reaction “against the ‘spirit of May 68’ and leftist ideas in general.”

Pim Fortuyn, the slain anti-immigrant party leader, was one of the first to address these issues in a populist way, but he still veered to the left on cultural issues. Wilders, who has always been closer to the conservative movement in the United States, has taken the culture war to the next level: an all-out attack on Leftism. “His approach is altogether more harshly ideological than Fortuyn’s was. And while Fortuyn always kept a sense of humor, Wilders is just angry,” De Jong said.

Government filter

Voter frustration over lackluster centrist parties has boosted right-wing parties in Austria where the xenophobic Freedom Party made a strong showing in recent provincial elections in Vienna, traditionally a center-left stronghold. In Sweden, a xenophobic anti-immigrant party that calls itself the Sweden Democrats has entered parliament for the first time, while in Denmark, the government depends on support from the nationalist Danish People’s Party.

Analysts are divided on whether letting populist parties join the government – provided they have enough votes – is the best way to moderate their message and influence. A decision to include the Freedom Party, then under Jorg Haider, in the government 10 years ago led to Austria’s diplomatic isolation by the European Union, but it was seen as key in sapping it of its power, as some within the party chose to water down their language to succeed in government.

Kasper Moller Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, believes the carrot has worked in Denmark as the country’s populist party has largely moved away from the extreme views of 15 years ago. “They want to be part of the government, so they try to moderate their claims. They still are a party that wants to limit the number of immigrants, but in order to be part of the government they have to be more pragmatic on these issues,” Hansen told Athens Plus.

But De Jong has doubts whether that would do the trick in Holland. “Wilders is much too smart a politician to fall into this trap,” he said. “He has built his organization – remember, it’s not a party, but a movement, without members or party structure – as an opposition movement. He will never want to join a government at this stage of its development, still building and hunting for resources and talent,” he said.

Europe’s existentialist debate is set to heat up as countries try to come to terms not so much with the influx of migrants, but more so with the growth in migrant-origin families as the second and third generations emerge.

“These new generations are well-acquainted with the European political and social system, which enables them to participate, express themselves, criticize, rebel and sustain a more visible presence than their relatively quietist parents,” said Justin Gest, a political scientist at Harvard, author of the recently published “Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West.”

The process will sometimes be painful, but it is unavoidable. “The face of Europe is changing,” Gest said. “And anytime there is change, there will be resistance.”

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No title please, we’re Dutch

By Harry van Versendaal

This time, it came painfully late. Andres Iniesta’s volley in the 116th minute of the World Cup final made sure the Dutch returned home from Johannesburg empty-handed.

It was a typical finish to a very untypical tournament for the Dutch. Long synonymous with daring, free-flowing, attacking football, the men in orange arrived in South Africa with an uncomfortably teutonic philosophy: Win by any means. (In fact it was the Germans who played like the Dutch this time, with their refreshing display of fascinating, modern football.)

Bert van Marwijk, the squad’s unassuming coach, made no secret of the new dogma. Total football is dead, he proclaimed ahead of the Brazil clash in the quarterfinals which ironically saw the Selecao, the tournament’s second favorites behind Spain, lose in classic Dutch fashion. After scoring a goal early in the first half, a complacent Brazilian side played as if it were already through to the next stage. Following a rather messy win against Uruguay in the semifinals, van Marwijk explained himself in simple, Rehhagelesque words: “I like good football. But I also like winning.”

Fans of Holland’s total football and its later-day reincarnation were dismayed at van Marwijk’s Calvinist-style rejection of unnecessary beauty for the sake of defensive pragmatism. The typically outspoken Johan Cruyff – the most famous exponent of Holland’s “totaalvoetbal” in the 1960s and 70s and, interestingly, the man who exported the trend from Amsterdam’s Ajax to Barcelona – also complained that Holland had lost its soul. “I thought that my country would never renounce their style,” he grumbled after an artless, and at times brutal, final on Sunday which saw the Netherlands collect a record nine yellow cards before being reduced to 10 men. “I was wrong. Of course I’m not hanging all 11 of them by the same rope – but almost. They didn’t want the ball,” the Dutch football icon said.

The truth is that sharp playmaker Wesley Sneijder, dashing winger Arjen Robben and (Holland’s biggest disappointment in this Word Cup) quicksilver striker Robin van Persie are the only players in the team that can make your heart beat faster. The three, none of whom play in the Dutch league, are stylistically miles away from the two midfield destroyers Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, hailed by many commentators as the true heart of this squad. De Jong’s karate kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso, one of the haunting images of this final, was emblematic of the cynical, unusually head-shaved Nederland.

Still, you can hardly blame the coach for wanting to break with a past of beautiful tragedy. As Mike de Vries wrote in Guardian’s sport blog: “Success in itself is a kind of beauty and it is a beauty the Dutch as a World Cup nation has never experienced.” Although playing by far the fanciest football, Dutch teams always seemed to collapse in their most crucial games, as if they came with some sort of self-destruct button – most painfully, in the 1974 World Cup final defeat to Germany. “There is a deep unsolved trauma around this 1974-defeat. Like an unpunished crime,” a Dutch psychoanalyst tells David Winner, a British observer of Holland’s football tradition, in “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football,” a captivating analysis of the “Dutch syndrome,” defined as a peculiar mixture of football ingenuity and chronic underachievement. It’s enough to say that in terms of trophies, Holland, widely regarded as the best team not to have won the World Cup, ranks next to Greece, each having won a single European Championship title.

Some see more in van Marwijk’s allergy to useless flair than a mere sickness of witnessing Holland lose with style. For sociologist Paul Scheffer, Dutch play in South Africa reflected his nation’s transformation from a progressive, open-minded society to a more self-absorbed, fearful one. “We are more insecure, conservative. You could also call it realism. We have become aware of our vulnerability, so we have a more sober idea of what we can do, what we can be. The more free-floating, high-minded idea of what we represent in the world has got lost a bit in the last 10 years,” the Amsterdam-based professor told the Guardian. “Of course you lose something that was nice but you lose also something that was irritating – I never liked all that moralism.”

Whatever the causes, the Dutch decided it was time for some ugly wins. They arrived in South Africa having scored eight straight victories in the qualifying rounds and then went on to win all six games up to the final. Performances were mostly solid but far from breathtaking. If there is one player that aptly summed up the character of the team, that would be Liverpool’s wide midfielder Dirk Kuyt: industrious, combative, banal.

In the end, the betrayal of the artistic legacy bequeathed by the football generations of Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp for the sake of a safety-first attitude was not enough to fend off the curse of the two lost finals in 1974 and 1978 – nor the psychic powers of Paul the octopus. “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football,” Cruyff said.

As Iniesta struck his shot past goalie Maarten Stekelenburg deep into extra time, the fluorescent orange crowds must have experienced a strong sense of deja vu. Only this time, losing did not seem to hurt as much – perhaps the only good thing about losing ugly.



Requiem for a nation?

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Bart De Wever is not a big fan of Belgium. In fact, he would eventually like to see the nation “evaporate.” The problem is that his party, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), has just won an emphatic victory in the country’s general election. Is Belgium set to become the stuff of history books?

“Not yet,” says Pierre Vercauteren, a political science professor at the Catholic University of Mons. Although De Wever’s separatist party made a strong showing winning the largest number of seats in the 150-seat lower Belgian federal house, he says, that does not mean that there is an equal number of voters out there who want a divorce.

“These voters simply wanted to express a strong disappointment with the Flemish members of the outgoing coalition about the lack of success in the reform of the state which they promised in 2007,” Vercauteren said, describing the ballot outcome as “clear in its form, ambiguous in its meaning and complicated in its consequences.”

De Wever’s party won nearly 30 percent of the Flemish vote on a campaign to gradually disconnect Flanders from the rest of the country and has now entered what is expected to be protracted negotiations with the French-speaking Socialists (PS) of Elio Di Rupo, which came second nation-wide with 36 percent of the Walloon vote on the promise of increased public spending.

De Wever has said the Flemish “must be masters of their own fate” but following his victory he has watered down his separatist message. “We do not want a revolution,” Wever, a 39-year old historian, said. “We do not want to declare Flanders independent overnight. But we do believe in gradual evolution.” In an apparent bid to appease the francophone public, he suggested that he would make way for Di Rupo to be prime minister and rather pursue a deal to reform the federal state and finances – i.e. to devolve key powers to the regions. “Don’t be afraid. Have faith in yourselves,” the election winner told Wallonia voters after his victory.

“De Wever said he will not let Belgium explode but still remains deeply convinced that the end of Belgium is the future,” Vercauteren says. That would mean a slow death – but death nevertheless. For the time being, Flanders and Wallonia enjoy self-rule over employment, environment, agriculture, culture and sports but the former want to expand autonomy over health, justice and social security – a non-starter for their “dependent” cohabitants.

Since its creation in 1830, Belgium, the administrative center of the European Union, has seen little of the unity preached by the eurocrats in Brussels. Friction has been the leitmotif in the relationship between the nation’s two communities, the more prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the more needy French-speaking Wallonia in the south.

The linguistic divide is evident everywhere: from political parties and boy scouts to road signs and license plates, while Brussels resembles a bilingual island at the heart of the nation. The linguistic apartheid between the 6.5 million Dutch speakers and the 4 million French speakers comes with a lot of luggage. Once a rural population looked down upon by their francophone kin, the Flemish are fed up with subsidizing their slacker neighbors. Wallonia has twice the jobless rate and 25 percent lower per-capita income. The discrepancy in the number of highway speed traps (a source of state revenue) is seen as emblematic of the divide: Flemish authorities have installed over 1,500 while the Walloon government just over 160.

A recent study by the RTL broadcasting company found 32 percent of the Flemish population want outright independence, 17 percent a confederation and 25 percent greater self-rule within Belgium.

If the past is any guide, negotiations between the different parties will be long and complicated. It took nine months for outgoing Prime Minister Yves Leterme to form his short-lived five-party coalition government in 2007, which collapsed over voting rights in Brussels’ suburbs.

Analysts fear that lingering uncertainty will prevent Belgium from curbing its huge debt making it, as the Financial Times put it, “the Greece of the north.” To make things more complicated, Belgium is set to take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July. Bart Maddens, a political scientist at the Catholic University of Leuven, says it should be possible to reach an agreement by September but even so, he adds, a prolonged crisis would have little consequences for the EU presidency. “There is a functioning government and prime minister, and the EU presidency is a matter which is largely dealt with on an administrative level,” he says.

Vercauteren is also not too concerned about the fallout, as the objective of EU integration has never been questioned in any of the two camps. “After all, the presidency has been prepared for more than 18 months. The new coalition government will comprise members from the outgoing government as well as the new one so you will have smooth transition and continuity,” he says.

Even so, the sight of a squabbling nation at the helm of the EU will not be a flattering one (neither for the perennially dysfunctional 27-member bloc of course). There is a question of Belgium’s image [abroad] but as the agenda has been already prepared there will be no paralysis,” says Vercauteren.

Pragmatism should be enough to save the day but not necessarily the nation’s face abroad.

Blond ambition

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Almere, a relatively new, middle-class polder city east of Amsterdam, was virtually unheard of outside the Netherlands – until last week, when it made Europe’s headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The party of Geert Wilders, by far the country’s most controversial figure, won municipal elections there. His Party for Freedom (PVV), which also came second in The Hague, the other of the two municipalities it contested, will be in control of a Dutch city for the first time. More shockingly, Wilders could be kingmaker in the upcoming general elections.

“The result is troubling but was bound to happen,” Sjoerd de Jong, deputy editor-in-chief at NRC Handelsblad, told Athens Plus. “Wilders had already shown his electoral strength in the European elections. The premature demise of the government only helped him cash his cheque.

“The Dutch electorate in general is growing tired of its traditional leaders, which is apparent in the wildly divergent election results of the last 10 or 15 years,” de Jong said of a country once the synonym of political stability for much part in the form of so-called “purple coalition” governments of Christian and social democrats.

PVV’s victory also has symbolic content emblematic of the gradual transformation of the Netherlands, a former colonial nation long seen as a bastion of tolerance and liberal values by account of its soft policy on drugs and prostitution and decades of open-door policy on immigration.

“Wilders’s message of cultural nationalism and protectionism appeals to vague but broad concerns in Dutch society, not only in the working class but also in middle-class areas and cities, like Almere,” de Jong said.

Nicknamed Mozart or Captain Peroxide for his trademark platinum-dyed hairdo, Wilders is in many ways the political heir to conservative populist Pim Fortuyn. Fortuyn, who was gunned down by a deranged animal rights activist in 2002, was the first politician to challenge the orthodoxy of the Dutch political establishment, which he liked to scoff as the “left-wing church.”

Less charismatic than the over-the-top Fortuyn, Wilders also likes to take shots at the multiculturalist model, once the sacred cow of Holland’s consensus politics. The country’s mainstream parties, long in denial of the simmering tension, failed to address popular discontent with the hard-to-integrate chunk of the nation’s so-called “allochtonen” or foreigners – tension which burst into the open following the violent murder in 2004 of eccentric filmmaker Theo van Gogh by an Islamic radical.

That someone could be killed for speaking his mind, even if that meant mocking an alien religion, was an unprecedented shock for the Dutch. If you want to live here, the new motto goes, you have to live by our values.

“Society may be becoming less tolerant of minority eccentricities, especially of religious ones. There’s always been a strong Dutch urge to ‘act normal’ – meaning ‘like one of us’ – which has gained momentum in recent years due to the uncertainties of globalization and immigration,” de Jong said.

Holland is in many ways at the frontline of a pan-European populist reaction against the established political elites, which are being blamed for allowing mass immigration and, particularly, the Islamisation of European societies. At the same time, de Jong points out, Wilders, who started out as a punk youth in the early 80s, is “typically Dutch in his bluntness,” like in his proposal of a “kopvodden-tax,” a tax on headscarves that literally translates as a “head-rag tax.”

“My supporters say: ‘At last there is someone who dares to say what millions of people think.’ That is what I do,” Wilders has said echoing Fortuyn’s famous mantra: “I say what I think and I do as I say.”

Then again, de Jong remarks, many of his followers consider Wilders too extreme, certainly for Dutch tastes. “They voted for him primarily because they wanted to send a signal to the government: We’re concerned about where this society is going and we want you to take us seriously,” he said.

The idea of a disgruntled but silent majority bound by political correctness does not go down well with many analysts.

“This is not how populism works. It’s the other way round. I think Wilders tells people what to think. He exploits people’s fears. Populist parties actually shape people’s views,” said Andre Krouwel, professor of political science at Amsterdam’s Vrije University.

Reality, political expediency or, perhaps, both have pushed Dutch governments away from the live-and-let-live approach on immigration in favor of a tougher, assimilation-oriented policy. Newcomers must now take social integration courses and pass a language test within five years after arrival or risk deportation from the Netherlands, where 6 percent of the population of 16 million are Muslim.

That won’t do for Wilders, who has said he wants a ban on headscarves for civil servants, a halt on migration from Muslim countries and a moratorium on the construction of mosques in a bid to “stop the Islamisation of the Netherlands,” which he considers a threat to freedom. “Fitna,” an anti-Islamic short movie/manifesto made by Wilders, equates Islam with Nazism.

“Wilders has a simple explanation for everything. Migrants are to blame for everything, so if you stop migration, the problems will disappear,” Krouwel said.

Although most studies show that school-dropout, unemployment and crime rates are higher among immigrants, Krouwel said, the problems should be associated with income levels, not religion.

“What Wilders does is replace a social explanation with a religious, cultural one,” he said.

Wilders’s powerful PR machine and populist tactics have certainly helped him but so has the messy political situation. The Dutch government collapsed last month after the Labor Party, the junior partner in the coalition of Christian and social democrats, refused to extend the stay of 2,000 Dutch troops in Afghanistan whose mandate ends in August. Polls ahead of the June election predict an unusually fragmented distribution of power but also a doubling of the PVV’s electoral power to 27 seats, which would make it the second biggest party and potential kingmaker.

De Jong, an experienced journalist and author, is not too pessimistic about the Wilders effect. “His party, if successful in the general elections, will meet with opposition from the established parties but also from labor unions and employers who worry about possible negative effects of his success on the Dutch economy, for instance on exports to Islamic countries,” he said.

“But of course, he will be a force to be reckoned with and one that can certainly influence the course of Dutch politics, even from the opposition.”


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