Dutch people like to make fun of Belgians. Dutch jokes about Belgians tend to focus on their alleged stupidity. Naturally, the Belgians makes fun of the Dutch — mostly for their stinginess and lack of joie de vivre. For the Dutch, Belgians represent profligacy and irresponsibility of the highest order: their wildly extravagant Carnival parties, their obsession with fine (expensive) French cuisine, interior design and fashion, and on the political side, their inability to keep stable, long-lasting (3 years or more) governments or to even form a government (in 2011, Belgium had the dubious honor of running itself for more than year from election day without a government).
Unfortunately, the Dutch may be slowly turning into Belgians. A mere 2 years after the last election, the Dutch are once again without a government. The rickety coalition, which had been held together by a bizarre patchwork of “interests”, exemplified notably by the bottle-blond right-wing Geert Wilders (leader of the Dutch Freedom Party), a man who before 2010 had been the laughingstock of a vast majority of the Netherlands, fell apart over the question of how the Netherlands should meet the European Union’s 3 percent budget deficit limit. You can just see them in parliament arguing over budget cuts and tax increases: Increase VAT (which is already 19 percent)? Raise the retirement age (and stop 60-plussers from retiring at 65 to their homes in the Dordogne)? Raise taxes? Cut welfare payments? Trim school budgets? In the end, Geert Wilders’ party walked out on the coalition government after refusing to back an austerity budget that would have hit the pocketbooks of pensioners.
The Dutch obsess over their AAA rating, which has been threatened with a downgrade last week. And they are obsessed with meeting the EU’s rules because they consider themselves to be true “EUropeans” and keepers of the flame of fiscal responsibility and civilized governance. After years of looking down on those pesky, unreliable Mediterraneans (the Spanish, Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese) and the Irish (pseudo-Mediterraneans because of their Catholic faith), the Dutch cannot afford to lose face by failing to meet the very criterion (3 percent budget deficit ceiling) they’ve been foisting on other Europeans for decades.
For the Netherlands, the 3 percent ceiling represents the invisible line between the responsible, upstanding citizens of Europe (i.e. themselves and begrudgingly the Germans, whom they openly despise, but secretly admire, plus a few insignificant Nordic neighbors) versus the rest (including French, who irritate the Dutch more than any other nation because they manage to have both joie de vivre and a powerful economy, and without whom there would be no high-speed trains connecting the country to civilisation (also known as Paris)).
Now as their political parties argue about when to hold elections, the Dutch are beginning to wonder whether they are turning into Belgians, a people so deeply divided that they agree only on one thing – Tom Boonen (currently no. 1 cyclist in the world after winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix).
The truth is that even though the Netherlands has had many political parties, they have, until the last decade, represented various flavours of the same bland ice cream – vanilla with hazelnuts, vanilla with cherries, vanilla with pistachio nuts, vanilla with chocolate chips. But this has changed.
Dutch society is no longer as homogeneous as it used to be, even among white Dutch people. Many have traveled overseas; many have lived abroad and have foreign partners, and many more refuse to conform to the traditional Dutch saying, “Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg” (loose transation: even if you doing what everyone else is doing, you’re doing crazy things). It’s what the Dutch tell each other to force one another to conform. But today people can’t even agree on standards of behavior. The “pillars” of society have fallen – there used to be Catholic pillars and Protestant pillars to which people belonged and conformed. No more.
The last 20 years have brought immense changes to Dutch society and many Dutch people feel that the political establishment — those serious men and women who are supposed to run the country — have let them down terribly. Their politicians don’t represent them, they fight among themselves for power without regard to ordinary people’s sufferings, and then cave in to “outside powers”. Depending on the person’s political affiliation, these outside powers can be the European Union’s meddling, wasteful bureaucrats or the powerful monied interests represented by the banks or some vague international conspiracy of the IMF, the banks and the EU’s Brussels mafia.
What we are seeing today in the Netherlands is a society as deeply polarized as Belgium’s, not by a simple language barrier, but by religion, ethnicity, wealth, education and geography. It’s a country that is too small to be divided, unlike Belgium, which one could easily see being split up into Flanders and Wallonia. It’s a society violently whiplashed by the rapid changes of the past 20 years so that people agree less and less on fewer and fewer things.