The Netherlands is a fascinating test case of how Middle Eastern factors–immigration, foreign policy issues–affect European politics. These questions have become highly partisan ones, with the left side and right side of the spectrum often having diametrically opposite standpoints. The 2010 election brought to power a government that is friendly toward Israel and has pledged to reduce immigration.


The Netherlands is about to provide Europe with an important experiment: Can a center-right government manage an overblown welfare state, nationally suicidal multiculturalism, and virtually open-door immigration policies in a way that can maintain popular support and solve problems? After months of negotiations failed to bring about a coalition government across the spectrum, a new government has finally been formed. The partners are the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), a European liberal (that is, conservative) party and the Christian Democratic Party, (CDA). As it is, together they have 52 seats. While the VVD has been growing, the CDA has been in decline.

To be sure of a majority, the government will be supported from the outside by the Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders, giving a grand total of 76 seats, a razor-thin majority. Another small Christian party with two seats might offer support when needed. What makes this arrangement controversial is the role of Wilders, a controversial figure often described as “anti-Islam” and made into something of a bogeyman in Dutch politics. Yet Wilders’ role has arguably undermined the conservative side since if he hadn’t run, the two other main conservative parties would have gained almost all of his votes and had a big majority.

Wilders is thus something of a distraction here, who will be used by the left to call the new government various names; but the key figures are the leaders of the VVD, Mark Rutte, and of the CDA, Maxime Verhagen. Conservative and center parties received 55 percent of the votes in the elections.

Both of these parties support lower taxes, the free market, smaller government, less government regulation, limited immigration, are friendlier toward the United States and Israel, and take a tougher stance on radical Islamist groups. Thus while the international media is going to be focused on Wilders, the Dutch majority supports a program that might be called Wilders without the most controversial bits.

Among the key points in the new government’s program:

–Heavier punishments for repeat criminals and the hiring of more police, including a special increase in those dealing with animal-cruelty crimes (a big issue in Holland).

— Immigrants will receive Dutch citizenship for a five-year trial period during which it would be revoked and they would be deported for being convicted of any crime requiring twelve years imprisonment.

–A ban on the burqa, with no headscarves permitted for judges, prosecutors, or police.

–Cutting legal immigration in half.

–First-cousin marriage, common among Muslim immigrants, will be banned.

–Spending cutbacks, for the minister of defense also, including a withdrawal of the Dutch forces from Afghanistan.

Will this program be implemented and will it lead to more social peace and economic stability in the Netherlands? All of Europe will be watching.


The political situation in Europe today is quite different from the stereotype of a continent hostile to the United States (even if Obama is personally popular) and Israel, appeasement-oriented toward Iran and revolutionary Islamism, and eagerly multicultural and politically correct. True, Europe is more oriented in that direction than North America, but there is a real political struggle afoot over these and other issues.

In many countries-notably the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, and to a slightly lesser extent, the United Kingdom and France-the partisan gap between the left and center-right marks a boundary of much greater significance than it did in the 1970s or 1980s. Although each situation is different, the parties of the left tend to be more anti-American and anti-Israel, less alert to the threat of revolutionary Islamism, as well as favoring continued large-scale immigration.


The Netherlands is a small country with many unique characteristics. Yet this society also offers an interesting case study of how these issues-including the Middle East and immigration of large numbers of Muslims with consequent demographic shifts-affect European societies. It also shows why European political systems-though each, of course, is different-are deadlocked on ideas and power, paralyzed from taking effective action to deal with their problems.

After the June 2010 elections, centrist and conservative parties hold 83 seats, while those of the left have only 67. Since there are ten parties in parliament, however, there tend to be coalition governments in which decisions on key issues are deadlocked. The two largest have only 20 percent of the seats each.

In the elections, only three seats changed hands between the two broad blocs. Yet this conceals some important changes. The biggest news was the shift within the center-right to favor the PVV led by the controversial Geert Wilders, which almost tripled its vote, going from 9 to 24 seats. To his enemies, almost no epithet is too extreme to throw against him. The flamboyant Wilders has been outspoken in opposing immigration and especially that of Muslims, making a sharp critique of political Islamism and sometimes Islam itself. Throughout the elections, Wilders had round-the-clock bodyguards to protect him from assassination by Islamists.

The rise in support for Wilders’ party is in large part a response to serious concern over the domestic situation in the country. Aside from the assassination of a filmmaker by a radical Islamist, there has been a steep increase in crime and social welfare spending.

Amsterdam, not long ago the most gay-friendly city in the world, is a place where homosexuals might be attacked in the streets by Muslim immigrant youth. Twenty percent of Dutch teachers report that attempts to teach about the Holocaust, in the country of Anne Frank, were rejected or disrupted by immigrant children.

In an event that became widely discussed, a television show followed Rabbi Lody van de Kamp and two young men clearly dressed as Jews who were mocked and insulted, apparently by Muslims, while walking down Amsterdam’s streets. A Jewish man wrote in response that he dare not put a mezuzah on his door or wear a kippah (skullcap), much less show that he was gay, adding, “It’s perfect living in [the neighborhood of] Bos en Lommer as long as you stay inside.”[1]

While Muslims still comprise only a bit more than five percent of the population, whole areas of Dutch cities have a majority of people who are recent immigrants who are far from being assimilated to the country’s traditional norms. For example, it is frequently estimated according to polls that up to half of the country’s Muslim population is sympathetic to the September 11 attacks.

To understand the Netherlands requires comprehension of two concepts often credited for the stability and success of Dutch society. One of these is polder, which basically means a high value placed on consensus. In the narrow sense, it means employer-worker cooperation, a form of what is often called “corporate” structure. This means that decisions are made slowly among a set of very centralized interests. This system is often useful but may be disastrous if faced by the need for tough and quick decisions required by a major financial or social crisis.

Given this Dutch emphasis on stability, the violence that has developed over immigration-which has always come from Muslim immigrants and not from “nativists,” in contrast with other countries-and resulted in the murder of Theo van Gogh by an Islamist, was especially shocking.

The other concept is zuilen, which means the organization of separate, relatively autonomous communities, each of which has its own political parties, trade unions, schools, and media–though this system has weakened since the 1980s. Nominally, this deliberate division of society would seem to contradict the polder framework but the two actually fit together since the zuilen also permit centralized, elite decisionmaking on the basis of compromise and consensus. The leaders of the zuilen come together to achieve a decision acceptable to all.

While the zuilen have been weakened, they have left their mark on Dutch society. The four historic zuilen are: Protestant, Catholic, Socialist, and Liberal (in the European meaning of the word, that is, moderate conservative).

This approach provides a potential way of dealing with Muslim immigrants that doesn’t really exist in other countries, where historically assimilation into a single national/ethnic identity model has prevailed. The issue is debated as to whether the Muslims, who constitute about 1 million out of a population of 17 million…

*Prof. Barry Rubin’s latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle East (Routledge),The Israel-Arab Readerseventh edition (Viking-Penguin), the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), ,A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley) .

MERIA Journal Staff

Publisher and Editor: Prof. Barry Rubin
Assistant Editors: Yeru Aharoni, Anna Melman.
MERIA is a project of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary University.
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