Two Days in Ohio
Peter Potman was the featured speaker at ACWA's November 10, 2005, Global Scholars and Speaker Event, "The Netherlands and Europe: Between Destiny and Choice; The Dutch and the Americans: Old Friends and Persistent Allies."
I had the good fortune to find the letter sent to the embassy by Jane Walker Snider, Executive Director of the Akron Council on World Affairs (ACWA), in which she invited someone from the Dutch embassy to come and address some 30 Akron high school seniors who had immersed themselves in all things Dutch as part of their extracurricular Global Scholars Program, run by the ACWA. On top of that, an address to the members of the ACWA was included as well. It turned out to be quite an inspirational visit, in which I did not only have the chance to exchange views with Akron Global Scholars and ACWA members, but also got a better appreciation of Dutch influences in Northeast Ohio.
The Netherlands and Its Ties to the USA
In my presentation of the Netherlands I briefly painted the overall picture: the Netherlands is twice as large as New Jersey, but only half the size of Ohio. Yet, we cram in 16 million people. More than half the country is below sea level (all of the West and part of the North). What’s more, some 72% of our Gross Domestic Product is generated in that low-lying area.
The Netherlands became an independent nation more than 350 years ago (formally in 1648, to be precise). Whereas the country these days is a kingdom, with Queen Beatrix as Head of State, it started out as a Republic, actually the first in modern times.
Friendly ties between our two countries go back a long way. In fact, The Netherlands is the United States’ oldest friend, being the first to recognize the young Republic. (If you want to know more about these days, read Barbara Tuchman’s “The First Salute.”)
The Dutch sympathy for the young United States, was not necessarily an act of altruism. Part of the reason was that the U.S. was the enemy of our enemy of those days: Great Britain. The British and the Dutch were competing for world dominance at the time, which in those days was mainly dominance of the Seven Seas. We were constantly at war! So the U.S. waging a war of independence against Great Britain was an opportunity not to be missed in those days.
As a result, Dutch bankers were happy to lend lots of money to the U.S., first to wage war, and later, for instance, to finance the Louisiana Purchase. These strong ties have always remained, to this very day (as have the bankers, I should add). For those who have become curious: there is a wonderful book by Russell Shorto, “The Island at the Center of the World”, which tells the story of the days when New York was still called New Amsterdam and the surrounding lands New Netherlands.
The Netherlands has long since been a country that welcomed immigrants. In the 17th and 18th century it was a haven for those who fled religious or political persecution. During the Cold War in the 20th century, we provided refuge for those who were fleeing Communist dictatorships. Integration of these groups did not pose particular problems, because their numbers were not large, many were well-educated and they had a wish to become part of their new country.
The immigration and integration of the new generation of Muslim immigrants and their children pose a different challenge. The total amount of immigrants and their offspring in the Netherlands is a little under 10%.
Muslim immigrants in the Netherlands are mainly from two countries: Morocco and Turkey. The original immigrants, who came in the sixties and seventies, were mainly from poor rural areas. They came to do hard work and send the money they earned back to their home countries. Their idea was not to stay in the Netherlands, but to earn enough money to go back and retire in their home country. This then never happened.
The focus changed and in the eighties these men got their families to join them in Holland. Their children grew up in the Netherlands, and many were born there. They acquired Dutch citizenship. So, a second generation of immigrants grew up, who are officially Dutch. The question became: how Dutch do they feel? And what was the impact of a growing Muslim population in the Netherlands?
The large majority of Dutch Muslims live in the larger cities of the Western part of the Netherlands. The immigrants moved mostly to the poorer parts of the cities. The Dutch people who had been living there moved out to the suburbs and many of those remaining felt increasingly alienated in their own neighbourhoods. Until five years ago, however, this was not an issue that was debated in normal political debate. It was sort of a taboo. The mainstream idea was that the Netherlands was a “multicultural” society, where everyone could create his own “micro-culture” in an overall “ tolerant” environment.
After 9/11, things changed rapidly and in a massive way in Dutch politics. There was growing anxiety about the place of Islam in the Netherlands, amplified by a terrorist threat from Islamic militants that seemed to be lurking around the corner.
A maverick politician, named Pim Fortuijn, became very popular on a platform that was openly anti-Islam and anti-multiculturalist. Many people felt that he gave a voice to all their pent-up feelings and anxieties. Fortuijn called for all Muslims in Holland to integrate or go. In May 2002, however, before he could become a political force of sorts, he was killed by a (white) Dutch animal rights activist.
Fortuijn’s agenda, however, was up for grabs. The genie was out of the bottle, so to speak. All of a sudden, the Netherlands had the integration debate we never had in the years before. All major political parties argued that Muslims should integrate better. It was stipulated that all immigrants had to learn the Dutch language and get accustomed to Dutch culture. Islam came to be seen as a problem. It didn’t sit comfortably with important elements of the Dutch Constitution, like separation between church and state, the equality of women and, for instance, non-discrimination of homosexuals.
More demands were made on immigrants and their children to integrate in the dominant culture and play by the rules of the Dutch Constitution. On the other hand, efforts had to be made to open up Dutch culture as well. You can’t ask Muslims not to be Muslims anymore. To be clear, the government did not ask this. But it is fair to say that the sentiments in the Netherlands over the past years were more on the side of growing suspicion and alienation than on that of open-mindedness and outreach.
The culmination of this deteriorating political climate was the Van Gogh murder in 2004. Here, for the first time, radical Islamic terror reared its head in the Netherlands and it deeply upset people. Some retributions against mosques and Islamic schools occurred, but fortunately not on a massive scale and only short-lived.
The shock of radical Islamic violence also brought home to people the necessity to distinguish between a handful of fanatics and the majority of peaceful citizens of Muslim persuasion. The battle would be for the hearts and minds of the moderates as much as effective measures were needed against the extremists. The mainstream Muslims, for their part, came to realize that they have a responsibility as well to steer away from extremism, the need to condemn acts of violence and terror rather than be apologetic about them.
All this is not going to be easy and the outcomes are as yet written in the stars. At the same time, the only way forward is that of moderation and dialogue on both parts. For one, we’re all Dutchmen. Secondly, we have nowhere else to go, so we’ll have to sort things out. The recent violence in France is a stark reminder of where things can lead to if we do not get our act together.
As you know, more than half our country is below sea-level. Basically, we have built a giant New Orleans below sea-level. We have reclaimed from the sea huge areas – polders – that we have pumped dry and inhabited. These areas sink deeper and deeper, because the water keeps seeping back through the bottom, so we have to keep pumping. By doing so the ground-level goes down, down, down.
Over the long history of our struggle against the water we had many floods. Disastrous floods. Thousands died over the centuries. So, why do we live there? Well, because the land is fertile, because the cities are rich, because we love the green grass and the high skies over the flat terrain and because we have invested so much money in the area, that we can’t give it up (and where to go?).
For all of these reasons, we rely heavily on our engineers. We don’t have an Army Corps of Engineers, we have a People of Engineers! We’ve learned over time. Until fifty years ago, we basically lived with the infrastructure that was gradually developed over the centuries. Occasionally things flooded, but since there were not that many people living in the Netherlands anyway and the cities were much smaller, it didn’t matter too much. Plus, technology permitted only incremental improvements.
Then the massive flood of 1952 occurred. Our Katrina, so to speak. It devastated the province of Zeeland in the south-west. We could have given it up, but we didn’t. We embarked upon the so-called “Delta works”, a major infrastructure project that was going to make Holland secure from catastrophic floods. We built many dikes to shut off large estuaries from the sea. Dikes were heightened (up to 40 feet!).
But after some time, people felt increasingly awkward that in building all these big dikes, we shut off the water behind the dikes from the sea. Salt water turned sweet and the whole ecological system changed. People started protesting this major assault on nature. So the engineers had to come up with something that kept the water out in times of storm surges, but that allowed the water in during normal conditions. So they devised the storm surge barriers, huge constructions that allow free flow of water until the levies are closed off.
But all this ingenuity still leaves us prone to natural disasters. We do not only have the sea that threatens us. We also have three major rivers all flowing into the sea in the Netherlands. And we experience the effects of climate change and environmental degradation. There is more rain, which comes down the rivers more quickly and the sea level is rising. How to keep our feet dry is a question that will stay with us.
We have to keep adapting. In what for the Dutch was a dramatic psychological change, we started changing our attitude from keeping the water out to making more room for the water. After centuries of reclaiming land from the water, we started to give it back. We can do so because there are not that many farmers left that need the land. Rather, we have all these city dwellers who want to take out their boats or go fishing or take a stroll and watch water fowl.
So, we even started to create our own nature. Water should not be the enemy, but rather made into an ally. With rising water levels in our heavily populated country we also develop new ways to build houses: in coming years you’ll see more and more floating houses.
Now the question before the students was whether these Dutch experiences are of use to the U.S. Many felt that somehow they were. Particularly the storm surge barriers and the floating houses caught their imagination.
I told them that in New Orleans and Lousiana, they knew how to find the Dutch. Our navy conducted search and rescue operations near New Orleans after Katrina and large Dutch pumps were flown in to help pump the Ninth Ward dry. A delegation from Louisiana will visit the Netherlands soon to see how water management is being done in our country. But I also warned the students: when you’re serious about protecting your coastline from rising sea levels, sinking cities and torrential rivers, you’re looking at a major investment and long-term planning. There is no such thing as an “el cheapo” flood protection.
The third issue we discussed was: The Netherlands and Europe. I reminded the students that earlier this year the Dutch – like the French before them – voted against the EU Constitution in a referendum. These “no” votes caused a great deal of confusion in Europe. Basically, they put the question back on the table: what is Europe and where is she headed for?
To explain where this situation came from, I changed the perspective of the students. From a U.S. perspective Europe often seems like a weird place: small countries, lots of different languages and the whole place looks like a museum. Critics look and say Europeans don’t get enough babies, they don’t know how to get their economies going and now they’ve messed up their political process.
But from a European perspective, the changes have been breathtaking, particularly in the last couple of years:
The Euro. Think of it this way: suppose the Western Hemisphere countries created the “Amerigo”, they brought the Federal Reserve over to Santiago de Chile and appointed a French-speaking Canadian in charge as its president. That would upset a lot of Americans.
Then the enlargement of Europe: 3 years ago we were just 15 member states, basically Western Europe. And now, we’re 25. And only 15 years ago we were divided into two blocks that were military enemies in the Cold War. So the point is that we in Europe are still in the process of getting used to the idea of a Europe that is more than twice as big as it used to be.
And indeed, we have all these different people, with their different histories, their different languages, their different political systems, their different economic systems, their differences in wealth. So if you look at it from that perspective it is a miracle that we even dared to think of one Constitution for all Europeans only fifteen years after the end of the Cold War. And yet, we came close.
And the main reason we could come so close in such a short time-frame was by not asking the people how they felt about all this. That’s very much been the story of European integration: an inter-governmental affair.
The EU started out as a security construct after the Second World War making sure Germany would never be able to push the continent into war again. Thereafter the idea of a big free market guided many of the policies.
Then, after the Cold War, work started on the further political integration of Europe. And because all states of Europe are sovereign states the way to do it was through treaties. Endlessly complex treaties. But with a globalizing world on the one hand and the prospect of a Europe of more than 30 states on the other, that process became so complex that people feared European integration would collapse under its own bureaucratic weight. Also, people felt that with continuing political integration, Europe needed a common political basis underneath. That’s how the idea of a Constitution took hold.
But all the while, the people had never been asked, other than through regular Parliamentarian processes. They had not been asked about the Euro and not about the expansion. There turned out to be a gap between the governments and the people. That gap was not only related to European integration, but was felt more widely.
So when the Dutch people finally had their say in the referendum they put the politicians in the Netherlands with their feet back on the ground. The Dutch and French “no”s rippled through Europe and it became clear that the public wanted a reality check and a bigger say in Europe’s future.
In recognition of this, the leaders of Europe decided to give time for reflection. Officially the Constitution is not dead. But the Dutch government has already said it will not put the Constitution before the people again.
Thorough debates will have to take place on how to continue in Europe. The Dutch government has taken the position that the things you can do on a national basis you should leave up for the national states to do (much like in the U.S. federal system). At the same time its position is that one does not need a Constitution or a new treaty to forge more European co-operation.
The bottom line for the Dutch is that they are still very pro-European. Without Europe the Netherlands would be a backward little place. The question is what kind of Europe we will create for our children.
All politics is local
My second day in Ohio gave me a chance to experience first-hand how the people there go about their business and how the region of Northeast Ohio is reshaping itself in a globalising world.
I attended a breakfast meeting with local business representatives with ties to the Netherlands and local politicians. In an interesting debate the point was made that the region is administratively highly fragmented, with endless amounts of local fiefdoms and conflicting policy agendas. This frustrates business, which – as business obviously does – prefers fewer regulations.
It also became clear, however, that local politicians are increasingly seeking co-operation on a regional scale and are promoting a more business-friendly environment. I was surprised, by the way, what an economic powerhouse Ohio is in the U.S. The facts belie the image that many outside the state have of it.
I ended my trip with a visit to neighbouring Hudson, where the Dutch Consul-General in Chicago, Willem Schiff, and I were treated to a tour of this beautiful “City” and enjoyed a delicious lunch sponsored by the Netherlands Network, which is a growing force in your region!
Consul-General Schiff reminded our hosts that Henry Hudson, though being British, was employed by the Dutch West Indies Company to explore the lands beyond the colony of New Netherlands, nowadays also know as New York!
In sum, I would like to thank my hosts for their hospitality and friendship. If you want to know more about the Netherlands and about the Dutch in the USA, you can visit our Web site: www.netherlands-embassy.org.