Netherlands - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Netherlands: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



The Netherlands, a small country in northwestern Europe that faces the North Sea. It is the largest of the Low Countries, which also include Belgium and Luxembourg. The Netherlands is often called Holland, but Holland is really the name of only the northwestern part of the country.

The Dutch have a saying that “God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland.” About half the land in The Netherlands lies at or below sea level. Much of this land has been reclaimed from the sea. The Dutch built dikes around swampy or flooded land and then pumped the water out. The pumping was originally done with windmills, but today electric pumps are used.

The Netherlands has few natural resources, and its lands are poor for agriculture. However, the Dutch people have struggled against these obstacles and have made The Netherlands one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Foreign trade is the mainstay of the Dutch economy. Several major rivers of Europe flow through The Netherlands into the sea. These rivers and the country’s location on the North Sea have helped make it a great trading nation.

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. About 90 percent of its people live in cities. Amsterdam is the capital and largest city. The seat of government is in The Hague. Rotterdam is the major Dutch port and the country’s second largest city.

This small country has made major contributions to art, literature, and science. The 17th century is considered the Golden Age in Dutch history. During this time Dutch artists Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, and Frans Hals painted masterpieces, and Dutch scientists made startling discoveries with the powerful microscopes and telescopes they built.

The Kingdom of The Netherlands was established in 1815. At first, it included the whole of the Low Countries. Belgium revolted in 1830 and became independent, and Luxembourg became fully separate from The Netherlands in 1890. The Kingdom of The Netherlands today includes, besides The Netherlands proper, the Netherlands Antilles and the island of Aruba.


The Netherlands, as its name suggests, is a low-lying country. About half of the country’s area lies no more than 1 meter (3 feet) above sea level, and a quarter of this land is below sea level. Dikes, canals, dams, sluices, and windmills characterize much of the landscape of The Netherlands. They are part of a water drainage system that has enabled the Dutch to increase their country’s land area by almost one fifth. More importantly, without constant drainage and the protection of dunes along the coast, almost half of The Netherlands would be inundated—mainly by the sea, but also by the many rivers which cross it.

Canals, rivers, and arms of the sea cut through much of the low-lying western part of the country. Farther to the east the land lies slightly higher and is flat to gently rolling. The elevation rarely exceeds 50 m (160 ft). Most of the land is devoted to agriculture.

The total area of The Netherlands is slightly larger than the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined. At its widest point from east to west The Netherlands extends 120 miles (193 km), and from north to south the greatest distance is 190 miles (306 km). The Netherlands is bounded on the east by Germany, on the south by Belgium, and on the north and west by the North Sea. Across the North Sea lies the east coast of Great Britain.

Natural Regions in Netherlands

The North Sea coastline of The Netherlands consists mostly of sand dunes. Many of the country’s major cities are located on these slightly elevated dunes. To the north the sea has broken through the dunes to form the West Frisian Islands. To the south rivers have made gaps in the dunes and created a delta of islands and waterways.

Adjacent to the narrow strip of dunes is a low-lying area protected by dikes and kept dry by continuous mechanical pumping. This is polderland that the Dutch have reclaimed from the sea and turned into productive farmland. Dikes were built around sections of this swampy or flooded land and the water was pumped out, at first by windmills and later by steam and electric pumps. Reinforcing dikes were also built along the lower courses of The Netherlands’ major rivers, which flow above the land between banks of sediment deposited when they flood.

The work of reclaiming the Zuider Zee, a large arm of the North Sea, began in 1927. By 1932 a 29-km (18-mi) dike had been built across the entrance to the Zuider Zee. The dike turned the waters behind it into a freshwater lake within five years. By the early 1980s about three-quarters of the area had been drained, but the project to reclaim the last polder was canceled by the early 1980s. The freshwater lake left behind is called the IJsselmeer.

In 1953 the spring tide severely flooded the delta region in the southwest and about 1,800 people died. The Delta Plan, launched in 1958 and completed in 1986, was implemented to prevent such flooding. Under the plan, the Dutch shortened the coastline by about 700 km (about 435 mi); developed a system of dikes; and built dams, bridges, locks, and a major canal. The dikes created freshwater lakes and joined some islands.

The polders, which are used almost entirely for agriculture, are composed chiefly of clay soils and peat. Most of the eastern half of The Netherlands is covered by sandy soil deposited by glaciers, wind, and rivers. Hilly country (the foothills of the Ardennes) and fertile loamy soil is found only in the southern part of Limburg Province, an area of rich farmland. Vaalserberg (321 m/1,053 ft), the nation’s highest point, is in this area.

Rivers and Lakes in Netherlands

The major rivers of The Netherlands are the Rhine, flowing from Germany, and its several arms, such as the Waal and Nederrijn rivers; and the Maas (a branch of the Meuse) and the Schelde (Escaut), flowing from Belgium. These rivers and their arms form the delta with its many islands. Together with numerous canals, the rivers give ships access to the interior of Europe.

In the northern and western portions of The Netherlands are many small lakes. Nearly all the larger natural lakes have been pumped dry. However, land reclamation projects have created numerous new freshwater lakes, the largest being the IJsselmeer.

Climate in Netherlands

The Netherlands shares the temperate maritime climate common to much of northern and western Europe. Prevailing winds from the North Sea give The Netherlands mild winters and cool summers. Cloudless days are uncommon, as is prolonged frost. Because The Netherlands has few natural barriers, such as high mountains, the climate varies little from region to region.

The average temperature range in Vlissingen in the coastal region is 1° to 5°C (34° to 41°F) in January and 14° to 21°C (57° to 69°F) in July. In De Bilt, in the densely populated central region of the country, the average range is -1° to 4°C (31° to 40°F) in January and 13° to 22°C (55° to 72°F) in July. Annual precipitation averages 690 mm (27 in) in Vlissingen and 770 mm (30 in) in De Bilt.

Plant and Animal Life in Netherlands

Humans have altered the natural landscape of The Netherlands in many ways over the centuries. Because land is scarce and fully exploited, areas of natural vegetation are not extensive. A number of national parks and nature reserves have been established to protect portions of the natural landscape.

The forests, the tall grasses of the dunes, and the heather of the heaths continue to provide habitats for roe deer, rabbits, hares, and small numbers of swine. The forests, mainly of oak, beech, ash, and pine, are carefully managed. Agricultural land, pastures in particular, provide habitats for many species of migratory birds. Recent nature development projects have increased the number of wetlands, providing habitats for a number of species including the reintroduced beaver and otter.

Mineral Resources in Netherlands

The Netherlands was long thought to be poor in mineral resources. Peat, used as fuel, was dug in several regions, and southern Limburg Province contained coal deposits. The last coal mine closed 1976, and peat extraction stopped somewhat later. Salt is still produced.

In the 1950s and 1960s great natural-gas reserves were discovered in Groningen Province. The extraction of natural gas is still of major economic significance. The Dutch also exploit petroleum and gas reserves in the North Sea. Smaller deposits of crude petroleum and natural gas are located in the northeastern and western parts of the country.

Environmental Issues in Netherlands

The Netherlands is one of the most proactive environmental countries in Europe; it was the first to produce a national strategy for sustainable development, targeting sectors such as agriculture and transportation. This action came in response to significant pollution throughout the country, not all of its own making. One result of this strategy was a significant rise in the cost of fuel. The Netherlands has tried to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels by stimulating the use of wind and bioenergy. It does not view nuclear power as an alternative energy source.

Sixty percent of the population currently lives at or below sea level, making The Netherlands particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise induced by climate change. Consequently, the country has been at the forefront of calls for reductions in fossil fuel use and in deforestation. It contributes less than 1 percent of global greenhouse emissions. The Netherlands depends heavily on the use of fertilizer, and significant nitrate pollution has occurred in water. In addition, pigs and other animals raised on the country’s numerous farms produce huge amounts of manure and ammonium gas, polluting groundwater resources and degrading vegetation. The government requires farmers to process manure to be environmentally sound.


The great majority of inhabitants of The Netherlands are Dutch. Most residents of Friesland Province are Frisian, a distinct cultural group with its own language. The Dutch government, fearing overpopulation, encouraged Dutch emigration after World War II (1939-1945), and some 500,000 people left. But an even larger number of people entered The Netherlands—Europeans and Asians from the former Netherlands Indies dependency (now part of Indonesia); industrial workers from Turkey, Morocco, and other Mediterranean countries; residents of Suriname, also a former Dutch dependency, and the Netherlands Antilles; and refugees from Third World countries. Consequently, the country’s population, particularly in the large cities, now includes many ethnic minorities.

Population Characteristics of Netherlands

According to a 2009 estimate, The Netherlands has a population of 16,715,999. The overall population density is 493 persons per sq km (1,278 per sq mi), making The Netherlands one of the most densely populated countries in the world. The nation is heavily urbanized, with about 67 percent of the population living in urban areas.

The largest cities are Amsterdam (population, 2004 estimate, 739,300), the country’s capital and principal economic and cultural center; Rotterdam (596,100), the leading seaport; The Hague (468,400), the seat of government; and Utrecht (275,800), a transport and services hub. Seventeen other cities had more than 100,000 inhabitants in the early 2000s. Many of these cities are concentrated in the western provinces of Noord-Holland (North Holland), Zuid-Holland (South Holland), and Utrecht, comprising the large urban region called Randstad.

Languages spoken in Netherlands

The official language of The Netherlands is Dutch, which is spoken throughout the country. In the province of Friesland, however, a large percentage of the population speaks another Germanic language, Frisian, as its first language. Many immigrants still use their native language along with Dutch. The importance of English is growing, especially in education. See Dutch Language; Frisian Language.

Religion in Netherlands

The Roman Catholics in The Netherlands are concentrated in the southern part of the country. The largest Protestant denomination is the Protestant Church of The Netherlands. Islam, the country’s third-largest religion, is growing because of immigration and high birth rates among Turkish and Moroccan immigrants. Small numbers of Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists also live in The Netherlands.

The Protestant Church of The Netherlands formed in 2004 from the merger of the Dutch Reformed Church, which had been the largest Protestant denomination, with the Calvinist Reformist Church and the small Lutheran Church of The Netherlands. Although The Netherlands has no official religion, the Reformed Church has had a close association with the Dutch state since the founding of the Dutch Republic. All the country’s monarchs have been members of the Reformed Church.


Education in Netherlands

From the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, The Netherlands has enjoyed a high level of basic education and comparatively high literacy rates. In the 19th century efforts were made to systematize education and to secure adequate financing for schools. As the state became more deeply involved in education, a dispute arose concerning the fate of nonpublic, mainly church-related, schools. The so-called school struggle became a major political issue and was not fully settled until 1917, when a constitutional amendment guaranteed equal, tax-paid financial support for both public and nonpublic schools.

Today, about one-third of the elementary and secondary schools in The Netherlands are public, and about two-thirds are nonpublic, mainly Roman Catholic or Protestant. School attendance is compulsory for children until the age of 16. Pupils attend a primary school for eight years and then enter one of several types of secondary schools, which offer training for entering a university or other advanced institution or for pursuing a vocation. Instruction is in Dutch, except in Friesland, where classes are also taught in Frisian.

The Netherlands has 13 university-level institutions, including three technical universities and one agricultural university. Major institutions of higher education in The Netherlands include the University of Amsterdam, which was founded in 1632, and the state universities of Groningen (1614), Leiden (1575), and Utrecht (1636). Several schools of fine arts offer bachelor’s degrees.

Cultural Life in Netherlands

Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus had wide influence in the 16th century, and the country’s cultural life as a whole achieved an international reputation in the 17th century, which is often called its Golden Age. Among the influential Dutch figures of that time were jurist Hugo Grotius, scientists Christiaan Huygens and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, cartographers Willem Janszoon Blaeu and Jodocus Hondius, writers Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft and Joost van den Vondel, philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and numerous theologians. In addition, foreigners lived in Holland to enjoy its tolerant atmosphere, the most famous being French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes and English philosopher John Locke. Well-known figures of the Golden Age include the great 17th-century Dutch artists, such as Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Jan Steen. See Baroque Art and Architecture; Dutch Literature; Frisian Literature; Renaissance Art and Architecture.

The Dutch artistic tradition continued to be vigorous in more recent centuries—producing noted and influential painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, and Karel Appel—and lives on today, particularly in Amsterdam, where artists from many countries work. During the 20th century a number of Dutch architects and town planners, including H.P. Berlage, Gerrit Rietveld, and more recently Rem Koolhaas, gained international reputations.

Cultural Institutions in Netherlands

The Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam has an international reputation, and another major Dutch symphony orchestra is in Rotterdam. The main libraries of The Netherlands are those of the State University of Leiden and the University of Amsterdam and the Royal Library in The Hague. In addition, the country has many public libraries. Of the country’s numerous museums the most famous are those displaying the work of Dutch painters. These include the Rijksmuseum, the Rembrandt-Huis Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum, all in Amsterdam; the Royal Picture Gallery (Mauritshuis), in The Hague; the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum, Kunsthal, and Netherlands Architecture Institute, all in Rotterdam; and the Kröller-Müller National Museum, in Hoge Veluwe National Park in Otterlo.


The Netherlands is a small country with few natural resources. Yet, the Dutch people have made The Netherlands one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Foreign trade is the mainstay of the Dutch economy. Because of its location on the North Sea and because it is drained by some of Europe’s largest rivers, The Netherlands is in an excellent position to carry goods to and from the interior of Europe. Earnings from the export of finished goods account for more than two-fifths of national income.

Despite the absence of natural resources, the Dutch have many highly developed industries, including the manufacture of precision machinery and electronic goods, the production of chemicals, and the refining of oil. Dutch farmers have overcome poor soils and unfavorable weather by concentrating on the most profitable crops, including livestock breeding, dairy farming, and the growth of flowers and vegetables.

National Output in Netherlands

In 2007 the gross domestic product (GDP) of The Netherlands was measured at $765.8 billion. In the period 2007, the country’s GDP in real currency grew at an average yearly rate of 3.5 percent. Some 24 percent of the GDP is produced by manufacturing, construction, and energy-related activities; agriculture and fishing contribute 2 percent; and the service sector, which includes trade and financial activities, accounts for 73.7 percent.

Labor in Netherlands

Of the 8.5 million employed workers, 73 percent work in trade and services; 20 percent are employed in industry, including manufacturing and mining; and 3 percent work in agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Approximately one-third of Dutch workers belong to labor organizations, the largest of which are the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation and the Christian National Federation of Trade Unions in the Netherlands. The government systematically enters into negotiations between employers and unions in order to secure collective bargaining agreements that are consistent with its economic plans.

Agriculture of Netherlands

Despite the small size and dense population of The Netherlands, agriculture is highly productive and a major source of exports. Cultivated fields cover 27 percent of the land. Most farms are small—less than 10 hectares (25 acres)—but every hectare is utilized to the utmost. The Dutch rely heavily on machinery and fertilizers, allowing Dutch farms to achieve some of the highest yields per hectare in the world. Most Dutch farmers are members of cooperatives through which they purchase equipment and supplies. Dutch farmers also market much of their produce through cooperatives.

The Netherlands’ leading agricultural activity is dairy farming. The principal dairy regions are in central and northern Holland. Two famous cheese-market cities are Gouda and Edam, for which cheeses are respectively named.

Crop production includes cereals, principally wheat; roots and tubers such as potatoes and sugar beets; vegetables; fruits; and flowers. The Netherlands became famous for its tulip breeders in the 18th century, and flowers and bulbs remain important exports. The center of flower production is located between Haarlem and Leiden. Poultry is raised throughout The Netherlands, especially in areas with poor, sandy soils. Beef and pork are important agricultural exports.

Manufacturing in Netherlands

The Dutch manufacturing sector is highly diversified, and much of it is of recent origin; industrial production was relatively unimportant until after World War II (1939-1945). Heavy industry, such as the manufacture of steel, transportation equipment, and large machinery, is much less important in The Netherlands than in neighboring countries. The rapid post-1945 growth of manufacturing has been led by the chemical-processing and electronics industries. Also important to the manufacturing sector are the production of processed food, beverages, and tobacco products, machinery, transportation equipment (particularly merchant ships), metal products, and printed material.

Energy and Mining in Netherlands

The industrial structure of The Netherlands is closely related to the country’s sources of energy. Because the land is flat, rivers in The Netherlands cannot be used for waterpower. For centuries the Dutch relied heavily on windmills and peat for energy. As these became outmoded, coal increased in importance. Deposits in Limburg Province supplied a part of Dutch needs, but most coal was imported. Petroleum and natural gas became increasingly important after World War II; these fuels also were imported, and the port of Rotterdam became a leading center for receiving and refining petroleum.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Dutch discovered large reserves of natural gas in Groningen Province. Production rose rapidly, permitting the last domestic coal mines to be closed in 1973 and making The Netherlands a major exporter of natural gas. In 2004 the output of crude petroleum was 17.1 million barrels, and of natural gas, 73.1 billion cu m (2.6 trillion cu ft), making The Netherlands one of the world’s largest producers. The output of electricity totaled 92.6 billion kilowatt-hours in 2006, 87 of which was produced in thermal plants burning fossil fuels.

Currency and Banking of Netherlands

The monetary unit of The Netherlands is the single currency of the European Union (EU), the euro (0.70 euros equal U.S. $1; 2007 average). The Netherlands is among 12 EU member states to adopt the euro. On January 1, 2002, euro-denominated coins and bills went into circulation, and the guilder, the country’s former national currency, ceased to be legal tender.

As a participant in the single currency, The Netherlands must follow economic policies established by the European Central Bank (ECB). The ECB is located in Frankfurt, Germany, and is responsible for all EU monetary policies, which include setting interest rates and regulating the money supply. On January 1, 1999, control over Dutch monetary policy was transferred from the central bank of The Netherlands, De Nederlandsche Bank, to the ECB. After the transfer, De Nederlandsche Bank joined the national banks of the other EU countries that adopted the euro as part of the European System of Central Banks (ESCB).

Amsterdam is the leading center of Dutch banking and insurance and the home of the country’s principal stock exchange. The international commodity exchange for petroleum operates in Rotterdam.

Foreign Trade in Netherlands

The Netherlands is an important center for world trade. Much of the flow of goods into its ports is intended for transshipment to other countries, mainly other members of the European Union. The value of Dutch exports generally exceeds that of its imports.

Leading exports are basic manufactures; food products, chiefly fruit and vegetables, dairy products and eggs, and meat; machinery; chemicals and chemical products, including organic chemicals and plastics; transportation equipment; petroleum products; and natural gas. Major imports are machinery; basic manufactured items, principally paper goods, textiles, and metals; food and live animals; chemicals; transportation equipment; and petroleum and petroleum products. Fellow members of the European Union account for the majority of Dutch imports and exports.

In 2007, 11 million foreigners visited The Netherlands, attracted by its sandy beaches, by boating on its rivers and lakes, and by historical sites and cultural activities. Tulip time in April and May draws large numbers of visitors every year. The Dutch are themselves fond of traveling, however, and they generally spend at least twice as much money abroad as foreigners spend in The Netherlands.

Transportation in Netherlands

Because the Dutch economy is internationally oriented, good transportation facilities are essential to its prosperity. Rotterdam is one of the world’s leading seaports, and Amsterdam also is a major port. Both ports owe their importance to canals and rivers that provide easy access to the sea as well as to the interior of Europe.

The New Waterway links Rotterdam to the North Sea, which is connected to Amsterdam by the North Sea Channel. Dutch canals and rivers navigable by vessels of more than 1,000 gross registered tons have a total length of about 2,398 km (about 1,490 mi) and reach almost every part of the country. The Dutch oceangoing merchant fleet had a capacity of 6.7 million gross registered tons in 2008.

The government-owned railroad network of 2,776 km (1,725 mi) of operated track, about three-quarters of which is electrified, densely covers The Netherlands and provides frequent passenger train service. Barge competition prevents the railroads from being major freight carriers.

About 2,118 km (about 1,316 mi) of limited-access highways and numerous bridges, tunnels, and ferries help to speed the flow of Dutch motor-vehicle traffic. Bicycles are an important means of local travel, and many roads have separate bicycle lanes.

The busiest international airport of The Netherlands is Schiphol, near Amsterdam. Smaller airports serve Groningen, Maastricht, Rotterdam, and other cities. Domestic air travel is of minor importance. Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM) is the country’s leading air carrier.

Communications in Netherlands

In addition to the many dozens of regional and local newspapers, The Netherlands has several nationally distributed newspapers. Most are associated with a particular political or social position. For example, the NRC-Handelsblad (published in Rotterdam) is liberal and nonsectarian, the Volkskrant (Amsterdam) has Roman Catholic origins, Trouw (Amsterdam) is close to the Reformed church, and Het Parool (Amsterdam) is linked to the Socialist Party. Independent conservative newspapers include the Algemeen Dagblad (Rotterdam) and the daily with the largest circulation, the Telegraaf of Amsterdam.

Under the Media Act of 1988, two national organizations coordinate radio and television broadcasting: an independent consortium provides production facilities, while a firm representing both government and the private sector transmits general-interest programming. Most programs are produced by nonprofit associations that are given funds raised by taxing radio and television owners and are allocated air time according to the number of members they have. The major producers include VARA (socialist), NCRV (Protestant), KRO (Roman Catholic), and AVRO and TROS (both nonsectarian). The country has many smaller producers, making Dutch radio and television pluralistic. In 1997 there were 980 radios and 542 televisions for every 1,000 people.

The Internet is an important communication tool in The Netherlands, where Internet usage is well above the European average. The Dutch have constructed a dense fiber-optic network to meet the demands for high-speed Internet access and other data services.


The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. It is governed under an 1814 constitution, as amended, most recently in 1983. The Netherlands has universal suffrage for all citizens beginning at age 18.

Executive of Netherlands

The head of state of The Netherlands is the hereditary monarch, who has had little power in running the government since the constitution was revised in 1848. The principal executive official of the country is the prime minister, who is appointed by the monarch and heads a cabinet that is responsible to the parliament, called the States-General.

Legislature of Netherlands

The States-General consists of a First Chamber (Eerste Kamer), composed of 75 members elected to terms of four years by the provincial legislatures, and a Second Chamber (Tweede Kamer), made up of 150 members popularly elected to terms of up to four years under a system of proportional representation. The First Chamber is a deliberative body that is similar to the House of Lords in Britain. It can only approve or reject legislation; it may not initiate bills, nor can it change the text of a bill sent to it by the Second Chamber. The Second Chamber, which holds legislative power, is by far the more important of the two. Either or both chambers may be dissolved by the monarch on condition that new elections be held within 40 days.

Judiciary in Netherlands

The judicial system of The Netherlands includes four main levels of courts. The highest tribunal is the Supreme Court (Hoge Raad), which sits in The Hague. The Supreme Court cannot rule on constitutional matters but can overturn rulings of lower courts. Other major judicial bodies are courts of appeal, district courts of justice, and canton courts.

The Dutch legal system is influenced by that of France. There are no jury trials. All cases are decided by judges, who are appointed for life by the monarch.

Local Government of Netherlands

The Netherlands is made up of 12 provinces: Drenthe, Flevoland, Friesland, Gelderland, Groningen, Limburg, Noord-Brabant, Noord-Holland, Overijssel, Zuid-Holland, Utrecht, and Zeeland. The political identity of each province can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Today each is governed by a commissioner appointed by the monarch and a popularly elected legislature (Provincial States). The country is further divided into almost 500 municipalities, ranging from the largest city to the smallest village.

Mergers have reduced the number of municipalities to just over half the number they had reached in 1900, and very few municipalities with less than 10,000 inhabitants are left. Each municipality is governed by a popularly elected council and a burgemeester (mayor) appointed by the government. These lower levels of government have only limited taxing power and depend on the central government for most of their finances.

On the local level, water boards have an important function in water control, and they act with a high degree of independence. For many centuries, landowners—especially farmers—governed the boards. Since the 1990s, however, local voters have elected members of the boards.

Political Parties of Netherlands

The Netherlands uses systems of proportional representation in electing municipal, provincial, and national assemblies. This allows even small political parties to win representation. In the 1994 Second Chamber elections, for example, 12 parties won seats. On the national level, The Netherlands has always been governed by coalitions of parties, the formation of which has often proved difficult.

The largest parties include the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA); the socialist-oriented Labor Party; the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), a liberal, business-oriented party; and Democrats 66, a relatively new party seeking greater direct citizens’ participation in the political system. Many of the smaller Dutch parties represent views on the far left or the far right.

Social Services and Policy in Netherlands

The Dutch government administers one of Europe’s most comprehensive welfare states. Taxes and social security premiums together give the government command over nearly half the national income. Much of this revenue is spent on education, health, employment stimulation, and social welfare. To reduce persistent budget deficits, however, the government has trimmed social services in recent years. Participation in the health insurance system is compulsory for everyone earning less than a certain wage (about 70 percent of the population). The Dutch are also protected by unemployment benefits; sick pay; a guaranteed income for those physically unable to work; pensions for widows, orphans, and the elderly; minimum-wage regulations; and family allowances.

The Netherlands is renowned for its liberal approach to social policy. Prostitution, recently legalized, has been tolerated for nearly a century. In 1976 The Netherlands effectively decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana and cannabis-related substances.

In recent years The Netherlands has played a leading role in several other areas of social policy. In 2000 The Netherlands became the first country to allow homosexual couples to marry on the same legal terms as heterosexuals. The measure formalized marriage and divorce guidelines for same-sex unions and broadened adoption rights for homosexuals. In 2001 the Dutch parliament enacted legislation legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. By passing the legislation, The Netherlands became the first nation to legalize the practices, which have been tolerated in the country for decades.

Defense of Netherlands

The military defense of The Netherlands is secured by the participation of its army, navy, and air force in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Compulsory military service was abolished in 1996 in favor of a volunteer army. In 2006 the Dutch armed forces numbered 53,130.

International Organizations in Netherlands

The Netherlands has long advocated European integration and international cooperation. Consequently, it joined the Council of Europe in 1949; the European Community (now called the European Union) in 1957; the Benelux Economic Union, which links the country with Belgium and Luxembourg, in 1960; and other European organizations. It is also a charter member of the United Nations and is a major contributor to programs furthering the economic development of poor countries. The Netherlands is a founding member of both NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2002 a permanent International Court of Justice was established in The Hague.


Historical accounts of the Netherlands date from the 1st century BC, when Roman forces led by Julius Caesar conquered most of the present area of the country. At the time the region was inhabited by Frisians, a Germanic tribe that lived in the north, and by other Germanic and minor Celtic tribes.

The Roman Era

Before the conquest, the Romans had annexed lands to the southeast extending beyond the Rhine River. They penetrated the Netherlands region mainly to control the several mouths of the Rhine, which were then farther to the north than they are now. Under Roman rule, general peace and prosperity prevailed for more than 250 years. Roman traders entered the area freely, selling products from Italy and Gaul. The Romans built temples, established a number of large farms, and introduced their civilization to the region.

About AD 300 the hold by the Romans began to weaken, and German tribes pushed into the area from the east. The Frisians, in the north, held their ground, but Saxons occupied the eastern part of the region, and the Franks moved into the west and south.

The Middle Ages

The Franks were the most powerful of the invaders. Their lands extended southward into what is now northern France and eastward across the Rhine. Eventually, the Frankish kings subjugated the Frisians and the Saxons and converted them to Christianity. By 800 the entire territory of the Netherlands was part of the realm of Charlemagne. After Charlemagne died, his empire disintegrated, and in 843 the Treaty of Verdun divided the empire into three parts. The Netherlands became part of Lotharingia (Lorraine) and still later, in 925, part of the Holy Roman Empire. At that time a Dutch nation did not exist, and the immediate loyalties of the inhabitants were to local lords. Gradually over the next centuries the whole region came to be called the Low Countries, or Netherlands, including present-day Belgium.

During the 9th and 10th centuries Scandinavian raiders, called Vikings, frequently invaded the coastal areas, sailing far up the rivers in search of loot. The need for a stronger system of defenses against such marauders gradually led to an increase in the power of the local rulers and their vassals, the nobles, who were largely a warrior class. Concurrently, the towns began to grow in importance, as artisans and merchants settled in them and improved their defenses.

The period from the 9th to the 14th centuries was a period of rapid development of the Dutch economy and landscape. A fast growing population reclaimed large amounts of land from lakes and marshes and founded hundreds of new settlements, which gradually developed into powerful towns. Over time, The Netherlands became an important trading center. Under the leadership of wealthy merchants the towns began to challenge the power of the nobles who ruled the countryside. The merchants often supported the regional ruler in his campaigns against unruly vassals, at the same time exacting from him privileges designed to promote commerce and to strengthen the town and the position of the merchant class.

In the early Middle Ages political entities such as the counties of Flanders and Holland, the bishopric of Utrecht, and the duchies of Brabant and Gelderland were established. In the far north, however, the Frisians did not submit to a regional ruler but continued to obey their local headmen. The association of The Netherlands with the Holy Roman Empire remained largely nominal throughout the Middle Ages. Some trade was conducted with German coastal cities to the east, such as Bremen and Hamburg, but the major cultural influence came from France.

The Renaissance

Through marriage, war, and political maneuvering, most of the region comprising the present-day Netherlands—Holland, Utrecht, Noord-Brabant, and Gelderland—came into the hands of the dukes of Burgundy during the 15th and early 16th centuries. By 1519 this area was under the benevolent control of Holy Roman emperor Charles V, of the Spanish branch of the house of Habsburg, who was also king of Spain. In 1555, however, Charles resigned both Spain and the Netherlands to his son, Philip II, who was Spanish by birth and education and had little liking for his northern European territories. His oppressive rule led to the epochal war of independence waged from 1568 to 1648 by the Dutch against Spain, then the most powerful nation in Europe.

The Struggle for Independence

The political disaffection between the Low Countries and Spain coincided with the Protestant revolt against the Roman Catholic church, which was the state church of Spain. Calvinism, a Protestant movement, rapidly gained ground during this period; its adherents established in the Low Countries a well-organized church that was prepared to challenge the Roman Catholic church, particularly the Inquisition, a church institution that sought to control heresy. In 1566 riots in which mobs destroyed images in Catholic churches spread across the country. In response, a wrathful Philip sent to The Netherlands Spanish troops commanded by Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Third Duke of Alba. The excessively harsh policies of the duke and of the Inquisition resulted in open revolt in the Low Countries. William I, the Silent, prince of Orange, who was one of the principal noblemen of the region, led the revolt. Initially unsuccessful, the Dutch then concentrated their efforts in the north. After William’s naval supporters, called the Sea Beggars, seized the Holland port of Brill (Brielle) in 1572, the rebels took control of most northern towns, which became the bases of the revolt. William tried to maintain the unity of north and south but was unable to hold the north against the brilliant campaigns of reconquest led by a new Spanish commander, Alessandro Farnese.

In 1579 the Union of Utrecht, an anti-Spanish alliance of all northern and some southern territories, was formed. The union signified the final divergence of the northern part of the Low Countries, which later became The Netherlands, from the southern part, which later became Belgium. The Union of Utrecht became the nucleus of the present Dutch nation. In 1581 the Dutch provinces within the Union of Utrecht proclaimed their independence from Spain. Subsequently, the new nation suffered a series of reverses in the war with Spain, sustaining a major loss when William the Silent was assassinated in 1584. By 1585 the Spanish had reconquered practically all the south, including the important port of Antwerp. Eventually, however, the tide of war turned in favor of the Dutch. From 1585 to 1587 English troops were sent overseas to aid the insurgent cause, and in 1588 the English destroyed the great Spanish Armada, a victory that drastically curtailed the ability of Spain to wage war abroad. The seven provinces in the Union of Utrecht were cleared of Spanish troops by 1600.

From 1609 to 1621 a truce was in effect between the Spanish and the Dutch, but the war subsequently dragged on until 1648, when the Spanish signed the Treaty of Münster, by which the sovereignty of the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces was recognized. The republic thus severed all theoretical ties with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire and became one of the great powers on the Continent, a republic in the midst of monarchies.

The Golden Age

In the early 17th century, when eventual Dutch independence was assured, an era of great commercial prosperity opened, as did the so-called Golden Age of Dutch art, with painters such as Rembrandt and Jan Vermeer. By the mid-17th century the Netherlands was the foremost commercial and maritime power of Europe, and Amsterdam was the financial center of the Continent.

Within The Netherlands, the growing population and prosperity led to the rapid growth of cities. The new financial elite invested heavily in land reclamation (most natural lakes in Holland were reclaimed during the first half of the 17th century) and built large numbers of country houses.

Exploration and Colonization

About 1600 a Dutch merchant expedition of three vessels sailed from Amsterdam to Java. This was the first of numerous journeys that left Dutch geographic names scattered over the globe, from Spitsbergen to Cape Horn and from Staten Island to Tasmania. These voyages resulted in the establishment or acquisition of many trading stations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and America.

In 1602 the Dutch parliament granted to the Dutch East India Company a charter that gave it a trading monopoly with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and west of the Strait of Magellan in South America. The charter also conferred many sovereign powers on the company, including the right to wage war and to conclude peace. The West India Company (see Dutch West India Company), founded in 1621, established colonies in the West Indies, Brazil, and North America.

The East India Company established itself first in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and later on West Java, where Batavia (modern Jakarta) became the center of the company’s enterprises. These enterprises were devoted mostly to trade and to the establishment of trading posts. Their functions generally did not include governing. Subsequently, pressed by the necessity of maintaining peace among the native rulers, the Dutch began to govern the territories (now called Indonesia) in order to maintain trade.

Internal Developments

William the Silent had been succeeded in the position known as stadtholder and as military commander by his son Maurice, who in turn was followed by his brother Frederick Henry. These men governed in conjunction with the States-General, an assembly composed of representatives of each of the seven provinces but usually dominated by the largest and wealthiest province, Holland. The stadtholder’s power varied, depending on his personal qualities of leadership, and the office eventually became hereditary in the house of Orange.

Under Maurice, the republic was divided by a religio-political conflict between two factions within the Reformed (Calvinist) church, over predestination. The Arminian, or Remonstrant, cause was championed by Holland under its leader, Jan van Olden Barneveldt; the other provinces and Maurice sided with the Gomarists, or High Calvinists, who prevailed. The dispute ended with Barneveldt’s execution for treason in 1619.

Frederick Henry’s son, William II of Orange, became involved in a bitter quarrel with the province of Holland, and after his death no stadtholder was appointed in Holland and four other provinces for more than 20 years. William III of Orange, who was stadtholder from 1672 until his death in 1702, was also king of England after 1689 (see William III).

The Decline of the Dutch Republic

Inevitably, the Dutch and the English, the leading maritime trading nations of the world, came into sharp commercial rivalry and military conflict. The issues between the two countries were contested, but not settled, by the two Anglo-Dutch Wars, the first waged from 1652 to 1654 and the second from 1664 to 1667. As a result of the latter conflict the Dutch lost New Amsterdam in North America but acquired Dutch Guiana (now Suriname). Other wars, costly in lives and money, followed against England and France.

After the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), in which the Dutch were allies of the British against the French, the economic and political power of the Netherlands began to decline. Eventually the Dutch Republic was overshadowed by the expanding power of the United Kingdom on the sea and France on the land.

When William III died without heirs in 1702, a distant relative of his, John William Friso, successfully claimed the Orange title. In 1747 his son became stadtholder in all seven provinces as William IV.

In the late 18th century a struggle broke out between the party of the house of Orange, which had become conservative, and the Patriot Party, which desired democratic reforms. The Orange Party enjoyed a brief triumph with the help of an invading Prussian army in 1787, but in 1795 French troops and a force consisting of self-exiled Dutch citizens replaced the republic of the seven United Provinces with the Batavian Republic, which was modeled on the revolutionary French Republic.

The Napoleonic Era and the Union with Belgium

The Batavian Republic survived only until 1806, when Napoleon I of France transformed the country into the kingdom of Holland. In 1810 he incorporated it into the French Empire. While the Dutch were under French rule, the British seized Dutch colonial possessions. After the fall of Napoleon, the independence of the Netherlands was restored in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna. In addition, the territory now comprising Belgium was made part of the kingdom of The Netherlands.

The reunion of the two regions was not a happy one, for they had become widely disparate in political background, tradition, religion, language, and economy. In 1830 the Belgians revolted and established their independence as a sovereign state. A conference in London of the major European powers formulated the conditions of separation in 1831. The stipulations were accepted by the Dutch king under pressure from France and Britain. But when they were later revised by the conference in favor of the Belgians, a Dutch army invaded Belgium and routed the opposing forces. The conditions of separation were again revised and were finally accepted by both countries in 1839.

The Development of Parliamentary Democracy

The second half of the 19th century was marked by a liberalization of The Netherlands government under the impact of the revolutions that had swept Europe during the 1840s. The seeds of reform were contained in the new constitution of 1848, which became the foundation of the present democracy. Under its provisions arbitrary personal rule by the monarch was no longer possible. The members of the first chamber of parliament, who had formerly been appointed by the king, were thereafter elected by the provincial states (assemblies). Members of the states and of the second chamber of parliament were chosen by all people paying taxes in excess of a stipulated sum. The almost solidly Roman Catholic southern provinces of Limburg and Noord-Brabant, treated as conquered territories under the republic, had been given equal status with other provinces under the monarchy, but it remained for the constitution of 1848 to remove the religious restrictions against their citizens. Thus a powerful Roman Catholic political party was able to form and to contend with the Liberal group and the emerging conservative Protestant parties. Through the late 19th century, suffrage was gradually extended, and agitation for social reform increased markedly. The rise of a strong Labor Party and the organization of workers into labor unions resulted in further social reforms.

Administration of the colonies was also reformed. In Indonesia, the area under Dutch control was increased, burdensome taxation was gradually abandoned, and, after 1877, no financial surpluses from that colony were used for the benefit of the treasury of The Netherlands.

From about 1880 to 1914 The Netherlands enjoyed an era of economic expansion. This period ended during World War I (1914-1918), when, despite remaining militarily neutral, the nation suffered hardship through loss of trade as a result of the Allied blockade of the Continent. The principal postwar problems of the country were economic, and these were aggravated by the depression of the 1930s.

World War II and After

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, The Netherlands again declared its neutrality, but in 1940 the country was overrun by the Germans, following an aerial bombardment that destroyed the greater part of Rotterdam. Much destruction was also wrought in other parts of the country, not only by the Germans, but also by the Dutch, who opened many dikes as desperate defense measures, and later by the Allies in aerial assaults on German-held positions.

The Germans occupied the country until they were ousted during 1944 and 1945. During the occupation, the Dutch set up an underground network to resist German forces. The Germans responded with bloody reprisals, but failed to rout the Dutch resistance movement. The German occupiers deported more than 100,000 Dutch Jews; most of them died in Nazi concentration camps. The Diary of Anne Frank gives a vivid picture of the period of Nazi occupation, which finally ended on May 5, 1945.

The years following World War II were marked by intensive efforts to rebuild the country and to restore its trade and industry. In 1945 The Netherlands became a charter member of the United Nations. In 1948 it received funds through the European Recovery Program. The Netherlands joined with Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg to form the Brussels Treaty Organization (see Western European Union) in 1948, and was a founding member of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952. The country joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, the European Defense Community Treaty in 1952, and the London-Paris accords in 1955, thus becoming a full-fledged member of the Western European multinational defense establishment. The late 1940s and early 1950s were also a time of rising prices, generally unfavorable trade balances, and governments dominated by the Labor Party.

Meanwhile, The Netherlands lost a war against Indonesian nationalists in the East Indies, and in 1949 The Netherlands formally transferred sovereignty in the East Indies (excluding Netherlands New Guinea) to the Indonesian government. Netherlands New Guinea remained under Dutch rule until 1962. Also, in 1954 Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles became equal members of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The Roman Catholic People’s Party came to power in 1959 and retained pluralities in the lower house in the elections of 1963 and 1967. However, the government coalitions that the party formed in the 1960s proved unstable. Unrest in the Netherlands Antilles beset the government in 1969, and marines were dispatched to assist police in riot control.

The inflation of the 1960s continued into the 1970s as a major political problem. Wage and price controls were imposed in 1970, and taxes increased in 1971. In the elections of 1971 the governing coalition lost its majority, and a coalition headed by the Anti-Revolutionary Party formed a government. The government fell in 1972, however, and a caretaker government ruled until May 1973, when Joop den Uyl, leader of the Labor Party, was sworn in as prime minister of a five-party coalition. In an effort to boost the economy and ease the economic burden on its citizens, the new administration increased the minimum wage for adult workers, restricted rent increases, and raised subsidies for new housing. However, when Suriname attained full independence in 1975, tens of thousands of people living in the country chose to retain their Dutch citizenship and emigrated to The Netherlands, increasing the burden on the Dutch economy.

In 1977, following parliamentary elections in the spring, the governing coalition of den Uyl fell apart following disagreements over land-reform legislation. A new prime minister, Christian Democrat Appeal (CDA) leader Andreas van Agt, was sworn in later in the year. In 1980 Princess Beatrix succeeded to the throne on the abdication of her mother, Queen Juliana. Van Agt’s cabinet lost its parliamentary majority in May 1981, but he formed a new coalition that lasted from September 1981 to May 1982. Parliamentary elections were held in September 1982, after which van Agt unexpectedly resigned his party leadership. His successor as head of the CDA was Ruud Lubbers, who formed a new coalition with the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in November 1982 and remained in power until 1994. During this period the island of Aruba reached an agreement with the government of The Netherlands separating the island from the Netherlands Antilles.

In the May 1994 elections, the Labor Party emerged at the head of a three-party coalition government with the VVD and the Democrats 66 and assumed control of the Dutch government for the first time since 1977. Labor leader Wim Kok became the new prime minister. This coalition, led by Kok, continued in power following the May 1998 national elections.

Recent Events

The Dutch government faced a major crisis in April 2002 following the publication of a government-commissioned report that blamed the Dutch army for failing to prevent a massacre of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995. The Dutch military had led peacekeeping operations in the safe haven of Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, during that country’s civil war (1992-1995). Bosnian-Serb forces overran the ill-conceived peacekeeping mission and killed an estimated 7,500 Muslims in Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. Wim Kok accepted responsibility for the mission’s failure and announced his government’s resignation.

National elections in May 2002 decisively turned out the Labor-led coalition, which had governed the country for eight years and overseen a period of prosperity and low unemployment. All three of the former coalition parties suffered significant losses, and the center-right Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) emerged as the largest party. The elections also saw the rise of a new anti-immigration party, the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF), named for populist politician Pim Fortuyn. The party of Fortuyn, a charismatic leader who was assassinated nine days before the elections, emerged as the second-largest party. In July, following coalition talks, a new center-right government formed, headed by the CDA with support from the LPF and VVD. CDA leader Jan Peter Balkenende was elected to lead the new government. However, constant infighting within the LPF broke the resolve of the coalition to hold the government together, and the government collapsed in October after just three months in power.

Early elections in January 2003 punished the LPF by reducing its share of seats, but the CDA emerged relatively unscathed, retaining the largest number of seats in the parliament. In May, following four months of difficult negotiations, the CDA agreed to a center-right coalition with the VVD and the Democrats 66. As prime minister, Balkenende sought to implement public sector reforms and large cuts in public spending, in addition to taking a tough stance on immigration. His government introduced a series of stringent new policies to limit immigration, including setting a limit on the number of persons allowed to settle in The Netherlands from other countries in the European Union (EU). In February 2004 the Dutch parliament approved a bill requiring the forcible expulsion of 26,000 asylum seekers whose applications for residency in The Netherlands had failed. The controversial new law was widely condemned by human rights groups.

Balkenende’s government supported the proposed constitution for the EU, finalized in mid-2004 following years of draft negotiations among EU member nations. However, Dutch voters resoundingly rejected the proposed constitution in a referendum held in June 2005. Their “no” vote, which followed French voters’ rejection of the constitution, was attributed to a variety of uncertainties over greater European integration, including immigration issues.

Balkenende’s coalition government collapsed in late June when the Democrats 66 withdrew in protest over the hardline stance of the immigration minister, Rita Verdonk. The Democrats 66 objected to Verdonk’s treatment of a Somali-born former member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who had admitted to falsifying her application for amnesty. Consequently, Balkenende and his government resigned, and parliamentary elections originally scheduled for May 2007 were held early, in November 2006.

The CDA fared well in the elections, placing first with 41 seats of the parliament’s 150 seats. Other parties winning representation included the Labor Party (33 seats), the Socialist Party (25 seats), and the VVD (22 seats). Negotiations to form a ruling coalition headed by the CDA were expected to take some time.

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