A Dutch Perspective on Brexit

In this article, I reflect on my conversations with academic colleagues working in the Netherlands. The subject of Brexit and the implications it raises for European cultural, political and economic relations weighs on my mind but also among many Dutch colleagues. Interestingly, there is an almost universal position on the topic, which suggests that if Britain wants to go it alone, and if it will not engage with reason, then there is little anyone can do. If Britain insists on taking it all the way, then they will truly be on their own.

I have had the fortunate opportunity to be living and working in The Hague for over a month now, but I have taken with me many of the concerns in relation to Brexit that I had before my move. In talking to scholars and professionals working at Dutch universities about this episode in recent British history, I can relay a whole host of observations that are surprisingly consistent. While the Netherlands is a small country of approximately 18m people, it contains some of the world’s strongest universities, high levels of social and political trust, as well as generally healthy standards of living. As a prominent Western European nation, it punches well above its weight. It does so as an independent sovereign nation-state but also as part of the club known as the European Union in which it is an active and capable member.

The English and the Dutch share a peculiar history. At one point in history, both laid claim to India as a significant trading partner. The Dutch East India Company and the East India Company, however, were direct rivals for parts of South Asia. In their efforts to sustain a monopoly over trade with India, they went to war numerous times during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Anglo-Dutch Treaties of the early nineteenth century aimed to re-balance the colonial order between various European nations. However, while the Netherlands did go on to become a coloniser, namely of parts of South Africa and what is Indonesia today, it did not mete out the brutal injustices of its neighbours such as the Belgians in the Congo, the French in Egypt and later in Algeria, and, more recently, the Germans in relation to their own citizens at home. Crucially, it did not become the greatest slave-trading nation in the world like England. Today, despite all of the inherent biases that come with dominant institutions, structures and cultures within all nation-states, minority groups in the Netherlands receive protections, rights and opportunities in line with human rights law, equality legislation and a sense of common decency that pervades all. The Kingdom of the Netherlands consists of the mother country but also Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten. All are equal citizens of the Kingdom.

This historical narrative is important to delineate as it sets a precedent in relation to the question of the European Union as a club of 28 members with one member now wanting to go it alone. While only able to glean from comments made in casual conversation and by noting the characteristics of the Dutch in general, the ultimate view here is that being together and learning to operate in a way that is fair for all is the optimal path. But empathy is rapidly turning to apathy. An increasingly dominant assessment is the idea that if the Britain refuses to work collectively with the group in which it is a respected and valued member, having played an important part in shaping the norms of the group and working collectively to develop the interests of those wholly affected by the group, surely it is a lost cause.

It does now appear that Britain wants to do things its own way, irrespective of what perhaps wiser and fairer others among the collective are suggesting, and in doing so, it is developing narcissist and selfish tendencies that prevent the wider group from wanting to help any further. Dutch colleague see British interests concerning Brexit as wholly floundering and do not want to provoke the action of a belligerent partner who wants to go it alone in case it starts to create more harm than good. An open-minded view to support British interests has subsided. There is a now a pragmatic distancing from a nation in need of an urgent remedy but assiduously refuses to take it.

Dutch scholars with English partners and with UK-born children are even more incensed by the instability that the entire episode is causing their and other families in similar situations. The Dutch, however, remain wise and no-nonsense — a trait that captures the Dutch persona well. British Brexit elites, however, continue to project confidence in the hope that this trick will be enough to appease others to their way of thinking. It will not and the Dutch know this, even though Brexit will have an impact on the GDP of the Netherlands over a considerable period.

Another general view here now in The Hague is that the Brexit will either be so watered down that it would render the existing system as it is, save for minor penalties, for leaving out aspects of the benefits of membership in the club. Alternatively, that Brexit is thrown out altogether. But time is running out to return to common sense and move away from selfishness, greed and arrogance combined with insecurity, confabulation and a self-absorbed misery that is clearly making many in Britain unhappy as the Brexiteers create havoc for all those around them, argue many others. Ultimately, Britain could save itself at the last minute, with a sudden self-awareness rendering the nation capable, respectable and inclusive again. This entire event can then subside sooner rather later so that kind of normality to European political, economic and social relations can return in earnest. This is the most optimistic view, however, surprisingly, very few I have spoken to share it.

I am learning that the Dutch are an incredibly pragmatic people. While there is a gradual, creeping shift to the political right, the Dutch have not suffered the same fate of populism, authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism that has begun to disease its closest neighbours. It is a balanced society with high progressive taxes, a supportive welfare system, excellent higher education and a liberal attitude towards differences in the world and at home. These values remains supported in spite of the wider global forces of illiberalism that have coincided with globalised neoliberalism. There is much to praise here in the Netherlands. Perhaps the view here on Brexit can also be seen in this light.

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