Utrecht played an important role in the founding of the Netherlands. In 1579 the ‘Unie van Utrecht’ (Union of Utrecht) was signed. The Union, a cooperation agreement between different states and cities, is generally seen as the beginning of the Netherlands. In the centuries that followed, territories joined (for instance Limburg) and seceded (for instance parts of Belgium). Many wars were fought, often with a religious motive. International trade became important, especially in what is known as the Golden Age (1600-1700), which was a period of great wealth and notable achievements in arts and sciences.
In the last century the two World Wars defined the lives of many Dutch people. In World War I (1914-1918) the Netherlands remained neutral but in World War II (1940-1945) it was occupied by Nazi Germany. After the Second World War, the Dutch started rebuilding their nation. In 1953 dikes in the south- west of the Netherlands broke and the entire area was flooded. As a result, the Dutch started improving their water works in the area, thereby further increasing their expertise in the field of water management. To further international cooperation the Netherlands joined NATO and the European Union. The Netherlands also plays an important role in development organisations and international law.
The Netherlands (also known as Holland) has its name for a reason: the country is extremely flat and about a quarter of the country is below sea level. The highest ‘mountain’ is no more than a hill about 320 metres high (the Vaalserberg). Water can be found everywhere, in the form of lakes, rivers, canals and the sea.The parts of the Netherlands below sea level would be flooded if there were no dikes, dunes and other fortifications. The city of Utrecht and most of the province of Utrecht– you might find this reassuring to know – are above sea level!
With 17 million inhabitants and population density of 488 people per km2, the Netherlands is the most densely populated country of the European Union.
Government and Politics
The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy with two houses of parliament.
On 30 April 2013, His Majesty King Willem-Alexander succeeded his mother as King of the Netherlands. He delivers the annual Speech from the Throne (government plans for the coming year) and plays a central role in the formation of a new government. King Willem - Alexanders’s birthday is celebrated nationwide on 'King’s Day’, which will officially be celebrated on 27 April (the king’s birthday).
The government in The Hague consists of a Prime Minister and 12 Ministers. The Ministers are assisted by State Secretaries. There are two houses of parliament: the Upper House (‘de Eerste Kamer’), which is elected by the provincial councils, and the Lower House (‘de Tweede Kamer’), which is directly elected.
The proportional representation system is used in all Dutch local and national elections. There are a wide variety of political parties. Some only participate in elections once, or only in specific elections, for instance the elections for municipal councils. The larger parties are organised around a political tradition (for instance liberals, or social democrats), environmental issues or a religious denomination (for instance Christianity). The smaller parties (who usually do not make it into parliament) often have a very specific focus for instance on animal rights, women or elderly people. Since none of the parties ever has a majority in parliament, coalitions of two or more parties are formed.
The Dutch policies on some social issues are considered to be very liberal, for instance on abortion, drugs and marriages between two men or two women. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides detailed information on these and other policies and various government issues on its website: http://www.minbuza.nl/en.
The Dutch economy is open and internationally oriented. For centuries, international trade has been a key element of the Dutch economic system. Located in the delta where several major European rivers flow into the North Sea, Holland was ideally situated to become a centre of trade and transport for all of Western Europe. The seventeenth century is known as the Golden Age of Dutch history, when Dutch ships carried 90% of all the goods in Europe.
Today, international trade is still the main engine of economic growth in Holland. In fact, Holland is the 16th largest economy in the world and one of the ten leading exporting nations. Holland’s most important trading partners are its neighbours Germany, Belgium, the UK and France. In 2009, Holland was the EU’s second largest export country after Germany.
The Netherlands is famous for its achievements in the arts and has brought forth many famous artists: Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mondriaan, Appel (painters) and Berlage, Koolhaas and Rietveld (architects), to name a few. There are hundreds of outstanding museums, exhibitions and festivals to visit and promising artists from all over the world still come to the Netherlands to work or study.
It is hard to say anything general about Dutch culture – or what the Dutch are like. The best thing is probably to come and find out. Some remarks often made by foreign visitors are: the Dutch in general are very modest in showing their appreciation for anything or anybody, including themselves. They are often considered very open and direct in their social interaction and can therefore seem blunt. Their views, like their policies, are often looked upon as being very progressive. This doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate their traditions such as the celebration of the Queen’s birthday and the feast of Saint Nicholas.
Dutch society is home to over 190 different nationalities living in its many cities and villages. For decades, the country’s historical ties with other parts of the world have brought people of non-Dutch origin to settle in Holland, which makes the Dutch generally open-minded, freedom loving and tolerant towards foreigners. This cultural diversity has made Holland a place where knowledge, ideas and cultures from all over the world come together. Although Dutch is the national language, the majority of the population also speaks English and very often another foreign language, such as German or French.
The Netherlands is a ’self-service country’. The Dutch try to manage most things themselves, which makes them very independent and organized. Another distinctive characteristic of the Dutch is their openness and direct manner of acting and speaking. You will notice that you can say exactly what is on your mind, as the Dutch are not easily offended. Dutch society is organized in a non-hierarchical way. For example, teachers tend to be very accessible and true interlocutors for their students. You will be on familiar terms with everybody in almost no time.
The Netherlands has two official languages: Dutch and Frisian. Frisian is spoken by approximately 440,000 people in the northern province of Friesland. Most Dutch people have a good command of English and another language like Spanish or German. Due to immigration many residents are also fluent in Turkish or Moroccan languages. English is necessary to succeed in most higher education establishments (including the universities). Some schools and university programmes even use English as their main and only language – Dutch is not used at all. Dutch is also spoken in parts of Belgium, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.