At a Glance
U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Netherlands, April 1996
Bureau of Public Affairs
Official Name: Kingdom of the Netherlands
Area: 41,473 sq. km. (16,464 sq. mi.).
Population: 15.4 million.
Health: Infant mortality rate--6/1,000. Life expectancy--78 yrs.
Type: Parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch.
GDP (1995): $350 billion.
The Dutch are primarily of Germanic stock with some Gallo-Celtic mixture. Their small homeland frequently has been threatened with destruction by the North Sea and often has been invaded by the great European powers.
Julius Caesar found the region which is now the Netherlands inhabited by Germanic tribes in the first century BC. The western portion was inhabited by the Batavians and became part of a Roman province; the eastern portion was inhabited by the Frisians. Between the fourth and eighth centuries AD, most of both portions were conquered by the Franks. The area later passed into the hands of the House of Burgundy and the Austrian Hapsburgs. Falling under harsh Spanish rule in the 16th century, the Dutch revolted in 1558 under the leadership of Willem of Orange. By virtue of the Union of Utrecht in 1579, the seven northern Dutch provinces became the Republic of the United Netherlands.
During the 17th century, considered its "golden era," the Netherlands became a great sea and colonial power. Among other achievements, this period saw the emergence of some of painting's "Old Masters," including Rembrandt and Hals, whose works--along with those of later artists such as Mondriaan and Van Gogh--are today on display in museums throughout the Netherlands.
The country's importance declined, however, with the gradual loss of Dutch technological superiority and after wars with Spain, France, and England in the 18th century. The Dutch United Provinces supported the Americans in the Revolutionary War. In 1795, French troops ousted Willem V of Orange, the Stadhouder under the Dutch Republic and head of the House of Orange.
Following Napoleon's defeat in 1813, the Netherlands and Belgium became the "Kingdom of the United Netherlands" under King Willem I, son of Willem V of Orange. The Belgians withdrew from the union in 1830 to form their own kingdom. King Willem II was largely responsible for the liberalizing revision of the constitution in 1848.
The Netherlands prospered during the long reign of Willem III (1849- 90). At the time of his death, his daughter Wilhelmina was 10 years old. Her mother, Queen Emma, reigned as regent until 1898, when Wilhelmina reached the age of 18 and became the monarch.
The Netherlands proclaimed neutrality at the start of both world wars. Although it escaped occupation in World War I, German troops overran the country in May 1940. Queen Wilhelmina fled to London and established a government-in-exile. Shortly after the Netherlands was liberated in May 1945, the Queen returned. Crown Princess Juliana acceded to the throne in 1948 upon her mother's abdication. In April 1980, Queen Juliana abdicated in favor of her daughter, now Queen Beatrix. Crown Prince Willem Alexander was born in 1967.
Elements of the Netherlands' once far-flung empire were granted either full independence or nearly complete autonomy after World War II. Indonesia formally gained its independence in 1949, and Suriname became independent in 1975. The five islands of the Netherlands Antilles (Curacao, Bonaire, Saba, St. Eustatius, and a part of St. Maarten) are an integral part of the Netherlands realm but enjoy a large degree of autonomy. Aruba, which had been a part of the Netherlands Antilles, was granted in January 1986 a separate status within the kingdom on par with, but apart from, the Netherlands Antilles.
The present constitution--which dates from 1848 and has been amended several times--protects individual and political freedoms, including freedom of religion. Although church and state are separate, a few historical ties remain; the royal family belongs to the Dutch Reformed Church (Protestant). Freedom of speech also is protected.
The country's government is based on the principles of ministerial responsibility and parliamentary government. The national government comprises three main institutions: the crown, the States General, and the courts. There also are local governments.
The Crown. The monarch is the titular head of state. The Queen's function is largely ceremonial, but she does have some influence deriving from the traditional veneration of the House of Orange--from which Dutch monarchs for more than three centuries have been chosen; the personal qualities of the Queen; and her power to appoint the formateur, who forms the Council of Ministers following elections.
The Council of Ministers plans and implements government policy. Most ministers also head government ministries, although ministers without portfolio exist. The ministers, collectively and individually, are responsible to the States General (parliament). Unlike the British system, Dutch ministers cannot simultaneously be members of parliament.
The Council of State is a constitutionally established advisory body to the government which consists of members of the royal family and crown-appointed members generally having political, commercial, diplomatic, or military experience. The Council of State must be consulted by the cabinet on proposed legislation before a law is submitted to the parliament. The Council of State also serves as a channel of appeal for citizens against executive branch decisions.
States General (Parliament). The Dutch parliament consists of two houses, the First Chamber and the Second Chamber. Historically, Dutch governments have been based on the support of a majority in both houses of parliament. The Second Chamber is by far the more important of the two houses. It alone has the right to initiate legislation and amend bills submitted by the Council of Ministers. It shares with the First Chamber the right to question ministers and state secretaries.
The Second Chamber consists of 150 members, directly elected for a four-year term--unless the government falls prematurely--on the basis of a nationwide system of proportional representation. This system means that members represent the whole country--rather than individual districts as in the United States--and are normally elected on a party slate, not on a personal basis. There is no threshold for small- party representation. Campaigns usually last six weeks, and each party is limited to a budget of about $600,000. The electoral system makes a coalition government almost inevitable. The most recent elections for the Second Chamber were held in May 1994.
The First Chamber is composed of 75 members elected for four-year terms by the 12 provincial legislatures. It cannot initiate or amend legislation, but its approval of bills passed by the Second Chamber is required before bills become law. The First Chamber generally meets only once a week, and its members usually have other full-time jobs. The current First Chamber was elected following provincial elections in March 1995.
Courts. The judiciary comprises 62 cantonal courts, 19 district courts, five courts of appeal, and a Supreme Court which has 24 justices. All judicial appointments are made by the crown. Judges nominally are appointed for life but actually are retired at age 70.
Local Government. The first-level administrative divisions are the 12 provinces, each governed by a locally elected provincial council and a provincial executive appointed by members of the provincial council. The province is formally headed by a queen's commissioner appointed by the crown.
Defense Forces. The defense structure of the Netherlands comprises the Ministry of Defense and the various branches of the armed forces. Political responsibility for the defense of the Netherlands lies with the minister of defense and the state secretary for defense.
The Royal Netherlands Armed Forces has a peacetime strength of about 85,500 military and civilians. The Royal Netherlands Army takes part in the new German-Netherlands Corps and in numerous international peacekeeping efforts. The Army features an elite Air Mobile Brigade supported by a range of transport and attack helicopters. The Royal Netherlands Navy is composed of escort ships, submarines, maritime patrol aircraft, helicopters, a mine countermeasure force, and a Marine Corps, as well as the necessary supporting elements. Priority has been given to anti-submarine warfare, with emphasis on air defense and surface warfare. The weapons systems of the Royal Netherlands Air Force are primarily fighter aircraft and surface-to-air guided weapons.
From the end of World War II until December 1958, the Netherlands was governed by a series of coalitions built on a Labor-Catholic base. From 1958 to 1994, governments were formed primarily from a center- right coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, with the social democratic-oriented Labor Party generally in opposition.
The current government, formed in August 1994, is a three-way "Purple Coalition" of the Labor (PvdA), Liberal (VVD), and Democrats '66 (D'66) parties headed by Prime Minister Kok of the PvdA. The coalition parties hold 92 of the 150 seats in the Second Chamber. The Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) is in opposition with 34 seats. Eight minor parties hold the remaining 24 seats. Descriptions of the four main parties follow.
The Labor Party, a European social democratic party, is left of center. Labor has 37 seats in the current Second Chamber, which makes it the largest party. The party joined the VVD and D'66 in the "Purple Coalition" to form the present government, after having spent the past five years in an alliance with the CDA. Labor's program is based on greater social, political, and economic equality for all citizens, although in recent years the party has begun to debate the role of central government in that process. Although called the Labor Party, it has no formal links to the trade unions.
The Christian Democratic Appeal was formed from a merger of the Catholic People's Party and two Protestant parties, the Anti- Revolutionary Party and the Christian-Historical Union. The merger process, begun in the early 1970s to try to stem the tide of losses suffered by religiously based parties, was completed in 1980. It supports free enterprise and holds to the principle that government activity should supplement but not supplant communal action by citizens. On the political spectrum, the CDA sees its philosophy as standing between the "individualism" of the Liberals and the "statism" of the Labor Party. The CDA won 34 seats in the 1994 parliamentary elections, which was a significant drop from its previous 54. For the first time in 76 years, the CDA is not a governing party.
The Liberal Party is "liberal" in the European, rather than American, sense of the word. It thus attaches great importance to private enterprise and the freedom of the individual in political, social, and economic affairs. The VVD is generally seen as the most conservative of the major parties. The VVD was the junior partner in two governing coalitions with the CDA from 1982-89, and is now in the three- way coalition with 31 seats in the Second Chamber.
Democrats '66, once the largest of the "small" parties in the Dutch parliament, has grown in size and influence. The electoral fortunes of D'66 have fluctuated widely since the party's founding in 1966. The 24 seats it currently holds are double the average of the party's showing over the last 20 years. D'66 is a center-left party, generally portrayed as between the CDA and PvdA, with its strongest support among young, urban, professional voters. It professes a pro-European platform of ethnic and religious toleration. D'66 is currently a governing party.
Domestic Drug Policy
Although prosecuting international drug traffickers is a top national priority, the operation in the Netherlands of "coffeehouses" selling cannabis products--of under 30 grams--is tolerated, albeit under strict criteria and increasing government scrutiny. And while drugs are not legal in the Netherlands, Dutch policy treats domestic drug use as a health issue, stressing prevention and treatment.
The legal basis of Dutch domestic drug policy is the Opium Act of 1919 (amended in 1928 and 1976). In addition to permitting authorities to treat drug use as a health problem, Dutch law also permits them to divide responsibility for implementing and enforcing the Opium Act between the Health and Justice Ministries.
The Opium Act distinguishes between "drugs presenting unacceptable risks"--i.e. "hard drugs" such as heroin and cocaine--"and traditional hemp products"--called "soft drugs." The law imposes penalties for the possession, sale, transport, trafficking, and manufacture of all drugs listed in the Opium Act, except for medical or scientific purposes. Drug consumption, per se, is not prohibited.
The Netherlands spends about $200 million on health care for people with various types of addictions; about 40% of this funding goes to drug addicts. To combat the spread of the HIV among drug users, the Netherlands has extensive needle exchange programs.
Principal Government Officials
Head of State--Queen Beatrix
The Netherlands' embassy in the U.S. is at 4200 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20016; tel: 202-244-5300; fax: 202-362-3430.
The Netherlands abandoned its traditional policy of neutrality after World War II. The Dutch have since become engaged participants in international affairs. Dutch foreign policy is geared to promoting a variety of goals: transatlanticism; European integration; Third World development; and respect for international law, human rights, and democracy.
As a relatively small country, the Netherlands generally pursues its foreign policy interests within the framework of multilateral organizations. The Netherlands is an active and responsible participant in the United Nations system as well as other multilateral organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), WTO, and International Monetary Fund. A centuries-old tradition of legal scholarship has made the Netherlands the home of the International Court of Justice; the Iran Claims Tribunal; the Yugoslavia and Rwanda War Crime Tribunals; and the European police organization, Europol.
Dutch security policy is based primarily on membership in NATO, which the Netherlands joined in 1949. The Dutch also pursue defense cooperation within Europe, both multilaterally--in the context of the Western European Union--and bilaterally--as in the German- Netherlands Corps. In recent years, the Dutch have become significant contributors to United Nations peacekeeping efforts around the world.
The Dutch have been strong advocates of European integration, and most aspects of their foreign, economic, and trade policies are coordinated through the EU. The Netherlands' postwar customs union with Belgium and Luxembourg (the Benelux group) paved the way for the formation of the European Community (precursor to the EU), of which the Netherlands was a founding member. Likewise, the Benelux abolition of internal border controls was a model for the wider Schengen accord, which today has 10 European signatories--including the Netherlands--pledged to common visa policies and free movement of people across common borders.
The Netherlands is the fourth-largest foreign aid donor, giving about 1% of its gross national product in development assistance. The country consistently contributes large amounts of aid through multilateral channels, especially the UN Development Program, International Development Association, and EU programs. A large portion of Dutch aid funds also are channeled through private ("co- financing") organizations that have almost total autonomy in choice of projects.
In 1995, Dutch development assistance--as defined by the OECD--was about $4 billion. The policy priorities of Dutch aid for 1995 were the environment, women in development, urban poverty alleviation, and research. Dutch aid is also targeted on emergency aid, programs for the private sector, and international education.
The Netherlands is a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which recently initiated economic reforms in Central Europe. The Dutch strongly support the Middle East Peace Process and contributed $22 million in 1994 to international donor- coordinated activities for the occupied territories and also for projects in which they worked directly with Palestinian authorities. These projects included improving environmental conditions and support for multilateral programs in cooperation with local non-governmental organizations. In 1995, the Dutch provided significant amounts of aid to Bosnia and Rwanda, among others.
The United States' partnership with the Netherlands is its oldest continuous relationship and dates back to the American revolution. The excellent bilateral relations are based on close historical and cultural ties and a common dedication to individual freedom and human rights. An outward-looking nation, the Netherlands shares with the U.S. a commitment to an open market and free trade. It is the United States' eighth-largest export market.
President Clinton invited Prime Minister Kok to Washington for an official working visit on February 27 and 28, 1995. Issues such as NATO, the UN, narcotics policy, trade relations, and international crises were discussed, and the meeting demonstrated the characteristic friendly atmosphere and good trade and political relations between the U.S. and the Netherlands.
The United States and the Netherlands often have similar positions on issues and work together bilaterally and through the UN and other multilateral organizations on matters concerning NATO, trade and economic cooperation, and regional and global problems.
International Drug-Trafficking Control
Narcotics trafficking is one such global problem. The Netherlands is considered an important transit point for narcotics; it has a major international airport hub, and Rotterdam is the world's largest container port. The Dutch Government has been working to tighten controls on its airports and harbors.
The Dutch work closely with other countries, including the U.S., on international programs against drug trafficking and organized crime. The Netherlands is a signatory to international counter-narcotics agreements, a member of the UN International Drug Control Program and UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and a leading contributor to international counter-narcotics projects.
The Netherlands plays a major role in international environmental forums and often cooperates closely with the United States. The Dutch were among the first to join the GLOBE Project, initiated by Vice President Gore, under which schools around the world cooperate in collecting environmental data and entering it into a computer network for use by scientists and other researchers. The Clinton administration works closely with the Dutch on climate change, biodiversity issues, global deforestation, the sustainable development of rainforests, ozone layer depletion, and the environmental aspects of the Middle East Peace Process.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Kirk Terry Dornbush
Consul General, Amsterdam--John Shearburn
The U.S. embassy is located at Lange Voorhout 102, 2514 EJ The Hague; tel: 31-70-310-9209; fax: 31-70-361-4688. The consulate general is at Museumplein 13, 1071 DJ Amster-dam; tel: 31-20-5755- 309; fax: 31-20-5755-310.