Wondering why there have been so many protests in the Netherlands recently? Feeling like this usually peaceful country has gotten a bit hectic? Here’s our guide to everything people have been demonstrating against in the Netherlands recently (and a bit about the past on protests in the Netherlands as well)
In case you somehow haven’t noticed, there have been a bunch of protests recently in the Netherlands about everything from not enough climate crisis action to too much climate crisis action from the government.
Why does it seem like the Netherlands has been constantly protesting over the last few months? What’s causing all this uproar? Are the Dutch really more angry now than ever before? At DutchReview, it feels like we’re constantly covering protests. So we wanted to take a deeper, more analytical look at the main issues in Dutch society at the moment, and whether we’re entering a new era of public discord in the Netherlands.
Some Dutch protest history
When we’re talking about the amount of protests going on in the Netherlands at the moment, it’s worth taking a look at the history of the country to see if this is something new. The Netherlands is not really a protest country- at least compared to other European countries. Even if we look at the recent farmers protests, which have been quite intense at times (they forced open the door of the provincial house in Groningen, for example), it’s nothing compared to the yellow vests in France earlier in the year, or the protests in Barcelona last week. Protests in the Netherlands seem mild, mostly non-violent, and rare when we look at other countries.
There have been bloody protests in Dutch history: the Potato riot in 1917 led to nine deaths; the 1934 Jordan riot led to eleven deaths. And in 1980, in the protest against the coronation of Queen Beatrix, commentators have suggested it was a miracle that only injuries occurred. So it’s not that the Dutch are meek: it’s more that there have been ways for the wants of the people to be incorporated into the government’s agenda.
The Netherlands has a talking culture: when there’s a problem, most people’s first instinct is to sit down and talk about it. Most interest groups will end up in a meeting with a government representative eventually if they organise themselves, so lobbying rather than rioting is the first port of call. It’s called the ‘poldermodel‘ and it’s still there.
What are people protesting about in the Netherlands at the moment?
Obviously, we can’t cover everything people are protesting about in the Netherlands: each year there are 1500 protests in just The Hague. Healthcare workers, elderly people, teachers, builders and lots of other groups have protested and will protest more this year. However, in this article we’re talking about four movements that have garnered quite a bit of media and public attention.
Protests in the Netherlands: the climate crisis
Of course, it’s far from just young people that have been filling Dutch streets recently to share their disappointment with how the Dutch government is handling the climate crisis. But things really began to heat up in February of this year, when Greta Thunberg’s weekly strike movement, Fridays for Future, arrived in the Netherlands. Since then, school children have regularly been skipping school on Fridays, arriving in The Hague (or other parts of the country) and asking for more from the government.
At the same time, the originally British movement, Extinction Rebellion (XR), has also been gaining in popularity in the Netherlands. Similarly to the Fridays for Future movement, it calls for immediate action from the government to avert complete disaster- but it is also more radical, calling for an overhaul of systems we think of as fixed (capitalism, for example). XR stages acts of civil disobedience as well as joining protests.
Both of these movements are international, but it is worth thinking about why people from the Netherlands, in particular, are so frustrated with the way the government is handling things. One of the answers is obvious: we’re a very flat, very below sea level country. If sea levels rise, the Netherlands is going to have some serious problems. But then there’s also the Urgenda ruling, the result of a court case held earlier this year. As a result of this ruling, the Netherlands became the first country to have a government legally obligated to act against dangerous levels of climate change. The Dutch government is still trying to appeal this ruling.
Protests in the Netherlands: the nitrogen crisis
All over the Netherlands for the past fortnight, the farmers have been up in arms about the measures the government is taking to combat the nitrogen crisis. Most of the Netherlands seems to be supporting the farmers- they do, after all, play a fundamental role in food production. But there are also people who are frustrated that farmers are seemingly working against their long term interests: after all, if farming continues to be a highly polluting industry, climate change will only get worse, sea levels will rise, and that’s going to be a problem for the farmers as well as everyone else.
The farmers started protesting on the 1st of October, and throughout October they’ve been back again and again. In each case they’ve caused chaos, causing the biggest morning traffic jam ever seen on their first day at it. This week they besieged the provincial house in Groningen, breaking open the door with a tractor, knocking down fences, and injuring a police horse. In The Hague and Utrecht, where they protested on the 16th, things were a bit calmer, largely due to a huge army presence that put the city in lockdown. (I had to bike ten minutes longer. It was serious.)
Just in case you were about to get really annoyed with the farmers, we ought to take a closer look at what they’re really upset about. For the nitrogen crisis to be brought under control, polluting farms near nature reserves (Natura-2000 areas) may need to be closed, or at the very least, their practices need to be cleaned up. In other areas of the country, the number of livestock needs to drop dramatically- GroenLinks have suggested halving it. And in general, farmers will need to upgrade their machinery and farming practices under the regulations proposed by the Remkes Commission. The problem is that there will be very limited government funding for the farmers to make these changes, so they will have to shoulder much of the burden themselves. Viewed this way, their anger looks a lot like panic from an industry under threat.
Protests in the Netherlands: the Turkish invasion
Earlier in October, violence broke out at a protest against the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in Rotterdam. This area had been under the control of American-backed Kurdish forces, who have been mainly responsible for bringing Isis under control. Two weeks ago, Trump decided to pull American forces out of the area, and hand over control to the Turkish president, Erdogan. On Wednesday of last week, Turkish forces invaded the area, attacking the Kurds.
Since then, Kurdish people and those who sympathise with them in the Netherlands- and indeed, all over the world- have been protesting against Turkey’s actions, and asking for action from western governments, such as economic sanctions and no-fly zones. That was what was happening in Rotterdam on Wednesday. However, Turkish counter-protesters turned up without a protest permit, and violence broke out between the two. The police decided to shut down the protest in consultation with the mayor of Rotterdam.
Protests against the Turkish invasion of northern Syria are expected to continue this weekend, with major gatherings expected in The Hague and Arnhem.
Protests in the Netherlands: Zwarte Piet
It’s everyone’s favourite family dinner argument! Zwarte Piet has been a topic of discussion in the Netherlands for a good few years now, and it’s always been something that confuses people who aren’t from the Netherlands. After all, most of us come from countries where blackface is considered very racist and just plain weird, and most of us expect the Netherlands to live up to its progressive reputation abroad.
The Zwarte Piet debate encompasses a lot, from the way we understand childhood and tradition to the way we deal with demographic changes. But if we boil it down, we arrive at a sticky syrup of Dutch colonial history and Dutch identity today. In a society that has experienced quite a bit of inward migration recently, the prospect of changing aspects of Dutch “tradition” only adds to the feeling of a country going through a change. To make matters even more tense, for many native (read: white) Dutch people, it feels like this change is coming from outside. So although to many of us, especially those who haven’t grown up here, Zwarte Piet is vaguely horrifying and very odd, the reasons for the controversy surrounding it are understandable, if not excusable.
Though Zwarte Piet protest season hasn’t quite started, there have already been mentions of changes in the news: earlier in September, NOS reported that when Sinterklaas arrives this year, he will be accompanied by Piets with sooty cheeks, rather than in blackface (they will keep their costumes and wigs, though).
Is this a new era of protests in the Netherlands?
As we’ve already discussed, the Netherlands is not prone to violent uprisings: it has a culture of conversation and compromise. Having the pillar system encouraged this in a way. The three different groups would have to talk to each other to maintain a functioning country, but would also be closed off in a way that made each feel at home.
However, the pillar system has been changing for decades now: as more and more Dutch people drift away from religion, the previous divide between Catholic and Protestant makes less sense. And as a result of immigration, the Netherlands also has more varied groups to contend with and listen to than before.
In 2019, new issues are affecting Dutch society- and indeed, affecting the global community. The climate crisis has never not been urgent business, but now it is urgent in much of the public’s mind. But figuring out how to deal with this crisis while also taking into account the human side of it- people whose jobs will change, or be lost- has yet to be undertaken on a government scale.
And then the Netherlands is changing, bit by bit: in terms of who lives here, and what kind of society they want to build. We’re seeing people wanting the government to look after vulnerable groups abroad, like the Kurds; and we’re also seeing people struggling with their traditions, and how they can change them to include others.
Finally, like the rest of the western world, the Netherlands is struggling with increasing social divisions: both in terms of social media, and income inequality. Because of how algorithms on Facebook and other sites work, you literally only hear what you want to hear. And although the figures on income inequality in the Netherlands are unclear about whether it has risen or stayed the same over the past decade, there is no dispute over the fact that income inequality is here, big time.
While it’s definitely true that different issues are affecting the Netherlands than those from ten years ago, it’s not completely true that the amount of protests going on is new. For sure, if you compare the number of protests in 2018 with the number in 2002, that number easily quadruples. But according to sociologist Jacquelien van Stekelenburg in an interview with NOS, the amount of protests going on in the Netherlands at the moment is about the same as in the sixties. She notes that protests tend to come in waves: they happen all at once, and then not really at all. So we are seeing a different level of engagement from the public than ten years ago, but that isn’t completely unheard of in the Netherlands.
What we’re seeing in the Netherlands is new, then, in the sense that we’re dealing with different issues, and a more diverse society (in terms of income and political beliefs as well as migration backgrounds). But it is not new for people in the Netherlands to protest if we take the history of the last century into account. And, furthermore, if we compare the amount of protests and uprisings in the Netherlands to those taking place in other European countries, we’re left with the idea that the Dutch way of protesting is milder, because Dutch people expect to be heard. It remains to be seen whether they (all) will be, and how the different needs of different groups will be taken into account by the government.
So, what do you think? Is the Netherlands becoming a protest country, or are we just struggling with some big issues at the moment? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Feature image: Teresa Gubern/Supplied.