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Historical continuity helped form Dutch and Belgian identities

Dutch people are far more law-abiding than they might like to think. And they are very different from the Belgians in that regard. The different approaches of the two governments towards the coronavirus crisis, for example, can be explained from the history of both countries since the Middle Ages. Historians Judith Pollmann and Henk te Velde from Leiden University explain.

This article was previously published on NWO.nl.

The Dutch, aren’t they those critical individualists? ‘That is what they like to think of themselves, but nowhere else in the world do citizens pay their tax so obediently as in the Netherlands. That was already the case back in the 17th century when the tax rates of the Dutch Republic were the highest ever’, says Judith Pollmann.

Pollmann, Professor of Early Modern Dutch History at Leiden University, is investigating how civil identities in the low countries have developed together with her colleague Henk te Velde (Professor of Dutch History) and others.

Fault line around 1800

The researchers examined the continuity in citizenship between 1747 and 1848. This is unusual because, previously, historians mainly investigated the period before or after the‘fault line’ around 1800. During that time, the Kingdom of the Netherlands was established, and two centuries of the Dutch Republic that spanned the Eighty Years’ War and the Golden Age came to an end. Pollmann: ‘We are now deliberately looking across the fault line in both directions. Henk mainly has expertise about the period after 1800, and I mostly about the period before this.’

Te Velde: ‘In this modern period since 1800, it is striking that in the Netherlands, in particular, the country is seen as a unit and is governed far more top-down. Decisions were taken in The Hague, whereas shortly before that, in the Republic, there was little central authority. The provinces were independent, like the sovereign states we now know in the EU.’ That rapid change to a unified state is therefore unusual, but only now, since the two periods have been compared with each other, has it become clear that many things remained the same as well.

From medieval city to childcare benefits scandal

Together with their Flemish colleague Marnix Beyen, the two researchers wrote the non-academic book De lage landen, een geschiedenis voor vandaag [The Low Countries, a history for today] in which they look back far into the Middle Ages. Pollmann: ‘We examined historical continuity. How the Netherlands is governed now can ultimately be traced back to the way in which a city has been governed since the late middle ages. City administrators had no access to an armed body because the citizens were the soldiers. Therefore, they had to maintain friendly relations with those citizens. Officials had to provide good services. If they failed to do that, then they would lose the confidence of the public, and angry citizens would hold them to account.’

There is a clear analogy with the childcare benefits scandal. That can be traced back to 2013 when public anger arose about the fraud committed with benefits. In response to that, the tax authority became particularly strict, resulting in the many incorrect accusations of fraud, which led to the scandal. Te Velde: ‘Dutch people expect an awful lot from the government, and then they are often disappointed. We do not expect such a childcare benefit scandal could take place in the Netherlands.’

Reaching a consensus before attacking…

Pollmann: ‘Even before the Netherlands became an independent state, the nobility negotiated with the city administrators on many occasions. When the seven provinces and the House of Orange rebelled against the King of Spain, that ability to negotiate became vitally important. As the cities and provinces jointly had to pay for the Eighty Years’ War, they became very dependent on mutual collaboration, and the city administrators or stadtholders had to accept that. If they had to decide which city to attack, then all of those administrations discussed the matter together. Good governance was aimed at obtaining and maintaining support, which meant that everybody had their say.’

As a result, the famous as well as infamous Dutch ‘polder model’ or consensus model had already made its debut back then. And in those days, it was not always successful either. Te Velde: ‘Consensus decision-making took a lot of time, as the peace treaty after the Eighty Years’ War illustrates. One province did not want the treaty and that signature had to be squeezed into the Peace of Münster at the last minute.’

… and about nitrogen or vaccinations

‘Take the nitrogen crisis we are in now’, he continues. If something as big as this is at stake, where one party considers it really important and the other views it as a hoax, then seeking a compromise does not work. In its place, you need a central government that takes the decision based on principles instead of weighing up interests. However, the Dutch government has rather tried to get around the problem for as long as possible and has kept putting things off. The consensus model did not work well during the coronavirus crisis either when vaccinations had to be organised quickly.’

A consensus polder model means a lot of consultation and also an attitude that encompasses the feeling that ‘we are the government and we have to find a solution together’. That is quite a different story in Belgium. Te Velde: ‘There the nobility or monarch was and is considered to be more of an outsider, a foreign oppressor. For a long time, it was a Spaniard, then an Austrian, subsequently Napoleon and after that a Dutchman (King William I). Rulers were necessary, but first and foremost, they had to be curtailed. That difference between the Belgian and the Dutch attitude towards authority explains why Belgian virologists stood next to the prime minister when coronavirus measures were announced, and that was not the case during press conferences of the Dutch government.’

Bill for horse feed

Pollmann: ‘Whereas Dutch people have accepted since the 16th century that they are a community of interests and that they need to find a solution together, in Belgium, peoples’ main concern was that the king’s bill for horse feed went to their neighbour and they did not have to pay for it themselves. The continual presence of a monarch meant that the Belgian provinces did not have to intensively collaborate with each other. They mainly had to defend their own interests in court, and the monarch would make the final decision. Belgians distrust a strong state and very much focus on the differences. An example is the complex language struggle that has been going on in Belgium, especially since the start of the last century.’

According to the researchers, the inherent Belgian mistrust versus the Dutch cooperative attitude with respect to King William I possibly facilitated the secession of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1830. 

Belgian identity was never self-evident

According to Pollmann, it is no coincidence that a Belgian publisher asked the authors to write their book. ‘Belgians still ask themselves: how should we proceed as a country?’. Te Velde: ‘Marnix Beyen, Flemish co-author of the book, says that the identity of Belgium as a country has never felt as self-evident as that of the Netherlands. Does Belgium actually exist, and did it ever exist in the past? With two governments, six parliaments, three language communities…’

Pollmann: ‘The Netherlands has been quite successful in creating a national identity from a national interest. That identity also exists in Belgium, but it is a more painful process.’

Text: Rianne Lindhout (for NWO)

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