The Netherlands: From Euroscepticism to Europhoria

By Hylarides, Peter C. | Contemporary Review, October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Netherlands: From Euroscepticism to Europhoria


Hylarides, Peter C., Contemporary Review


WHOEVER thinks 'euroscepticism' is a British invention, should brush up on his knowledge of European history. Certainly, the British invented the term itself, but the attitude has been around for much longer. For example Charles de Gaulle, a firm adversary of supranationalism, spoke of a Europe des etats in the 1950s and 60s and more recently, the Swiss decided not to join the EU for fear of losing independence. The strongly pro-European Union nations are well known. France, after de Gaulle's resignation, became, together with West Germany, standard-bearer of closer union. Of the smaller countries in Europe, The Netherlands belongs to the group of pro-integrationists. Matters relating to the European Union are hardly ever the subject of controversy or fierce debate. This, however, has not always been the case. Before attempts at cooperation and integration were made, the Dutch, like most other countries, were more concerned with national sovereignty than working together. This attitude changed gradually, but never disappeared altogether. The starting point of this article is 1648, when the Dutch were recognised as an independent republic by Spain, their former ruler. It ends in the 1970s when the process of integration in Europe came to a deadlock.

Since their separation from Spain in 1648, the Dutch pursued a foreign policy in Europe based upon free trade (when it suited them) and minimal political interference. It was in this period, that the foundations were laid for what were to become trademarks of Dutch statesmanship: Calvinist purity, impartiality and a strict separation of politics and economics. The maintenance of a balance of power on the continent and friendly relations with the other maritime nation, England, were considered priorities. Territorial expansion within Europe was therefore never on the agenda. Wars were mainly conducted as a result of commercial rivalries (Anglo-Dutch Wars), not because of territorial ambitions. Their philosophy can be summarized as to never seek more than you really need.

In the eighteenth century the Dutch lost their position as an important maritime power to England. From then on minimal political interference was replaced with the theoretical conception of total neutrality. In reality, however, the Netherlands became a client state of France in 1795 and was even annexed by the latter in 1810. The British, who were at war with revolutionary France, seized Dutch possessions in South-East Asia.

The Netherlands' independence was restored with help from England in 1813. The objectives in foreign policy of the newly created kingdom, a union between the Netherlands and Belgium, remained virtually the same, albeit neutrality was even more strictly adhered to. The Dutch liberal statesman Thorbecke would later summarize these alms: 'It is of the greatest importance for our mercantile nation that no state will become so powerful as to lay down the law for others, or so powerless to be dictated the law. Above all, no state should exceed the limits of the balance of power'.

In the 1830s the Dutch lost the Southern Netherlands (Belgium), which made them effectively a second-rate power. The balance of power in Europe, according to the Dutch, was now best served by total political non-activity in foreign affairs. This, however, did not mean that they abstained from commenting on other nations. A certain presumptuousness and overestimation, derived from Calvinism, made them almost sound like proselytising preachers. Other countries should follow the Dutch example of a decent, pure and just society.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Queen Wilhelmina (1898-1948) formulated the policy of neutrality which was to remain in force, more or less, until 1940: an alliance with Germany was considered undesirable as they could not defend the maritime interests of the Dutch. An alliance with Britain would offer no guarantees with regard to territorial integrity of the Netherlands in Europe. …

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