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Federalism past and present in the Netherlands

The Netherlands do not figure prominently on the list of federal or federalizing countries. Yet federal lines and links in Dutch history are indispensable to explain current events in the Netherlands and in other parts of the world. At some points in the history of the Netherlands, both domestically and in its former colonies, federalism played a prominent role, and at other times, it was completely discredited (see box). The Kingdom of the Netherlands is now a ‘decentralised unitary state’ that acts as a single entity in international relations with a uniform legal structure – but it does accord a constitutional status to municipalities and provinces. The provinces and municipalities are mentioned as ‘autonomous’ entities in the constitution, and their powers are defined in separate laws (Provinciewet, Gemeentewet). In legal terms, their role is twofold: agents of the central government, and autonomous, democratically accountable administrations. Dutch political culture: small is beautiful While Dutch law may allow the provinces and municipalities certain autonomy, in reality the system is quite centralized. In terms of personnel and budget, the provinces and municipalities take 25-30% of the public sector, but in terms of autonomous tax revenue they amount to no more than 5%. In spite of this, however, Dutch political culture is strongly decentralist, or even federalist. The autonomy and identity of groups in society (religious and cultural) and local or regional entities are handled with great respect. At the root of this political culture is the historical necessity to survive in a system where no single group has ever been able to gain exclusive dominance. The model of “consociational” democracy in the Netherlands (as developed by Lijphart, a Dutch-American political scientist, strongly inspired by Althusius) is quite close to federalism, especially nonterritorial federalism. In fact, this model has been applied not only to the Netherlands, but also to federal systems such as Belgium, Austria and Switzerland. And so, although the Netherlands are not a federal system, basic federal ‘reflexes’ – respect for diversity among groups and regions, non-majoritarian modes of decision-making, and consensus-seeking – are strongly embedded in its culture. In domestic administration in the Netherlands, as elsewhere in the western world, municipalities have been confronted with an increase in technically complex tasks, and in new and daunting challenges caused by increased socioeconomic scale/mobility. The answer to these developments has been to expand the administrative scale, which has entailed the merging of small municipalities. The total number of municipalities in the Netherlands in the 20th Century was reduced from some 2000 to less than 500 today. Citizens’ resistance against this trend is rising, and in 2002, as an alternative to mergers many municipalities supported the idea of creating inter-municipal “federations” (federatiegemeenten). Decolonization and mistrust of federalism From the 16th Century onwards, the Dutch established a sea-based trading empire in the East and the West Indies. In order to gain access to the colonies, deals had to be made with local rulers, especially in the East. Their internal rights were recognized, and Dutch influence was restricted to trade, commerce and external relations. In some parts of present-day Indonesia, a system developed similar to British indirect rule in India. In other parts, however, Dutch colonial influence took a much more direct form, and in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries the overall tendency was increasingly direct intervention by the Dutch. When the desire for independence presented itself in the 20th century, the Dutch response was reluctant and centralist. Only a limited ‘native’ influence was granted to a People’s Council (Volksraad) at the central level. After the Second World War, when Indonesian independence became a political reality, political authorities began negotiations regarding the transfer of power (1947-1949). Surprisingly, federalism was brought to the table as a formula for transition. In view of the enormous diversity of the East Indies, a federal structure was drafted for the United States of Indonesia (U.S.I.). The Dutch government transferred power to the U.S.I., which was quickly dismantled, however, by the new government in Jakarta. Although the diversity of Indonesia might very well justify a flexible federal system, federalism was considered a neo-colonial ‘divide-andrule’ ploy. Even today, federalism in Indonesia is not looked upon very favorably. East Timor, which just gained its independence in 2002 after a period of violent conflict, is the former Portuguese part of Timor. The western part was conquered by the Dutch in the 16th century, and became part of Indonesia in 1949. Indonesian policy towards East Timor was motivated by the tensions and conflict potential within its own borders: in western Timor, in the nearby Moluccan Archipelago, in the Indonesian part of New Guinea, and in the region of Aceh in Sumatra in northwestern Indonesia. Instead of a federal arrangement (which the then U.S. President mused would have been a preferred option were it possible) the Federations Special Triple Issue: Themes of the International Conference on Federalism 2002 international community brokered a deal to separate East Timor from Indonesia. Fragmentation in the Caribbean In the Caribbean, the Netherlands Antilles are facing increasing difficulties staying united. Six islands – three of them close to the Venezuelan coast, and three in the Windward Group near Puerto Rico – were once united under Dutch colonial rule and are still heavily dependent on the Netherlands. In this region, decolonization took place in gradual way compared to Indonesia. Surinam was granted independence in 1975. The Netherlands Antilles obtained internal self-government in the early 1950s. The regulations for the six islands envisioned a federal arrangement, based on equality and partnership among the islands and supported by the Netherlands. In practice, however, federalism did not materialize in the Antilles. The stronger islands were unwilling to take care of the weak ones, and the Dutch government was not willing to impose federalism on an unwilling group. In 1986, the island of Aruba left the system and opted for a special status and a direct link with the Netherlands. At present, St.Maarten is following a similar line. Since loyalty among the islands is generally weak, and since no island is willing or able to impose its will on the others, an independent Dutch-Antillean state and/or a federal state seems politically unviable. Implicit federalism To be quite frank, and despite the examples cited above, in Dutch politics, one will find few references to federalism. Dutch Christian-democrats, leftist-liberals and Greens are explicitly in favour of a federal Europe. In domestic politics, however, federalism hardly rings a bell. Nonetheless, the principles of federal thinking and federal ‘political reflexes’ are part of Dutch history and politicoadministrative culture. The notion of ‘municipal federations’ may therefore well find fertile ground. As a practical solution to problems of accommodating groups in a society of minorities – multicultural, multi-loyal, small-scale – federalism is part of the Dutch repertoire. It has old roots in Dutch soil. Federations Special Triple Issue: Themes of the International Conference on Federalism 2002