‘Vrijheid’ in times of Pandemic
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave! Similarities with the United States have been gaining popularity over the past few weeks, most notably since the imposition of the dreaded curfew which has sparked riots in a number of Dutch cities. Currently inching towards earning the title of “Mini America” one wonders now, this land of the free 2.0: Where does its love for freedom come from? What are the roots of this fundamental pillar of Dutch culture? What has its impact been over the creation, implementation and reactions to the coronavirus measures?
From tolerating recreational drugs such as marijuana to being the first country to legalise euthanasia, the Netherlands is to many, the cradle of liberalism, freedom, and tolerance. According to the Dutch government in fact, four core values shape and take prominence in Dutch society, freedom being the first on the list, along with equality, solidarity and work.
“The aim of the state is liberty”
Indeed, authoritarianism and the imposition of restrictive rules clash with this liberal culture which places such a premium on freedoms and liberties. One could trace its origins circa the 16th century, along with the Protestant Reformation and the introduction of Calvinism. After its independence from Spanish Catholic rule in 1579, the Netherlands officially embraced Calvinism and thus pursued social and political reforms conforming to its teachings. Among these liberal revamps were, for instance, freedom of worship and religious tolerance, leading the country to grant asylum to religious minorities, including Portuguese Jews like Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s family. Later, in the 17th century, Spinoza would write a seminal treatise declaring that: ‘The aim of the state is liberty’. These words were eventually put into practice by the government, drafting a new constitution (Grondwet) that established a parliamentary democracy.
Several centuries later, the Netherlands has undergone great changes, however, and although the population nowadays is predominantly atheistic, it seems that liberal Calvinist values remain, and continue to influence from everyday life to policy-making spheres. Indeed, Covid-19 has been no exception.
Adhering to the tenets of parliamentary democracy, the Dutch executive has until recently been resisting the imposition of stringent measures on its population. Rather, much of the measures in the matter have been in the form of recommendations, expecting people to exercise individual judgement and comply with the guidelines willingly. For instance, it was ” advised ” back in September, to use face masks in indoor areas. This was reviewed a few days after and amended to “urgent advice”.
As the number of infections continued to grow, the measures began to toughen. Following the enforcement of the lockdown in December, the latter has been extended until at least early February for the time being. On top of this, further measures have been put in place such as the 21:00 – 4:30 curfew. The first one since WW2.
As mentioned earlier, any instance of authoritarianism is likely to spark debate since it is not well suited in a country that so strongly fosters a culture of individual responsibility. In terms of logistics, the country also faces a shortage of police. It had been years since such a high level of patrolling had been required causing many regions to lack ‘sufficient’ personnel.
“The Dutch aren’t very good at enforcing many rules either,” said University of Amsterdam anthropologist and professor Danny de Vries in an interview for DutchNews.nl. “We have an attitude of being flexible with the rules, if it seems logical to our own perception.” The numbers speak for themselves, a report issued in May showed that, with a total of 8,800 compared to 915,000 in France, the Netherlands handed out far fewer fines than other EU countries.
The recent shift in government policy from recommendations to harsh restrictions, curfews and police patrols has led many to sound the alarm. And these concerns about individual and civil liberties appear to be on the rise, with hostile midnight riots attesting to this. It comes as no surprise that these riots, spearheaded mainly by young protesters, sparked off in the wake of the establishment of the curfew, a development that has been a major blow to the youth in particular. “Young people have a lot of freedom, which contributes to their much-discussed happiness,” de Vries admits.
Many believe that the current restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly are a threat to Dutch democracy. There is already a petition against the emergency law with more than 300,000 signatories.
Fighting for Freedom?
The controversy over whether these past riots have truly been motivated by genuine concerns for freedom continues. For some, like President Rutte, it is clear: “This has nothing to do with protesting or fighting for freedom. It is criminal violence.”