Influential economy on land and at sea

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 October, 2008, 12:00am

The country's knack for seafaring saw the Dutch Empire stretch its way around the world, as sailors and merchants opened up trade routes far and wide. The Netherlands no longer has an empire, but it is still one of the foremost maritime destinations in Europe.

Rotterdam is Europe's largest port, spreading along the banks of the Nieuwe Maas river, one of the channels of the delta formed by the Rhine and the Meuse which link the city to Switzerland and France, while the Betuweroute, a fast freight railway to Germany, was completed last year. Construction started last month on the 1,000-hectare Maasvlakte 2 project, which will provide additional space for container transshipment, distribution and chemical industries.

'More and more goods are shipped through Rotterdam, and a growing number of companies want to set up business here,' said Hans Smits, the Port of Rotterdam Authority's chief executive.

'However, the existing port and industrial area is fast running out of space. Expansion is essential for the port to continue to meet the rising demand in future and to maintain its leading role. If the port fails to grow, there is a good chance that shipping companies will pass Rotterdam by in the future.'

Rotterdam expects that the first containers will be unloaded at the new facility - which will be a direct extension of the existing Maasvlakte, operating 24 hours a day and with similarly efficient connections to the European hinterland - by 2013.

It's not simply on the high seas that the Dutch are making their economic mark. The country maintained a healthy trade surplus of Euro37.4 billion (HK$394.3 billion) last year, with exports of machinery and transport equipment, chemicals, mineral fuels and lubricants performing strongly.

Agriculture makes a significant contribution to the national economy, despite the Netherlands' relatively small size. While it employs barely 3 per cent of the labour force of 7.6 million, agriculture is highly mechanised and provides large surpluses for the food-processing industry and for export.

A high portion of Dutch agricultural exports is derived from fresh-cut plants, flowers and bulbs, with the country exporting an estimated two-thirds of the world's total. Holland also exports one in four of all the world's tomatoes, and about 33 per cent of peppers and cucumbers.

The Netherlands' economic might is also boosted by its assets below ground. In the north of the country, Slochteren, one of the world's largest natural gas fields, has yielded more than Euro159 billion in revenues since exploitation started in the mid 1970s.

Prosperity has allowed some of the country's traditional characteristics to flourish. While a significant proportion of the population is strictly religious, there is a general culture of tolerance that has increased with immigration from such former colonies as Surinam and Indonesia. Thanks to the multiparty political system, no single party has ever held a majority in parliament since the 19th century, so coalition cabinets have to be formed in a very Dutch spirit of compromise.

The private sector continues to be a mainstay of the Dutch economy, however government still plays a significant role. Public spending, including social security transfer payments, takes up almost half of gross domestic product, while the total tax revenue is about 40 per cent of GDP, well below the European Union average.

In addition to its own spending, the government is involved in the private sector through the permit requirements and regulations that pertain to almost every aspect of the country's economic activity, and it melds a meticulous and constant microeconomic policy with wide-ranging structural and regulatory reforms.

The government has scaled back its role in the economy since the 1980s, and privatisation and deregulation are encouraged. From the point of view of social and economic policy, the government co-operates with trade unions and employers' organisations, maintaining a platform for social dialogue.

The monarchy is held in high regard, never more so than on Queen's Day, a public holiday celebrated every year at the end of April. While it's officially held to mark Queen Beatrix's birthday, and regarded as a commemoration of national togetherness or saamhorigheid, it's also an opportunity for rules to be relaxed as anybody may sell goods on the streets, bars extend their opening hours and partygoers drape themselves in orange, the national colour.

William, Prince of Orange, became the first king of the Netherlands in 1815; however long before the country was properly unified, Dutch culture enjoyed world-wide renown. The Dutch Masters - such as Rembrandt, Vermeer and Steen - flourished in the 17th century, and the artistic tradition was carried on later by Van Gogh and Mondriaan.

More recently, the graphic designer MC Escher inspired and amazed legions of fans with his mathematically-inspired woodcuts, lithographs and mezzotints. His contemporary, Piet Blom, designed one of the most daring architectural experiments of the 20th century, the Kubuswoningen or cube-shaped houses that are still one of the prime attractions of Rotterdam.