As a Dutch citizen living abroad, I am often asked: “What is going on with the Netherlands? How is it possible that one of the founding fathers of the EU, known for its openness and tolerance, has become nationalistic and Euroskeptical?”

The answer boils down to this: the Dutch have been uneasy about Europe from the start.

Since the Second World War, the Dutch have wanted to be part of a transatlantic community based on the principles of liberalism and free trade. But instead they have become embedded in a continental and deeply political European community. They would like to live in a British Europe but find themselves in a German one.

The Dutch problem is not Europe as such. The problem is that the Dutch have never been able to give up their initial dream.

A Legacy of Skepticism

To say that the Dutch turned Euroskeptical recently is a misunderstanding. Though the Netherlands is always considered one of the EU’s six “founding fathers,” it has always been reserved toward Europe. It has just managed, for a long time, to hide it.

The truth is that when the plan for the European Coal and Steel Community (a precursor to the EU) was announced by the then French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, in 1950, the Dutch knew nothing about it. They had not been informed because everybody assumed—correctly—that The Hague would be against it.

After the war, the Dutch government was busy trying to set up a transatlantic community focused on trade. The Dutch had lost their colonies and urgently needed new sources of income closer to home. But they were horrified by the political union proposed by Schuman, which would be monitored by a supranational institution, not by nations themselves.

Their first, instinctive reaction was to reject the Schuman plan. Then, pragmatic reasoning kicked in. The economy of the Netherlands was growing quickly once again, thanks to a postwar trade agreement with Germany, and the Dutch felt it would be unwise to jeopardize that progress. Moreover, Germany, the Netherlands’ most important trading partner, would go ahead with the plan regardless, they thought.

Would it not be more practical to join this “coal and steel cartel” and use codecision powers to water it down as much as possible? Maybe the Dutch could steer the project in a less political, more liberal direction. That is exactly what the government did.

Despite this founding skepticism, for a period, the Netherlands did seem to be coming around to life in the EU. The Netherlands was the biggest advocate of the UK’s EU membership. In 1973, the UK was finally admitted to the club, and it is no coincidence that, from then on, the Netherlands became more confident on the European scene.

Alongside the UK, the Dutch felt safer. The Hague was no longer alone in pushing for free trade and enlargement and in advocating for the liberalization of capital markets. The Netherlands became an enthusiastic supporter of European Monetary Union as well. The UK and Denmark opted out of that union, but the Netherlands went all the way, again following Germany.

At the peak of the Cold War, the Dutch felt very secure in Europe: the United States was protecting the continent, while the UK was helping to turn it into a bigger, less political market. “The 1970s and ’80s were a happy period for the Dutch in Europe,” says Tom de Bruijn, a former Dutch ambassador to the EU and current member of the Council of State, which advises the Dutch government. “This is what many people still remember: the Netherlands as a pro-European founding father. They don’t realize this period was an exception, not the rule.”

During the 1990s the Dutch started to feel less comfortable. The EU had grown to twelve then fifteen countries. It had become less cozy and more bureaucratic, and small states had less influence. Then the Berlin Wall came down. NATO, the only transatlantic organization of significance and one that the Dutch totally identified with, started losing its luster. The United States slowly withdrew from the continent.

Moreover, in exchange for allowing German reunification, France finally obtained a firm promise from Germany that the euro would be introduced quickly. This was a complete reversal of the previous German and Dutch strategy of gradually integrating national budgetary, financial, and economic policies until they were ready for a common currency. Now, they rushed into the euro without the necessary political integration.

The Hague felt let down by Germany. This was precisely the kind of Franco-German wheeling and dealing it could not countenance. The Hague has always distrusted its two giant neighbors. The Germans occupied the Netherlands, and French étatisme was never for the Dutch. Both countries always wanted to rule Europe. The European project was set up to rein in that drive and has therefore been a profoundly political enterprise from the start.

Still, Germany persisted on the euro fast track. And after much sputtering, the Netherlands followed—as usual.

Repeating History

The Dutch now find themselves trapped in a Europe that has been beneficial in economic terms, but that they have never wanted to be part of. This uncomfortable compromise is an outgrowth of tradition.

“We don’t have a geopolitical stategy, only an economic strategy,” explains Laurens-Jan Brinkhorst, a retired Dutch minister who has been EU ambassador to Japan. “We don’t like the political nature of the EU, so we deny it is there. This also stems from our long tradition of being neutral. We don’t like to make political choices, so we keep talking trade.”

Mathieu Segers, a historian at Utrecht University who recently published a book about Dutch-European postwar relations entitled Reis naar het Continent (Voyage to the Continent), adds, “We never wanted to choose between Atlantis and Europe. We have been idealists, hoping we could somehow bring the two strains together. Now, suddenly, we realize there is no choice anymore. We are embedded in the continent without fully having acknowledged it. Many Dutch resent this.”

The frustration that is seeping out of the Netherlands these days is not so much a manifestation of growing Euroskepticism as an expression of this tweaked idealism. The current prime minister, Mark Rutte, gave a striking example of this last summer during a peak in the euro crisis. Rutte, an ultrapragmatist, has little passion for Europe. When European Council President Herman Van Rompuy drew up a long-term plan for the eurozone early last summer, designed to end the instability threatening the euro, Rutte’s first reflex was to reject it. His coalition government had just collapsed, and he faced parliamentary elections in September. What’s more, his main rival on the right, Geert Wilders of the populist Freedom Party, had chosen “Europe” as his main campaign theme. Rutte wanted to avoid at all costs being called “too European” by Wilders.

Hearing Van Rompuy was proposing a banking union, a budgetary and economic union, and a political union for Europe, the prime minister panicked, immediately pouring cold water over it. Vergezichten (panoramic views), he snapped, were not his thing. When Rutte met Van Rompuy the next day, the Dutch prime minister reiterated that, if the panoramic views kept prevailing, the eurozone would have to continue without the Netherlands.

When other leaders need to be accommodated so they can face parliaments at home, they often apologize for being difficult and start explaining what their problem is. Usually, a solution can be found. Rutte bluntly states things have to be changed, otherwise they’d better stop the meeting and all go home. One other head of government often operates similarly: David Cameron.

But the Dutch prime minister did not block the Van Rompuy plan at all. He now supports the banking union and—alongside Germany—is trying to water down direct recapitalization of eurozone banks by the European Stability Mechanism rescue fund.

In short, the Dutch government is doing exactly what it did with the Schuman plan over sixty years ago: it instinctively says “no” to European political initiatives, then after a while starts to cooperate reluctantly for fear of being isolated and damaging its interests. Instead of boycotting or blocking these initiatives, it tries to change things from the inside.

When it comes down to it, the Dutch heart instinctively beats in a transatlantic rhythm. This has always been the case—logically, perhaps, for a seafaring nation. So doing business across the Atlantic is much more natural for The Hague. It immediately went to war in Iraq, for instance, alongside the United States and the UK. In those days, the Dutch ambassador to the UN often had one instruction: “Follow London.” I once asked how “London” was going to vote. He replied: “Oh, I don’t know.”

How Did We Get Here?

Successive governments in the Netherlands have never explained their European balancing act to their citizens. In the 1960s and ’70s everyone knew the EU was a peace and security project. Later generations don’t have this understanding. Most Dutch people are convinced Europe is an economic project.

As long as the Dutch economy was booming, the public never questioned what the government did in Brussels. But, during the 1990s, the economy started to slow down. Then, in 2003, Germany and France violated the Stability and Growth Pact by running budget deficits of more than 3 percent of GDP—and then promptly changed the rules. The Dutch were extremely upset. The minister of finance even went to court. He largely lost the case but kept declaring he had won.

It is in this context that the Dutch voted down the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005. They used the opportunity to express their anger at government policies and “the elite” who had maneuvered the country into the core of a Europe the people did not want.

In the midst of a heavy recession, with the euro under threat, the Dutch are still asking themselves how they got here. A government official told me recently: “The answer is simple: we are there because Germany is there. But this is an admission of weakness. No minister dares to say it in public. And the more we don’t say it, the more people ask it.”

In hard times, people tend to become fearful and inward-looking. The Dutch revert to their traditions of neutrality, shut out the world, and blame their misfortunes on others. That explains why the Dutch government is struggling to convince its citizens that loans to help bail out Greece are necessary. The prime minister refers to the crisis as “the crisis in the south.” Cultural stereotypes about “lazy Greeks” and “Club Med” abound.

The Dutch deficit is excessive as well. But The Hague would rather cut itself deeper in the flesh than ask Brussels for leniency, as another recent round of budget cuts (worth €4.3 billion) demonstrates. In The Hague, the “two-pack,” a new set of European rules on severe budgetary surveillance, is sacrosanct. It gives the Dutch the illusion that they live in an apolitical Europe governed by rules that can be enforced with cold, mathematical rigor. In that sense, the Dutch use the two-pack to cover up the “What are we doing here?” question. Take it away, and there will be mayhem.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government has become increasingly defensive about Europe. The night after the 2005 referendum on the EU Constitutional Treaty, for instance, the decision was made at the highest level to change the words “European integration” in all official government documents to “European cooperation.”

With the government not explaining what it is doing in Brussels, someone else has to. But there are very few Dutch people left who know what the EU is about. Most politicial parties are suspicious. Those who aren’t keep quiet, such as the entrepreneurs in the liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and some moderates in the Christian Democratic Appeal, whose leader has started talking about “repatriating powers” from Brussels. Pro-Europeans lie low, afraid to be ridiculed in the showbiz that domestic politics has become.

Transatlantic Dreams and European Realities

It is not surprising that David Cameron’s January speech on the future of the EU received a great deal of attention in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people find themselves in a German Europe, while they would have liked to be in a British one. Here was the British prime minister defending Britain’s right to hold a referendum on EU membership and talking about red tape, a lack of innovation, and powers that should be “clawed back” from Brussels. Dutch newspaper commentators hailed Cameron’s speech as a “vision.”

Initially, Cameron wanted to hold the speech in Berlin. But he was totally unaware that the French and German governments were planning celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty on the same day. Then Cameron changed the venue to the Netherlands. He asked the Dutch prime minister to attend. But Rutte could not afford to be seen there. His presence would have indicated he agreed with the speech and would thus have raised the unmentionable question once more: How did the Dutch get so involved in Europe?

And so Dutch citizens keep asking their leaders the same fundamental question, and the leaders keep dodging it. Of course, many citizens more or less know the answer. But they want their prime minister to say it out loud. They want to force the subject out into the open so they can come clean about their historic ambivalence. They need to somehow reconcile their transatlantic dream with the European reality, which is painful now that the gap is wider than ever. “The more we duck the issue,” says Tom de Bruijn, “the more it will haunt us.”

A recent poll by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research shows that 46 percent of Dutch citizens support EU membership, while 19 percent are against it. In 2008, the percentages were similar. According to the annual Transatlantic Trends poll by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a policy institute, 62 percent of Dutch people think EU membership is good for the economy. In 2011, this was 73 percent, but today’s remains a good score. It shows that the Dutch public knows where its bread is buttered. The polls also demonstrate a lack of trust in the governing elite—confirming that the problem is not so much Europe, but the way the elected representatives deal with it.

People realize that even if they would like to walk out of the EU, they can ill afford to do so. This helps explain why, in August 2012, Diederik Samsom, the leader of the small Labour Party, suddenly gained popularity shortly before the elections after admitting that Greece may not be able to pay back all its loans. If supporting Greece stabilizes the euro, he said, “it is perhaps money well spent.” This simple admission, which no politician had made before, almost led to Labour winning the elections.

Labour is now a coalition partner in the second Rutte government, and the official tide at one point seemed to be turning in favor of the EU. Frans Timmermans, the Labour minister of foreign affairs, has good European credentials. The finance minister, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, presides over his colleagues in the Eurogroup gathering of eurozone finance ministers. Their style and tone are more constructive than those of their predecessors. The Foreign Ministry is regaining influence over policies on Europe. Astonishingly—until recently—such policies were mostly in the hands of the Finance Ministry and a small entourage around the prime minister, because Europe was supposed to be “only” about the single market and the euro.

Enthusiasm about this fresh start is fading, however. The content of Dutch policies has not fundamentally changed since the current government took office. In a recent document outlining the government’s view on European cooperation that Timmermans recently sent to parliament, entitled “De staat van de Europese Unie” (“The state of the European Union”), the balancing act between transatlantic and European ties is carefully maintained. Moreover, he keeps attacking Van Rompuy or “Brussels,” supposedly to please critics in the coalition. Dijsselbloem managed to upset officials across the eurozone after a controversial “bail-in” for bank depositors in Cyprus turned sour.

Instead of turning a page, the Netherlands seems to be doing more of the same.

A Lack of Direction

It is hard to be optimistic about the Dutch relationship with Europe in the immediate future. There are no signs that the tension between the transatlantic dream and the European reality will ease soon. The Hague will probably continue to react in its traditional, irresolute way to all things European that cross its path.

There are two obvious developments the Netherlands can hope for, apart from economic recovery. The first is that the UK finds a contructive way to stay in the EU and that it stops holding up initiatives in Brussels. The second is that the EU manages to successfully negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States in a year or two. That would give the Dutch a morale boost, vindicating their stubborn dream of a transatlantic community.

Both developments would, however, reconfirm that Dutch well-being in Europe is shaped mostly by events outside of Dutch control.

 Caroline de Gruyter is Europe correspondent for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She is based in Brussels.