Home » Expat-bashing has become a new sport in the Netherlands – DutchNews.nl

Expat-bashing has become a new sport in the Netherlands – DutchNews.nl

Scarcely a day goes by without someone making sweeping statements about a highly diverse group of people who happen to live in the Netherlands. The hapless international resident – or expat – has become a convenient scapegoat, writes Ben Coates.

When refugees from the southern Netherlands began flooding into the north in the late sixteenth century, locals in Amsterdam didn’t always offer a warm welcome. “This is what it’s like among the people of Brabant, men as well as women”, the poet Gerbrand Bredero grumbled. “They put on airs like cosmopolitan gentlemen and ladies, but they haven’t a penny in their purse”.

More than four centuries later, the complaints are a little different. Talk to people in Amsterdam (or elsewhere in the country) today and you’ll often hear similar complaints: expats are overpaid, inconsiderate and antisocial; treating the Netherlands as merely a convenient base where they can buy up Dutch houses at extortionate prices in between their trips to Davos.

“They are parasites”, one Amsterdammer told a focus group last year. “They suck the blood from the city”. That was an extreme view – but it’s sadly not unusual to meet people who think all expats are money-grabbing careerists with the cultural sensitivity of Donald Trump at a Mexican wedding.

Sadly, it also seems that such sentiments may be becoming more common. In Britain, there was clear evidence that racism and discrimination increased after the 2016 Brexit vote, as people who held xenophobic views felt emboldened to share them more loudly.

It seems the same may now be happening here following Geert Wilders’ election victory in November. Several expats I’ve spoken to told me they’d felt a marked shift in local attitudes towards them recently.

And they’re probably not alone: last month, the Intelligence Group warned that a “Wilders effect” was making the Netherlands less attractive to foreign workers and investors. “We don’t have a good image as an attractive country to work in”, the CEO leading the study said.

In the media, meanwhile, foreign residents are a regular punch bag, with many commentators delighting at stories like the recent one about an Amsterdam expat who asked for the ancient bells of the Westerkerk church to be silenced “so that we could all enjoy the beauty of the cathedral without the inconvenience of noise”.

Politicians also delight in denouncing foreigners who’ve been impudent enough to come and work or study here. Geert Wilders’ PVV, for example, has complained that big companies which hire expats “benefit from the beautiful infrastructure, the well-educated population, and the good care for their expats, but they contribute nothing [to the Dutch economy]”.

Free movement of labour

Wilders’ election manifesto called for not just a reduction in the number of asylum seekers, but an end to free movement of labour within the EU. In the mainstream, Mark Rutte’s VVD party has also veered wildly between trying to attract foreigners on some days (including paying millions to get the European Medicines Agency to relocate to Amsterdam) and denouncing them on other days, arguing that “the inflow is now… too high [and] we therefore want more control over who comes”.

Even the ostensibly centrist figure of Peter Omtzigt (one of the power brokers behind current coalition negotiations) has said Dutch should become the only language of instruction at Dutch universities and far fewer international students should come here.

Expats run the [housing] market in Amsterdam”, Omtzigt says. There are not many things Dutch people agree on these days, but talking tough on expats and international students is about as popular as pancakes and the Efteling.

Some critiques are valid. Yes, too many expats move to the Netherlands and fail to learn Dutch or befriend locals, even after several years here. Yes, large numbers of expats and tourists can distort the economy in some places. Yes, the so-called “30% rule” (which enables some foreign workers to reduce their tax bills) may be too generous.

Yes, there’s sometimes an unfair distinction between “expats” and “immigrants”, with an Irishman who moves here viewed very differently than a Syrian. And yes, the expat who complained about the church bells was, as the locals would say, as crazy as a door.

However, many of the most popular critiques don’t stand up at all. The most common complaint about expats is that they drive up house prices, but there’s actually very little evidence that this is the case. Rapid growth in Dutch house prices has many causes, including a lack of new homes being built, historically low interest rates, predatory investing and a shortage of social housing.

Expat demand for housing probably also plays a role, but not a dominant one. As the UN rapporteur on housing reported recently: “Highly-qualified expatriates employed in specific industries or international organisations may pose some competition which can, in specific areas, drive up housing prices, but this is not, by all available evidence, the cause of the general housing crisis in the Netherlands”.

It’s also notable that the number of immigrants/expats in the Netherlands began rising sharply in the 1960s and has increased steadily for years – but house prices only started really spiking more recently. Most expats live in a few big cities in the west of the country, and saying they’re the reason you can’t afford a flat in Zutphen or Woerden is like saying Jeff Bezos is rich because I bought a biro on Amazon last month.

Damaging the econony?

Equally fantastical is the idea that expats are damaging the Dutch economy. Just last month, Dutch central bank president Klaas Knot said that “expats bring very great added value to the Dutch economy… [and] it is up to the government to make sure the Netherlands remains an attractive place for this sort of economic activity, which makes a major contribution to our growth and our prosperity”.

There are currently 114 vacancies in the Dutch labour market for every 100 people without work, and immigrant labour helps fill the gap. ASML – the giant chipmaker which is one of the greatest Dutch commercial success stories – recently threatened to leave the country over difficulties hiring workers from abroad.

“If we can’t get the people here, we’ll get the people elsewhere and then we’ll move the operations elsewhere. It’s that simple”, CEO Peter Wennink said. “Be careful about what you wish for,” Wennink told politicians calling for reduced immigration. “We will go where we can grow.”

Leaving home

This week, the maritime engineering giant Boskalis also said it was moving part of its headquarters to the Middle East and would consider leaving the Netherlands for good later this year. “We have operations all over the world but the fact we are building up a regional HQ in Abu Dhabi has more to do with parliament’s plans to limit the number of highly skilled workers moving to the Netherlands and the shortage of technical staff,” CEO Peter Berdowski said.

You might think that forcing a water technology company to go and work in a desert would be a clear signal that Dutch immigration policy is flawed, but sadly the protest seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Anyone making the case for expats in public is about as popular as a Feyenoord fan in the Ajax stands.

To be clear: The Netherlands is still, on the whole, a fantastically welcoming place, and many newcomers don’t experience any prejudice. However, media coverage and political debate has an increasingly ugly undertone, and it seems very likely that the next government will move to reduce the number of foreigners living here, including by curbing the use of English in universities and imposing tighter controls on immigration.

People who think this strengthens the country are wrong. Many foreigners – expats, immigrants, foreign students, whatever you want to call them – love this country dearly. Immigration isn’t always a problem; it can be an opportunity. And an openness to the wider world is one of the things which made this country what it is. The Dutch close the door at their peril.

Ben Coates is the author of the books ‘Why the Dutch are Different’ and ‘The Rhine’. He blogs at ben-coates.com and tweets at @bencoates1