Europe

Why the riots in the Netherlands go beyond a COVID curfew

Described as the worst violence to have erupted in the Netherlands in more than four decades, the riots in Dutch towns and cities this week have become a seminal moment in the country”s bid to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Sparked by the approval of an overnight curfew by the Dutch parliament, which came into force on Saturday, violent protests rocked Amsterdam and Eindhoven before spreading in the subsequent days to Rotterdam, The Hague, Den Bosch, Gouda, Amersfoort, Haarlem and further afield.

Organising on social media apps, the predominantly young protesters rampaged through city streets vandalising and looting shops, throwing stones and fireworks at police, and, in some instances, setting cars on fire. In the town of Urk, a coronavirus testing facility was torched. In Enschede, stones were thrown at a hospital.

With their number counting far-right extremists, hooligans, COVID-19-deniers and political protesters, there doesn’t on the surface appear to be a unifying motivation behind the riots. Or is there?

“There is a connection and that is distrust in the government, hate against the government, and even more broadly, hate and distrust when it comes to all sorts of societal institutions,” Dr Jelle van Buuren, an associate professor at the University of Leiden and an expert in security issues and conspiracy theorising, told Euronews.

“This distrust, this hate, is being fuelled over the years by a diversity of grievances, anger, bad experiences and motivations. And that is why it is so hard to group this phenomenon. It is really eclectic”.

Handling of the pandemic

While most of those who rioted over the last few days have been branded “shameless thieves” by Rotterdam’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb, some of those participating were first and foremost protesting their legitimate concerns surrounding the country’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Following its collapse earlier this month, the scandal-hit government of prime minister Mark Rutte -which is now operating as a caretaker administration – was forced to seek the approval of lawmakers to impose new pandemic-related restrictions.

In the face of staunch criticism, many of the opposition parties agreed to vote with the ruling coalition to impose a curfew from 9 pm to 4.30 am.

Among those denouncing the move was controversial figure Geert Wilders, the leader of the largest opposition party, the far-right Party for Freedom (PVV), who claimed the curfew was “a sign of utter impotence and panic” from the government.

Until recent months, Rutte’s liberal-led government had taken a more relaxed approach to pandemic measures, resisting mandates for mask-wearing, business closures, and curfews as seen in its European neighbours.

However, in a marked shift in direction, bars and restaurants were ordered to close in October, followed by schools and non-essential shops in December. The curfew — the first since World War II — was just the latest measure in a tightening of restrictions to combat the virus spreading and with it a deepening dissatisfaction with the government.

Still, polls show a majority of the Dutch population are supportive of the government’s approach but that is not to say they agree with the direction the country is taking in general.

“There are more people, who are more or less accepting of the corona policies; not because they like them but because they think they are simply necessary,” said van Buuren. “But they are also very critical of certain aspects of Dutch politics of the last 10, 15, 20 years.”

Deeper divisions

According to van Buuren, a lot of societal issues had been simmering long before they boiled over into violence seen across the Netherlands this week.

Employment precarity and the rise of flexible contracts, in particular, have demoralised young people. Housing, too, has grown increasingly expensive for many. Discontent with the EU has also noticeably begun to increase as has criticism of the country’s immigration policies with its multiculturalist society being firmly put under the microscope.

“Next to that, for instance, is a group of people more from the spiritual New Age movement, who have always been very critical when it comes to big pharma and also when it comes to vaccination,” explained van Buuren. “So, they jump also on this train but from a different perspective.”

With its anti-establishment, coronavirus-denying and anti-vax tendencies, is this violent upsurge an example of the transatlantic contagion of Trumpian ideas or is this more a domestic trend?

“I think it is a domestic thing because this undertone of disgruntled citizens, angry citizens, people who hate against the system is already for a long time part of Dutch society,” he said. “One of the first signs, for instance, was during the elections in which Pim Fortuyn was murdered”.

Right-wing politician Fortuyn was shot dead outside a radio station in Hilversum, North Holland, nine days before the 2002 general election. His murderer, Volkert van der Graaf, was a left-wing activist who at his trial said he was acting against what he saw as Fortuyn’s scapegoating of Muslims for the Netherlands’ societal ills.

The assassination shocked the country and exposed deep divisions in Dutch society that had been festering unchecked.

“For a lot of people, it was rather unexpected. The belief was that we were living in something like almost paradise but suddenly, there seemed to be a large group in society where there was a totally different perspective on how society was doing,” said van Buuren.

“This undertone in society, sometimes it is more manifest, sometimes it is more visible. Sometimes it gets more politicised because there is a political representation; that was Pim Fortuyn 20 years ago, later Wilders stepped in”.

Wilders has been a prominent fixture on the Dutch political landscape, whose outspoken stances on immigration and Islam have landed him in court and forced him to live with tight security protection measures due to constant threats.

That is not to say that what is currently manifesting itself in the Netherlands is happening in isolation.

“It is a domestic thing, however, it fits within a broader international trend you see in the United States but also in other European countries,” van Buuren explained. “The far-right, right-wing populism, conspiracy theories, distrust against the liberal elite, distrust against the media; that is also an international phenomenon”.

Continued support for Rutte

Having been engulfed by a scandal concerning the distribution of child benefits, Rutte’s government was forced to resign on January 15, just months before the next general election on March 17.

According to the most recent polls, his VVD party remains the most popular which means Rutte could be set to take the reins again in the next government.

That being said, the policies of liberalisation of the country’s economy coupled with long-term cuts of welfare programmes pursued by successive governments in the last two decades have only served to widen the gap in Dutch society.

“All these developments are visible in the Netherlands but sometimes it is there and you don’t see it and witness it because it does not have a voice,” contends van Buuren.

“This whole corona situation already was a perfect storm because, I can understand it, we are living in crazy times.

“Everything that was normal, like meeting each other and going to the pub etc suddenly was forbidden. For a long time, we were governed by emergency measures without any democratic control so there’s a lot of fear, uncertainty and a general feeling of unease”.

Rutte’s party seems to have been saved from the ire of the Dutch public as the fallout from the child benefit scandal begins to settle. But wider concerns about the pandemic seem to be solidifying support for continuity in the face of uncertain times.

“That could be the reason why a lot of people are not moving when it comes to their political preferences at this moment,” said van Buuren.

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It’s available on Apple and Android devices.

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