‘Everybody here loves that academia has returned to Friesland. We teach, carry out research and think along about solutions to problems that are relevant for Friesland,’ says Caspar van den Berg, Professor of Global and Local Governance at the UG Campus Fryslân. Van den Berg knows the region and can comment on political developments from both a theoretical and practical angle.
Text: Martin Althof, Communication UG
Van den Berg has made the news quite often lately, due to the remarkable outcomes of his study into the effects of globalization on citizens and administration. Our interview took place one day before the Provincial States elections, and Van den Berg predicted a major surprise: ‘There is a large group of people in the Netherlands who are experiencing an increasing sense of loss: loss of identity, culture and control. Those feelings affect their willingness to compromise, which is reflected in their voting behaviour: voters are turning their backs on the centrist parties.’ (Note: at the end of the interview, you can read Caspar van den Berg’s analysis of the election results.)
Caspar van den Berg grew up in Giesbeek, in the Liemers district at the edge of the Achterhoek region. He studied in Utrecht and worked in Leiden: ‘I lived in the Achterhoek region for 18 years, so I know how people live in the country, and I can empathize with their attitude towards the Randstad region. I often need to explain to my friends in Utrecht how people in rural areas think.’
A brief lecture in social history is very useful for a better understanding of the situation. Van den Berg: ‘The Netherlands has historically known strong segmentation. In order to maintain stability and achieve progress, a system of consensus politics gradually developed, with historical roots in the Middle Ages. The parties involved are willing to engage in dialogue with each other, with consensus as the final outcome. From the end of the 19th century, Catholic, Protestant, socialist and liberal segments coexisted. The elites of these segments mutually coordinated the most important matters, ensuring that each segment received its rightful share. In addition, this segmentation served as an emancipation mechanism for Catholics and workers, both underprivileged groups until then. In short, the segmentation system ensured stability and inclusion.’
The breakdown of the segmentation system started in the 1960s and 1970s and reached its completion in the mid-1990s. So, what replaced it? Van den Berg concludes that this may be best described as: ‘We are all Dutch in a rapidly globalizing society; a combination of solidarity and individualistic optimism. A good illustration of these new sentiments is probably the song from the famous Postbank commercial of 1995: “15 miljoen mensen, op dat hele kleine stukje aarde” (15 million people on this tiny patch of land).’
From the mid-1990s onward, the benefits of ongoing globalization have increasingly been reaped by particular groups. In retrospect, Van den Berg concludes that, especially after the banking crisis, it was becoming ever clearer that a new order was developing in Dutch society: ‘On the one hand, there is a group, characterized by high incomes, high levels of education, frequent travel and an international labour-market orientation, that benefits from the ongoing globalization. On the other hand, there are those with lower levels of education and traditional, conservative world views, who mainly see open borders as a threat, with a large middle class in between. It will be interesting to see how the latter will respond, including in terms of their voting behaviour. At the moment, it seems that a large proportion of this group is swaying towards the low-skilled group.’
Economic geographer Andrés Rodriguez has demonstrated that voting behaviour in the US, the UK and Germany can partly be explained by the increased differences in living environment that have developed between regions. Rodriguez calls this ‘the revenge of the places that don’t matter anymore’. Van den Berg distinguishes between boom regions and shrinkage areas in the Netherlands, with the highly educated living in large metropolitan areas and the others living in the old city districts, in medium-sized municipalities and in rural areas. ‘We had always assumed that the regional differences would not be so big in the Netherlands. I have found that those differences were partly hidden due to our system of proportional representation, whereby representatives are not linked to certain regions. In addition, statistical data shows that there are indeed large regional prosperity gaps, which actually increased substantially between 1995 and 2015! Whenever there is too much inequality between groups and regions, this erodes the political and economic unity of a country over time.
Van den Berg claims that the recognizability and representation of regional interests in national politics are problematic issues. The Remkes Committee – tasked with investigating options for electoral reforms – concluded in its interim report last year that ‘the regional component needs to be better reflected in the national electoral system’. Its concrete recommendations don’t go far enough for Van den Berg: ‘The current electoral system has no form of regional representation whatsoever. Since we are avidly debating the added value of the Senate, it would be a good idea to investigate whether the composition of this house could include a regional component in the future.’
People in the Groningen earthquake zone feel abandoned by politics. Their stories are often harrowing. Van den Berg: ‘Groningen is far away: far away from the centre of power, journalism and big business. Had the gas been extracted in the western Netherlands, the response would doubtlessly have been different. To put it differently: when climate change causes the sea level to rise, the Netherlands as a whole will make a joint effort to heighten the dykes in the threatened western Netherlands. If the threatened area had been located in the eastern or southern part of the country, the same threat would more likely have been framed as ‘a natural process of returning land to the sea’.
Caspar Van den Berg’s analysis of the election results of 20 March
‘For many people, the victory that made Forum voor Democratie (Forum for Democracy – a new party) the largest party came as a surprise, even though the polls clearly predicted this.
In addition, the status of being ‘the largest party’ is losing its meaning as there are currently a large number of parties of about the same size, meaning that one of them must, by default, end up the largest by only a small percentage. Thus, the most important power aspect of being the largest party no longer lies in winning substantially more seats than the other parties but in the right to initiate the formation of a coalition.
These elections have shown that right-wing populism, which was already prominent in the western and southern Netherlands, has gained a lot of support in the eastern and northern parts of the country as well. In addition, it is interesting that Forum’s message has managed to become popular in boom regions and shrinkage areas alike. Previously, it was solely the VVD’s prerogative to be big in the cities as well as the rural areas, but Forum has shown that it is capable of performing the same feat. One week before the elections, the Nieuwe Oogst agricultural platform published a poll that revealed great support for Forum in the rural areas, at the expense of the traditional farmers’ parties CDA, VVD and SGP. While the election results cannot tell us whether voters in the provinces of Zuid-Holland and Drenthe had identical motives to vote Forum voor Democratie, the outcomes are the same nevertheless.
Finally, it has surprised me how many people in the province of Groningen voted Forum, a party that has no intention whatsoever to stop the gas extraction.
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