Of all the European countries, I’d imagine the Dutch are the nation that most likes and admires the Brits. Over 80% of them speak English (fluently) and they love our music and television.
However, talking about our nation through the prism of Brexit, Michiel van Hulten, a former MEP, says: “It’s a mixture of bemusement and bewilderment. On one level it’s entertaining, great spectacle. A pantomime you can’t stop watching. As you know, we love British comedy. Except this isn’t Monty Python, it’s your politicians.”
In June 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded an English MP spluttering: “I think the Devil shits Dutchmen,” after the Dutch fleet sailed merrily up the Medway and trashed the pride of the Royal Navy.
Anglo-Dutch relations have come a long way since then. Politically, minds met in the EU: pragmatic, and distrusting of a Franco-German stitch-up. In business, dual-nationals Shell and Unilever flourished; more than 80,000 Dutch companies now trade with the UK.
And the people? The Dutch master English like none other; admire and consume British culture in quantity; adore British humour. The Brits were people the Dutch could relate to. Then came Brexit.
It’s bewildering, says Van Hulten. “We had such a close relationship. For a whole postwar generation, the UK was a shining example. People just cannot fathom that a country that played such a vital role internationally, and in Europe, cannot even manage its own affairs.”
Thijs van den Berg, an Amsterdam English teacher, says he feels rejected. “As with any ex-lover, you now dislike what used to attract you. We liked your eccentricity because we knew at heart you were serious. Now you don’t look serious at all. Those jokes, that posturing – it just looks silly. Irresponsible.”
The Dutch, who reckon even a soft Brexit will cost them three percent of GDP, are better prepared than anyone for no deal. And there are silver linings: besides the European Medicines Agency, big-name multinationals such as Sony and Panasonic are shifting their EU HQs to Amsterdam, and 250 more firms are talking about it.
Then there is the fact that Brexit has inoculated them against the Nexit their wilder politicians are still flogging: 72% now say they are best off in the EU.
But mainly, a country they once felt they knew has become a mystery. When parliament sent Theresa May back to Brussels to renegotiate, the Dutch paper Trouw described it as: “It’s a bit like the crew of the Titanic deciding, by majority vote, that the iceberg really must get out of the way.”